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.)

Best,
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.

  1. SET THE TONE EARLY

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.

  1. REMOVE UNINTENTIONAL INCENTIVES

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.

  1. STRUCTURE CLASS TIME AROUND THE READINGS

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.

  1. PREVIEW THE UPCOMING READING

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!”

  1. ENSURE THAT THE READINGS ARE ACCESSIBLE

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.

  1. PICK INTERESTING, ENJOYABLE READINGS

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.)

  1. BE (OR ACT) EXCITED ABOUT THE READINGS

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.

  1. BRUTE COERCEIVE MEASURES

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.

  1. YEAH, MAYBE IT’S A GENERATIONAL THING

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!

  1. YOUR TURN

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.

Ought Experiment book wrapped

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Carol
Carol
5 years ago

I have daily reading quizzes, each of which is worth 2-3% of their final grade. I’ve tinkered, semester to semester, with exactly how much of their final grade needs to hinge on this in order to be effective, and have found that it needs to be at least 30% (I’ve gone as high as 45%). I started off with pop quizzes, but, like you, found that too many students were willing to gamble. But when they know that every time we move on to a new reading they’re going to spend 10 minutes at the beginning of class answering straightforward (but not the sort you can BS about) questions about it, the vast majority of them just suck it up and do the damned reading. This also really helps with attendance, btw. (And with their writing skills!) They usually end up writing close to 20 quizzes, and I take the top 15 grades, so if they miss a few classes or bomb a few quizzes they still have a chance to keep their grade up. And they initially grumble a bit, but at the end of the semester routinely admit that doing all the reading made them get way more out of the course than they otherwise would have.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Carol
5 years ago

I wouldn’t trust student comments about what they learned (especially to you given your relationship with them) without some other independent data. For example, you could have a pre-test post-test on two sections of the course, one with the quizzes and one where the 30% was shifted over to midterms or papers. Would you find that your students actually wrote better papers (or took better exams) in the quiz section? I’m not sure. I’m not saying they wouldn’t but I don’t trust my own intuitions about this nor do I trust (at least automatically) what my students tell me about how much they feel they’ve learned.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Carol
5 years ago

What’s striking about your setup is just how much work on your part it takes to pull off. That’s potentially a lot of time spent creating quizzes and grading quizzes. I think it raises an interesting question for us to discuss: how much of an obligation do we have to ensure that students learn? If we know that spending an extra five hours grading every week, say, will lead to better outcomes, does that mean we ought to? Or is it appropriate to say “No, the students ought to invest that time themselves. I’m already meeting my obligations by preparing interesting and informative lectures, holding office hours, etc. etc.”? And if there is an obligation, does the obligation change for grad students or postdocs or tenure track profs – people who have very particular pressures to only spend so much time on their classes? What you’re doing is certainly commendable. Is it also supererogatory?Report

Carol
Carol
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

It’s not as time-consuming as you might think. I’ve gotten to the point where I can blast through the grading pretty quickly: I don’t give comments; they get 3 points if they’ve obviously done the reading, made a good-faith effort to understand it, and have the central argument basically right; 2 points if they’ve obviously done the reading but there are some problems with their understanding; 1 point if they’ve done the reading but there are serious problems (or if I can’t tell if they’re BS-ing).

(I should also probably say that I have at 2/2 teaching load and class sizes of 20-30. Not sure I’d be willing to do this if I had many more students. So it’s probably not a strategy that could work for everyone.)Report

GF-A
GF-A
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

Another way to save time on grading: if you have a course management system (e.g. Canvas or Blackboard), then you can set up reading quizzes there, and system will grade your students’ answers for you (assuming of course you are willing to do the types of questions that can be graded by the system: multiple choice, matching, etc.).
Of course this won’t save any time in the creation of quizzes. One other advantage: you gain back some class time that would otherwise be devoted to taking the quiz.Report

Eric Brandon
Eric Brandon
Reply to  GF-A
5 years ago

I’ve been thinking of implementing such a system of quizzes next semester. Has anyone tried this? Does it work? I’ve been teaching at a community college in North Carolina for over 10 years. When I started a significant portion of students were doing the reading. Now, very, very few do any reading.Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Louie Generis
3 years ago

When my classes grew to 80-100 students without grading support, I instituted clicker-quizzes, and these take me not a lot of time to design, and no time to grade. Most students actually came to look forward to them, like them, and care more than I expected about the results. The cumulative grades of quizzes amounted to 25% of the grade, iirc, so enough that it mattered and not enough to make people miserable. Students mentioned on evals that they really did find themselves reading more in my class because of the quizzes, and I ended up with more engagement in my large class than I had in smaller classes.Report

M
M
Reply to  Carol
5 years ago

I too use reading quizzes. They double as attendance. I give seven over the term, take the five highest, and allow make-up work for these only in the case that there is reason for missing lots of classes. They count for 10% of the final grade. They take five minutes to administer. I am willing to trade 35 minutes of class-time for the sake of students being better prepared. I have no evidence that the students resent this.Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  M
3 years ago

Yeah, I don’t even take attendance, and the quizzes “count” as attendance insofar as they’re indicative of whether people are showing up. Report

Arthur Ward
5 years ago

Here’s something that has worked for me. As with all good ideas, this has been stolen from a colleague:

This is called “jig-saw” reading. Form “learning teams” of four students each. Assign two readings: an (A) reading and a (B) reading. Each group has two people assigned to do the (A) reading and the other two the (B) reading. The first couple times you do this, use very accessible readings (I start with pop-philosophy written in SLATE or VOX, or even radio shows instead of readings, just to get them in the habit). When the students come to class, they get in their groups and each pair (A/B) is responsible for teaching the content of their reading to the other pair. This can last 5-7 minutes for an easy reading or much longer for a denser reading (towards the end of the semester). Incentivize this with some sort of points system. I use participation points because I have small classes and I can plainly see who’s not contributing. My colleague lets them write notes or a blurb about the reading and then bring that to the exam. I can imagine other ways to incentivize or enforce. I don’t do this with all my readings, but typically with about 1/3 to 1/2 of my readings. The first couple times you do this, the students will do a bad job. Some don’t read, others only skim, and others never learned how to read carefully. This is expected, and I make that a topic of conversation. I ask how the activity went (“it seemed like you guys finished up pretty quickly…”). Together we come up with a strategy for better reading: taking notes, reading more than once, etc. By the third or fourth time, they are much better at this. So, this is actually way to TEACH reading in addition to enforcing reading. It’s not perfect – there will still be some who slouch – but I think this works really well for most students.

This activity has the following benefits:
– It provides some social pressure to do the reading because if you don’t read, your partner has a harder job teaching the material and you’re a jerk. I use that language with my students when I describe the assignment. It also makes non-preparation visually conspicuous to the professor.
– We all know that you need to do a more careful job reading a text when you are planning to teach it. I have surveyed hundreds of my students and they report reading more carefully to prepare.
– You can cover twice the material without assigning twice the material (this is not trivial, this is really awesome)
– Once they get good at it (it takes a few times), the students enjoy this activity and it builds a sense of community
– Doing this is a nice way to break up class time. Do a mini-lecture, then do learning teams, then another activity or another mini-lecture. It keeps things lively.Report

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
Reply to  Arthur Ward
5 years ago

This is excellent, and applicable across the board (that is, not just to philosophy classes). I think I’ll definitely try some variations on this with my (English as a second language) students, and I’ll try to carry it over to some logic groups with which I’m involved.Report

Bob Kirkman
Reply to  Arthur Ward
5 years ago

I’ve used the jigsaw approach, and had some success with it. In fact, after reading through these comments this morning, I decided to have students in one of my classes set up for just such an activity next week!Report

Michelle
Michelle
5 years ago

Something I’ve heard (but I forget where).. Know how everyone tends to go for a ‘medium’ drink? We’re just inclined towards a middle option: small is (too) small, and large is (too) large, so we assume that the middle option will be just right. You can use this to get students to read more, or so I’ve heard. If you just assign a reading, they have two options: small (nothing) or large (the whole reading). Given those two, it’s easy for them to opt for small rather than large. But, give them a required minimum to read and an optimal, larger amount of reading, and the equation changes. Now they have to choose between: small (no reading), medium (the required minimum), and large (the optional additional amount). This makes the medium amount look a lot more reasonable than the other two. So, that’s something to try.

Another thing to try: what if you didn’t assign any readings? If that option fills you with horror, consider why it fills you with horror. That can help you pin down what exactly you want students to do with the readings, and you can use that to make sure you’re giving them the sort of reading quiz/assignment that will help you meet your pedagogical goals. If, on the other hand, you can’t locate the reason behind the assigned readings, why not try a term without them? There are plenty of ways to make a philosophy class work without any assigned readings. And if your class really isn’t designed so the readings are necessary, maybe this is just the secret to getting the work you assign to line up with your pedagogical goals.Report

Friendly Undergrad
Friendly Undergrad
5 years ago

One of the things I’ve found as a student (and having talked to other students) are the response essays that one of my professors assigns, which ask you to incorporate previous readings in the course. This means one is more likely to get caught with one’s pants down, so to speak, and so students find they have to do the readings to stay on top of work. The conclusion is sort of didactic, but maybe it ought to be.Report

Kareem Khalifa
5 years ago

One thing that I do is integrate students’ initial responses to the reading into the “to-do list” of the lecture on that reading. More precisely, I tell students that every class, they should feel free to ask what I call “BS” and “WTF” questions (and yes, these are abbreviations for exactly what you think). BS questions arise when one reads a sentence and finds it highly implausible. WTF questions arise when one finds something in the text to be incomprehensible. I then write these questions on the board, and address them as they become pertinent in the course of the lecture (or if I see that they won’t be pertinent, I address them quickly at the beginning/end of class.) Students tend to like this, since they don’t have to do much more than self-monitor their reading experiences, and the result is that their questions are taken seriously and woven into the larger arc of the lecture.Report

Karen
Karen
5 years ago

This is a really helpful list, but #9 deserves some elaboration. The real changes that have happened in K-12 education in the last 15 years make teaching philosophy, particularly with original sources, harder, and if we don’t want to give up the ship we have to respond to them. Many students (unless they’re in IB/AP courses) actually don’t read books cover to cover as part of middle or high school (they may read plenty of book on their own, but pleasure reading doesn’t require the same strategies for retention and comprehension). Similarly, unless students take AP/IB courses, they aren’t being taught how to analyze texts in high school; standardized tests typically ask students to respond analytically to a paragraph or two, and by multiple-choice questions. I try to address this not by saying any of that, but by highlighting the differences between reading philosophy and other kinds of reading from the first day. I give them a handout on some basic strategies for reading philosophy–give themselves enough time (10 pages an hour–which also forces me to assign realistic amounts of reading), look up unfamiliar words and write down definitions, summarize a paragraph in a written sentence, then review the list of sentences to see how arguments develop, watch for argument markers in rhetoric–and we review them. I also regularly (at least weekly) have students read our philosophers aloud in class. I pick an important passage, students take turns each reading a sentence. It helps me identify who may have some struggles reading, but it also works to emphasize the importance of the words themselves. We’ll pause to analyze clauses or sentences, and unpack the argument. I also use some of the other strategies on this list (#4 is crucial); I still get my share of non-readers, but I think it’s fewer than it used to be, and I’m able to get most students engaged with philosophy via original sources.Report

Eric Brandon
Eric Brandon
Reply to  Karen
5 years ago

I am very much in agreement with the point about standardized, multiple-choice testing. My own children are being subjected to it, and I hate it. It does not teach them how to approach a text or even a math problem with any kind of depth. One of my sons just quickly guesses on these test or plugs in the answers for the math problems. He gets by with this because he is very smart, but this won’t work well in college.

I use original sources, and I also make my students read the important passages aloud. We do that almost every class. They don’t know how to read such material, and I show them how to do it by doing it with them in class. Also, many of them cannot read aloud very well, and doing it frequently gives them some ability and confidence at it.

But fewer and fewer of my students are reading at home. I’ve seen a marked decline in just the past few years. I fear that reading quizzes are about my only option right now.Report

recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

I’m struggling with this a lot and this is a huge help. Thanks, LG.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

Don’t thank me – these columns only happen because folks like Decimal send in great questions that are genuinely worth talking about. I offer some initial thoughts, and the comments section adds a wealth of additional advice, but this help exists because people send emails to [email protected].Report

Michael Cholbi
Michael Cholbi
5 years ago

I’ve given a presentation a couple of times based on research about why students don’t read: http://bit.ly/1RBPLLl. Much of the concrete advice given there is similar to the original post. But the main takeaway is that, given students’ level of background knowledge; their reading ability and experience; instructor behaviors that do not reward reading; the students’ understanding of what knowledge is and how it is acquired; and the apparent lack of an *obvious* causal connection between reading and subsequent academic performance, students’ not reading is, from their point of view, rational. The key here is to make non-reading irrational — and to help students see that this is so. One major point is that we tend to underestimate how hard complex reading really is — most academic philosophers do it so fluently that we don’t recognize the suite of skills that are brought to bear on complex texts. (On this, see http://bit.ly/1HbQInT)Report

Michelle
Michelle
Reply to  Michael Cholbi
5 years ago

One worry I have about things like reading quizzes is how that sort of external motivation relates to the rationality of opting not to read. So, from the student’s perspective, there isn’t good reason to complete the readings. But then we enforce this (apparently) meaningless task through reading quizzes or similar activities designed to check whether they’re completing the (apparently) meaningless task. From their perspective, the reading quizzes are absurd: they are forced into doing that which is, for all they can tell, irrational.

I don’t know what to do, in light of this worry. I just have it.Report

Michael Cholbi
Michael Cholbi
Reply to  Michelle
5 years ago

On my read of the available evidence, quizzes increase compliance: more students read the assigned material. However, they do not seem to increase performance and are often resented by students. My own response to this is to have diagnostic quizzes, i.e., those that inform students of their own level of reading comprehension without having that count toward their grade.Report

Tom
Tom
5 years ago

Background: I have a PhD in philosophy from a respected PhD programme. I have publications and get good teaching evaluations and when I was on the market last go around I got several interviews and now have a nice visiting position.

Confession: I didn’t do the reading in undergrad or in grad school. I still don’t quite get the whole “read a bunch of stuff then come talk about it thing” for the most part. I only ever actually read things when it came time to do something with them. Like write a paper. Even in grad school. Even now. I only really read what I either (a) want to read or (b) need to read for something I’m working on.

Should it be different? Maybe. But face it, most philosophical writing is godawful boring. And unless I have a reason to be interested, I’m just not going to give enough of a fuck to actually put in the effort that reading boring things takes.

So, what to do about it? Give students the opportunity go get immediately interested, then try like hell to get the rest of them out of your class. Have a group project (e.g. a video explaining something or other) due within the first few class sessions — this tends to accomplish both aims.

Finally, I also recommend giving up on the students who give up on you. Students are in college for a whole range of reasons. We shouldn’t suppose our reasons (e.g. to really understand big ideas or some such bullshit) are the right reasons. Inform them of what it takes to succeed, and let them make their own decisions about what’s worth their time. If checking out is what they decide to do, so be it. Who are you to say the reading is so important, after all?Report

M
M
Reply to  Tom
5 years ago

My main worries about the lack of reading by student X is not the effect on student X. It is the fact that all of the students doing this is bad for the class. It is a collective action problem. If I have half the class having done the reading, that’s probably enough. But if everyone is a free-rider like you were, then I have a problem.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

There are lots of great suggestions here. I just want to highlight some important points that come out from both the original post and a number of comments:

1. If students are giving up on reading, there is a reason. Think about what incentives and options you’re giving your students.
One key thing is that students have to be shown not only that they have to do the reading, but that if they do they reading – if they work hard – they can expect some payoff. That payoff doesn’t have to be a better grade, though that’s an important motivation that we shouldn’t ignore. Students have spent their pre-college years being told how important their grades are, and those messages don’t stop once they get to college. Insofar as we work for institutions that create and actively perpetuate these attitudes toward grades, it’s rather a bit of bad faith on our part not to acknowledge those motives in our interactions with students.

2. I have reluctantly come around to doing frequent quizes (depending on the nature of the class). These can be a lot of work, especially to construct well. But one key with quizes is not to treat them as primarily punitive/monitoring devices. I let my students know that A) Quizes are designed to reward students for reading and reading well; B) Quizes are tools the students can use for self-monitoring: if they’re doing the reading and still doing poorly on the quizes, that’s a sign that they need to come see me to come up with better reading/study strategies; and C) Quizes are designed to provide students with immediate incentives to do what most of them want to do anyway – actually learn and get something out of their college education. On this model, quizes do not have to be thought of primarily coercive, and their motivational force can be thought of as serving, rather than replacing more intrinsic motives for learning.

3. Philosophy is hard, and most of the readings we assign are hard, especially for introductory students. Even the ones you think of as easy are probably hard to the students. First and foremost, tell them this. I tell my students that the readings are hard, and that if they aren’t sometimes deeply puzzled or confused they aren’t paying attention. The key is to give them the tools to respond constructively to those difficulties. One thing I do (again rather time consuming) is construct reading guides, modeled after an imagined conference with a student in which I ask them to read a passage to themselves, then ask them questions and point to the passages on the page that would help them understand them. Here is an example, though given the time commitment, I admit the quality and level of detail varies: https://wderekbowman.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/bowman-sample-reading-guide-mill.pdfReport

Midwestern Grad Student
Midwestern Grad Student
5 years ago

Something I’ve been doing a lot this semester is reading through texts aloud in class. I set the expectation early that I’d like them to go through the reading on their own before class, but then part of our going over it in class involves reading it aloud and really getting deeply into the text. This allows me to figure out whether students are struggling with the ideas themselves, or just the ways the ideas are presented—once we figure out what Kant or Hume or whoever is trying to say, we can easily translate it into 21st century undergrad english and *then* debate the ideas. This method does have the effect of making free riders out of the students that don’t do the reading, but generally I’d rather have every student get at least a little out of the course, and the ones who are willing to do more work get a lot out of the course.Report

PhD Rhet/Comp Student
5 years ago

As a PhD student and composition teacher, I feel it is imperative we get our students to read critically and learn the art of annotation. However, this requires the instructor to do some work too in setiing the boudaries for the students. What is it exactly are we hoping the student to achive through the reading of the text? I feel giving students guiding questions in which to explore while they read can aid them in discovery. These guiding questions could become single-spaced typed documents handed in at the end of class with the student’s notes scribbled upon them (for evaluative purposes). It is not necessarily that the student is always achieving a “correct” answer; what is important is that he or she is in dialogue with with text. As teachers, we give our students a text to read for a reason. Why not provide a few probing questions to pique their intellectual curiosity.Report

Han Solo
Han Solo
5 years ago

“As any Wookiee will tell you, gazpacho is the Batman of soups.”
Wait. What?Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  Han Solo
5 years ago

I suspect that is a “bizarre non-sequitur” slipped “into the late middle section…. just to see if we’re actually reading [the] work closely.”Report

John Schwenkler
5 years ago

Like others above, I give reading quizzes Every Single Day in my large lecture classes, and as far as I can tell this works really well. (I’ve found pop quizzes to be entirely ineffectual.) So far I have kept this from being a burden by using scantron sheets, which are then graded by the Testing Services office, which returns the grades in a spreadsheet. Next semester I’ll start using i-clickers instead, which my students insist they have no objection to purchasing.Report

Bob Kirkman
5 years ago

Michelle raises an excellent point, regarding internal versus external motivation. Think of MacIntyre’s example of the child playing chess only in order to receive a candy reward, which misses the point of playing chess in the first place.

One of the advantages of moving away from a lecture-and-discussion approach has been that I have been able to experiment with very different ways of having students engage with course material, working to help them to develop and practice skills in reading and thinking and writing they may never have had occasion to use before.

Part of the challenge is to convince students – and to model for them, and have them practice – a particular way of understanding what a book is. I’ve been inspired in this by colleague’s observation that the printed book is a centuries-old technology that is unsurpassed for fostering the development of understanding . . . as contrasted with more recent technologies which are very good for amassing and providing access to information.

Then I walk students, step-by-step, through the basic skills in reading a book for understanding. One basic exercise I have used in several different classes (of about 35 students) is to bring a big bag full of books pulled at random from the bookshelves in my office. I distribute these and give the following instruction: You have five minutes to learn everything you can about this book, at least enough that you can turn to a neighbor and explain to her or him what the book is about and what it’s main approach will be.

Then we work on skimming, formulating guiding questions, reading, taking notes, marking the book . . . (A book is a tool, I tell them. You have to use it, alter it, make it your own.)

I have also focused whole sections of courses on having students derive understanding from whole books, working in groups with only general guidance form me and very little lecture. I was astonished at the vigor with which students set themselves to the task, sitting in groups with books open, marked with pens and with sticky notes, flipping back and forth and debating the interpretation of passages, the form and the merits of arguments. The books in question were in political philosophy, with a focus on democratic theory: Locke, Rousseau, and Young.

Now, they were working toward a very particular kind of assignment, for a substantial part of their grade, and that was probably part of their motivation. But from the way they discussed the ideas in the books afterward, in later parts of the course, suggests to me that something deeper than that was going on as well.

Note that not one of my students is a philosophy major, or would ever consider being a philosophy major; my institution does not offer degrees in philosophy. Most of my students, in fact, are engineers in training.

(I’ve written more about this approach and its setup here: http://ethicsafield.com/2015/01/15/reading-aristotle-with-engineers/ )Report

Bob Kirkman
Reply to  Bob Kirkman
5 years ago

The reading activities I just described aimed at a peculiar assignment I dubbed a “distillation,” which I described as follows: A distillation is a structured, in-class exercise in deriving coherent meaning from an original source in philosophy. It takes the form of a worksheet to be completed under controlled circumstances: the only items you may use during the exercise are a pen, the worksheet and a few pieces of scrap paper, and the book itself. These will be evaluated using the sub-rubric for theoretical understanding.

More about that, and the mysterious “sub-rubric” here: http://ethicsafield.com/2015/01/16/reading-old-books-with-engineers/Report

Michelle
Michelle
Reply to  Bob Kirkman
5 years ago

I love the “random book for five minutes” task–that’s such a great idea.

I try a lot to get my students to realize that there isn’t a single activity called reading but instead a wide variety of different ways to read a text, depending on what one is trying to get from it. This looks like a good way to send that message home and get them to see that skimming is a legitimate and worthwhile activity in certain circumstances.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

i can’t help but notice that in order to get students to do more of the readings, several have suggested handing out something *additional* to read. i can say as a former frequent reading-free-rider who now teaches philosophy, this would’ve done nothing for me (and i suspect there are other students like me).

My problem was that i was always a primarily auditory learner. i needed someone to explain something first. The only professors that actually got me to read were (1) a professor who assigned the readings *after* he had already lectured about them, (2) a professor who (as described above) had the class read the text aloud in class [this was in a grad school seminar, by the way], (3) professors who assigned the writing of papers based directly on assigned reading(s).Report

Eric Brandon
Eric Brandon
5 years ago

I have been teaching philosophy for over 20 years, and I’ve been teaching a community college in North Carolina for the past 12 years. When I started teaching, including at the community college, I always had enough students in a class who had done at least enough of the reading to be able to say something about it to start a discussion. One time about 10 years ago, I didn’t get around to reviewing something from Plato’s Republic and I tried to wing it. Not a good idea. Many of the students had done the reading in a serious way, and they quickly pointed out that I was mixing up parts of the text and not quite getting things right. I loved those students.

But now, I just don’t seem to have students like that. I do think that there has been a generational shift, and there are probably many causes for this.

I do like having my students read aloud in class, and I’ve been doing that my entire teaching career. However, I still would like at least some of them to have done some of the reading at home. It find that some previous knowledge of the text improves student participation and leads to better questions from the students. Also, they need to learn how to read difficult texts on their own, and they won’t develop that skill if they don’t give it a shot.

I’m thinking of using the CMS for my courses to administer reading quizzes. From the comments, it seems that the quiz approach is worth a try.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

Students have no free time to do the readings. If they do, it’s not enough to digest the material. Well, okay, not in every case, but if you want to know why your students aren’t doing the readings, why not ask them?Report