Why Students Aren’t Reading (Ought Experiment)

Why Students Aren’t Reading (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment, which sadly is not a comic strip. I think this week’s question is about getting kids to do the assigned readings, but if I’m being totally honest with you here, I kind of skimmed the letter:

Dear Louie, 

I can’t get my students to do the readings! Maybe a third of them will be with me for the first few weeks, but term after term, the numbers plummet from there until just the diehard philosophy nerds in the class can answer basic review questions. I’ve tried shaming students by letting those awkward, post-question silences drag on and on, but they all know that one of the class stars will eventually break the tension by volunteering the right answer. Other semesters, I’ve assigned short reading response essays, but those just train students to skim one reading right before the deadline and spit out something pat. I’ve even tried pop reading quizzes, but students seem willing to weather the lost points, and just take it out on me when the course evaluations roll around. What’s going wrong? Is it just a generational thing? (Context: I teach a mix of intro and upper division courses, normally capped at 40 students.)

Louie Decimal

Dear Louie Decimal,

You know how students occasionally sneak bizarre non-sequiturs into the late middle section of their term papers, just to see if we’re actually reading their work closely? It’s funny-but-not-haha-funny just how many of those same students don’t bother to read anything we assign.

Before I launch into a series of suggestions about how to counteract the Millennial hordes of the looming Slackpocalypse, I think it’s important to ask yourself why you want more of your students to do the readings. I know that sounds like an outrageous question at first. “Now listen here, you podsnappering zounderkite,” I can vividly imagine you saying, “this is college, and in college you very well read!” Of course. My point is that if it’s just about finding a way to force students to make fleeting eye contact with the inside of a book, then you’ve already lost the battle, because succeeding won’t actually change how your class is going. Coerced, reluctant readers don’t make for eager participants or studious internalizers. You have to make them want to read, and on their own terms.

I’ve put together nine strategies that I think help students want to read. But as always, I’ll be interested to see what folks add to the list in the comments below.


It’s important to fix expectations during the first week of class. In fact, I like to assign a reading for the very first day, and I email the class ahead of time to let them know that, yes, there’s a reading. After a short speech about the major themes and topics of the course, I dive right into an interactive discussion of that first reading, framed as the starting point of our semester-long investigation. I ask them charged questions about what they read, solicit interpretations of controversial points, and court debate. I avoid covering the syllabus or having students take turns introducing themselves, or anything else that involves them sitting still and slipping into passive information reception mode. Does this sprint to content rock the students back on their heels? You bet. A few them drop the class an hour later. But the ones who stay learn very quickly that we’re going to do work in class, and that means doing work before class.


It’s telling that your students scale back on the readings after a few weeks. Sure, burnout and the belief that they’re “super busy” are going to cause an inevitable drop-off somewhere around the halfway mark, but if it’s occurring much earlier for you, then you might have accidentally signaled that the readings aren’t really required after all. Perhaps you devote a lot of class time to offering a point-by-point summary of the readings, leading students to believe that they can get basically the same information just by listening. Perhaps you’ve made your lecture notes available online, or distribute study guides before exams that flat out tell students what’s “actually” important. Perhaps you let class discussions veer away from the source material on entertaining but untethered tangents. It’s easy to incentivize inattention. Relatedly, cut down on the unnecessary busywork that competes for their time. As soon as you make them turn in a lot of homework for points, they’ll make the rational decision to spend their time on that instead.


There are many productive class formats. But if you’re going to assign readings, then at least make sure that class time and activities actually depend on students having done the readings. Make use of them, instead of duplicating them. For example, if sessions revolve around genuinely fun debates, then students who don’t want to be left out of the fun will start to read. Sure, maybe not at first. Many of them might cautiously wing it for a while, joining the discussion halfway through the hour (once prior contributions have given them a gist of what was in the readings they skipped). But if you get them enjoying that much, they’ll take the next step on their own. Maybe because they’re tired of waiting until the halfway mark every day, or maybe because they’re jealous of the substantive points their fellow students are getting attention for making, or maybe because it looks more interesting than being a spectator. Whatever the particular reason they’ve gained, it means that doing the readings is no longer redundant.


Spend the last few minutes of a session previewing the upcoming reading, and tell students what to pay attention to when they’re doing that reading. Sometimes students don’t bother reading because they’re confronted with 20-30 pages of dense material filled with a variety of points and unfamiliar distinctions, and they’re just not sure how to sift through what they’re seeing. And since the lecture is probably going to tell them what’s relevant anyway, why slog through the confusing material on their own? Previewing what’s at stake in the upcoming article can dramatically reduce the costs of reading. So give them some guided reading questions. Make aspects salient in advance. You can even try borderline clickbaity approaches to the preview, like “Some of what the author says may shock you” or “You won’t believe some of the implications of the view we’re reading next” or “Here are nine strategies to get you to read!”


This tip is most important early in the semester, as my sense is that students will rarely give the readings a second try if they’ve decided they’re too hard or confusing – especially once they hear the comparatively clear and straightforward lectures that are paired with the readings. So make sure the first few selections aren’t archaic documents filled with obscure, alienating prose like ‘podsnappering zounderkite’. Beyond that, if a reading includes new terms that they haven’t seen before, define those when you’re doing the Upcoming Readings preview the class before. Ditto if the reading makes reference to entrenched debates or philosophical camps that students haven’t learned about yet. Don’t spoil the upcoming article for them, but do prepare them to read it.


Whatever your stance on edutainment, students have to be sold on the material. And no, as intuitive as it might seem, you can’t take their enrolling in the course as evidence of interest. A lot of us are academics because we find these issues intrinsically fascinating, but your students have all sorts of different reasons for being there. So don’t be surprised that they won’t read an article without knowing why it’s important, or that a dry article might not hold their attention if there’s a The Real Dudebros of Orange County marathon on TV. Grudging obligation isn’t a great motivator. So sell them on the issues. Sell them on the questions. And locate both in the readings. (If you think this answer heralds the death spiral of higher learning, skip ahead to #9.)


If the culture of the class involves earnestly wrestling with complicated questions, and basking in the stimulating frustration of not even knowing what to think anymore, then other students are going to want to roll up their own sleeves. If the culture of the class is to skip the readings and silently endure when review questions are posed, waiting as long as it takes for you to blink first, then other students are going to stop reading, too. The good news is that you can help determine which culture will take hold. Professors model philosophical activity for their students. So during the preview segment, visibly geek out over what you all get to think about next time. Then during the next class, sprinkle in comments about how neat you think the author’s attempt is, or how fraught their argument is, or how thin of a ledge they’ve edged themselves on to, or how their argument is an interestingly veiled response to an earlier author. Convey that the readings are worth being passionate about, and make the readings something that the students want to discover for themselves. As any Wookiee will tell you, gazpacho is the Batman of soups.


I think this is the worst approach. They’ll likely just resent you, or see it as a punishment, or dig in stubbornly, or irrationally sit by while their grades plummet and then beg you for extra credit during the final week. Heck, I’ve had students inquire about extra credit after semester grades have been posted. I know it can be tempting to use the coercive power of grades to force them to act in their own interest, but these strategies are a little like filling your goldfish’s tank with soapy water in order to keep it clean – sure, you’ll get the desired result, but you’re definitely going to kill any conversation or good will in the process.


Back when I was your age, I walked 15 miles to class uphill both ways, barefoot in the snow, and there were lines for office hours even if there wasn’t an exam that week. My school didn’t even have a budget for thought experiments – if we wanted to evaluate an intuition, the professor had to tie six of us to a pair of trolley tracks, and damnit, we were grateful just to be included!


So, what does everyone else think? Are some of these strategies awful, or just awfully unrealistic? Did I miss something that worked really well for you in the past? Let us know!

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue to abscond with the blueberries when unwary friends order pancakes in the comments below.

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