Getting Students To Read

In this Teaching With Technology post I want to address an issue of interest to all instructors, those who teach online and those who teach on campus. Most college instructors will acknowledge that a rather significant problem exists on their campuses: Students simply don’t read the assigned material. Or, if they do, it is a superficial reading that produces little integration with long-term memory. OK, we’ve all had well-prepared students who completed the assigned readings before class and who were eager to discuss the ideas in class. But in my 30 years of teaching in a community college, those students typically constitute a distinct minority.

Some of my colleagues report – and I’ve heard it too – that students often ask questions such as “Do we really have to buy the book?” and “Will you be covering the important parts in class?” Not the type of questions that reassure us that these students are taking the reading requirement seriously! While there is considerable variation across disciplines, informal estimates by faculty and data from publishers suggest that 20% or so of students never purchase the textbook. Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, up to 80% do purchase the textbook. But even students who purchase the textbook and start out with good intentions to carefully read all the assigned readings often abandon that resolution somewhere in the middle of the semester. Podolefsky & Finkelstein (2006) report, in a study done at the University of Colorado, that “less than 41% regularly read, 60% read after lecture rather than before.” This issue was brought home to me in a personal way recently. Using the clicker response pads that ensure anonymous responding, I asked my Introduction to Psychology students if they had done the required reading. Seventy percent of the students answered “No, but I plan to begin this week” (one of the possible answers). So a substantial majority of my students had not done the reading even though I emphasized the importance of reading before lectures in the class syllabus and reiterated that point during our first class meeting. Incidentally, a typical reason students give for not reading is that they expect the instructor to emphasize the important topics during class lectures, or at least that he/she will lecture about what will be on the tests. I don’t have any data about online students but based on my experience of teaching many online classes, I am much more confident that online students purchase the textbook and read it relative to on-campus students.

I have colleagues who say “Listen, that’s not our problem – these students are all adults and, if they don’t do the reading, they need to suffer the consequences.” It’s a fair point. Maybe, though, there are strategies we can adopt that will help our students to avoid suffering the consequences, because they WILL do the reading.

While mulling over the issue of how to encourage students to read, and ideally, to read before the lecture, I was excited to come across a Faculty Focus special report titled “11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned.” Here I will mention just a few of the suggestions that I found useful and refer the interested reader to the free report available at the Faculty Focus web site.

  1. Make sure your syllabus has an explicit statement about the importance of reading the textbook. Jennifer Romack in “Enhancing Students’ Readiness to Learn” describes a rubric she developed to evaluate student performance. An important component of this rubric involves reading assigned material before class.
  2. Maryellen Weimer in “Getting Students to Read” refers to a “quiz mechanism” that changed students reading behavior. (I have used the clickers in a pretest/post-test format with some success.)
  3. Culver & Morse in “Helping Students Use Their Textbooks More Effectively” begin by stating “Most college students spend little time reading their texts.” They then provide a list of suggestions that encourage students to read more. While there is nothing revelatory about their suggestions, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of good ideas such as the following:

    1. State your requirements for the text on the syllabus.
    2. Communicate your expectations regarding the text frequently.
    3. Make it clear that textbook reading requires effort. (Students think that reading the text material quickly once is sufficient. It isn’t.)
    4. Use the text in class.

What strategies have you found helpful in getting students to read?



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