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Getting Students to Do the Readings

By Linda B. Nilson, Clemson University

Imagine what you could do in class if almost all of your students did the readings!

It may seem too obvious to mention, but the first thing you must do if you want your students to do the readings for your class is to get your students to buy the required books. At the first class meeting, tell them that they will have to read and possibly even mark up the books daily for a chance at a passing final grade. If they can’t or won’t buy the books, they should drop your course.

Be realistic in selecting the books, articles, Web pages, and other materials that you assign. Don’t choose a reading because you like it. As an expert in the field, you’ve internalized all the cognitive shortcuts that make it easy reading for you. Consider that your average student’s reading ability is probably marginal at best, and his or her love of sophisticated nonfiction less than passionate. Look for readings with graphics and pictures that reinforce the text, and pare down the required pages to the essentials. The less reading assigned, the more likely students will do it. If you’re uncertain about the reading level of an assignment, get a quick analysis at www.harrymclaughlin.com/SMOG.htm.

Sell Students on the Readings

Everyone else is trying to sell our students something. Why aren’t we? Do not assume that your students think you have their best interests at heart. Explain why you chose the readings you did, as well as their purpose, value, and relevance to the course. Students see this as a sign of respect. Make explicit connections between the readings and in-class activities, written assignments, and exams. Preview and promote the next reading assignment in class, and help students over the hump by letting them start reading key pieces in class. Finally, stop lecturing the readings in class. Extend or update the material in the readings, or clarify what you know students won’t grasp on their own. But you can’t expect rational people to do the readings if the knowledge will be spoon-fed to them in class the next day.

Teach Reading Strategies

Chances are your students are not familiar with how textbooks and academic publications are structured, so take a little class time for them to peruse the table of contents, the introduction, and the chapter/section layout. Have them identify “road signs” like headings, subheadings, and bold and italicized text. Why send them into foreign territory without a map?

Teach students how an expert reads, and it’s not from the the first word to the last. In order to anticipate the content of a particular reading, we often preview it, skimming through the subheadings, graphics, and italicized words on our way to the conclusion, which we typically read first. Thus, we start at the beginning of a piece already knowing its destination and a bit about how it gets there. Why not share this cognitively efficient reading strategy with our students?

Further, expert readers read with a purpose. As a rule, we’re looking for something that’s useful and important to our work. Students often tackle assigned readings with no purpose at all, so we have to give them one: study questions to answer, for example, or problems to solve (end-of-chapter or our own).

This type of assignment cues students as to what we consider important, something they desperately want to know. We should have them write out and turn in their answers or solutions and give them points for a good faith effort. Additionally, we should have them write out or concept-map a summary of the readings.

Another expert reading method to teach your students is marginalia, which is actually teaching them how to recognize “the main point” of a passage. Lead an in-class exercise on a few pages of an assigned reading in which the students write three to five words next to each paragraph either summarizing or reacting to the material (your choice). Also have them underline a few key words and phrases—no more than 10 percent of the text. Then have them justify their marginalia and underlining choices and compare their choices against yours.

In a similar way, you can teach your students a related reading strategy: highlighting with discernment. In Weimer’s (2005) two-class technique, she builds highlighting into the first two reading assignments and moderates two class discussions about what her students highlighted versus what she highlighted. In this way, students learn what an expert’s reasons are for distinguishing some text as central and other text as support or elaboration.

Hold Students Accountable for the Readings

If we don’t grade students on an assignment, they think we regard it as unimportant. So to communicate to students the value of the readings, we have to assign reading-related activities that are worth points—enough throughout the semester to total at least 20 percent of the final grade.

Since you’re grading on a good faith effort, you needn’t comment or correct. Just allocate points for students’ meeting the reasonable length requirement you set and demonstrating familiarity with the readings. You can grade these activities as complexly as a 3/2/1/0 points system or as simply 1/0. Best of all, grading these efforts not only motivates students to read but also enhance their learning and retention.

One accountability option is written homework, like having students respond in writing to the study questions or problems mentioned above. Students now average only three hours of homework per week for each course, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that they can do more. Further, you can extend the homework into in-class activities.

Another effective alternative is the daily quiz on the readings’ major points. For online, pre-class administration, many faculty rely on electronic test banks for basic-level multiple-choice items, which essentially grade themselves. If you print out items for an in-class quiz, you can first have students take it individually and turn it in, then have small groups retake it as a unit.

This second step allows for students talk about the readings. For higher-level quizzing that requires thinking beyond recall, you can compose an in-class mini-essay question. To save time, you can dictate it or display it on a slide. Judging a good faith effort will take you only seconds.

Once you stop lecturing the readings, you will have abundant class time for the third possible activity—in-class written exercises that have students restate, apply, summarize, examine, and/or assess the readings. For instance, students can work on problem solutions to turn in or to present to the class. Or they can do any number of writing-to-learn exercises, such as free-writing on the main points in the readings. The key is to make most or all of the task an individual one, so that a non-reader can’t hide behind a reader, then to grade the product on a good faith effort.

Finally, you can hold your class accountable with some kind of in-class oral activity on the readings, preferably where you cold-call on students and, again, grade their answer on a good faith effort. You can start with recitation (recall) questions and move into thought-inducing discussion questions, or even simulations and role plays that require the knowledge in the readings. To ensure “random” cold-calling, put each of your students’ name on an index card and shuffle the deck. Mark the good-faith “grade” on the card, return the card to the deck, and shuffle again. Don’t let anyone feel too safe or get too comfortable!


References & Resources

Adler, M.J. (1940). How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Blue, T. (2003, March 13). “I Don’t Know HOW to Read This Book!” The Irascible Professor. Retrieved October 2, 2007 from http://irascibleprofessor.com/comments-03-14-03.epr.htm.

Boyd, D.R. (n.d.). "Using Textbooks Effectively: Getting Students to Read Them." Teaching Resources, Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved October 2, 2007, from www.psychologicalscience.org/teaching/tips/tips_0603.html.

Connor-Greene, P.A. (2000). “Assessing and Promoting Student Learning: Blurring the Line between Teaching and Testing.” Teaching of Psychology, 27, 2, 84-88.

Hobson, E.H. (2004). IDEA Paper #40, “Getting Students to Read: Fourteen Tips.” Retrieved October 2, 2007, from http://www.idea.ksu.edu/

Maleki, R.B., & Heerman, C.E. (1992). IDEA Paper #26: “Improving Student Reading.” Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development.

McLaughlin, G.H. (2006). “SMOG: Simple Measure of Gobbledygook” (Readability Calculator). Retrieved October 9, 2007 from www.harrymclaughlin.com/SMOG.htm.

Nathan, R. (2005). My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Rio Salado College. (n.d.). Textbook Study Strategies. Retrieved October 2, 2007, from printversion.

Thompson, B. (2002, June 21). “If I Quiz Them, They Will Come.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 48, 41, B5.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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