Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pssst. Here's a way you might be able to get students to read more

But I fear it's so devious, so crafty, so underhanded that I can't tell you about it.

OK, pull my arm. I'll tell you about it.

So there's some evidence from social psychology that, when presented with multiple options, we tend toward the median option (so long as it is perceived as minimally acceptable). If people are given the choice of a small, medium, or large beverage, for instance, people will tend toward the medium, regardless of the scalar relationships among the choices (e.g., if the large is twice as large as the small versus three times as large). The thought here seems to be that if a choice exhibits trait T, people like to make the choice that suggests that they have trait T but don't want to be goody two shoes about it.

How does this apply to students reading? I tried to exploit this 'median option' tendency in crafting my syllabus this quarter by creating two sets of reading expectations, if you will. I listed on the syllabus the minimum I'd like students to read and put that in a column labelled If you can't read everything, just read. Then I put in another column of what I'd be elated to have students read and labelled it Assigned readings. The material in the former column is a subset of the material in the latter column.

So the schedule of assigned readings looks like this:

Tu 25 Sept
Facing up to death: Do we know we will die?
·    Tolstoy, Death of Ivan Ilyich, all
·    Kagan, Death, pp. 1-5, pp. 186-96
·    Tolstoy, Death of Ivan Ilyich, all
·    Kagan, Death, pp. 1-5

Th 27 Sept
The nature of death: Physicalism, dualism, and the soul thesis
·    Kagan, Death, pp. 6-36
·    Kagan, Death, pp. 6-13, 24-36
Tu 2 Oct
The soul thesis, part II
·    Kagan, Death, pp. 36-68
·    Kagan, Death, pp. 36-56

What I hoped to achieve was that a larger proportion of students would at least read what's in the right hand column — that given an implied choice among (a) the maximal 'Assigned Readings' option, (b) the minimal 'If You Can't Read Everything' option, and (c) not reading at all, more students would opt for (b) than might have opted for (c) if (a) and (c) were their only options.

Lo and behold, it appears to be working! I've asked students in anonymous online surveys how much of the reading they're doing. The percentage of students this quarter who report doing at least the reading in the right hand column is greater (by 14%) than the percentage of students in the previous quarter who reported never (or almost never) doing the assigned reading. And the proportion who report reading all (or nearly all) the assigned readings has stayed the same. The net result, then, is that a larger proportion of the students do the minimal reading I would like them to do, and the same percentage of highly motivated students read everything I suggest they read.

Curious to know about reader reactions to what I have implemented here: I admit having some ethical qualms about this technique, but I wonder how effectively we instructors could exploit choice architecture to encourage behaviors conducive to student learning.


  1. I really like this idea. I worry sometimes when I assign a philosophy article that students will start, feel overwhelmed and give up on the reading. If I can point them to pages that they should absolutely look at, they might at least look through those before giving up on the idea of reading the whole thing.

  2. An interesting suggestion. What, exactly, are your ethical qualms about? I see two obvious possible problems:
    i) You're lying to your students, by telling them that what you really expect is the 'bare minimum' and presenting something more as 'required' (assigned).
    ii) You're doing your students a disservice by encouraging them to think they can get through life by doing (what's presented as) the bare minimum.

  3. Ben: I guess it seems manipulative. But on the other hand, isn't the whole endeavor of teaching an exercise in manipulation?

    Jennifer: Good point. This might make some students feel less overwhelmed by more challenging reading.


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