Are Your Students Doing The Reading?


And if they’re not, what can be done to get them to do it? Or is that the wrong way to think about it?

[Note: This was originally posted on February 16, 2024, 9:04am, but was lost when a problem on February 17th, 2024 required the site to be reset. I’m reposting it on February 18th with its original publication date, but I’m sorry to report that the comments, many of which contained helpful suggestions, may have been lost; I’m looking into the matter.]

These questions come up in response to a recent piece by Adam Kotsko (North Central College) at Slate. He writes about the “diffuse confluence of forces that are depriving students of the skills needed to meaningfully engage” with books:

As a college educator, I am confronted daily with the results of that conspiracy-without-conspirators. I have been teaching in small liberal arts colleges for over 15 years now, and in the past five years, it’s as though someone flipped a switch. For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation—sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts. (No human being can read 30 pages of Hegel in one sitting, for example.) Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding. Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized take-aways. Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.

Kotsko anticipates one kind of reaction to this complaint:

Hasn’t every generation felt that the younger cohort is going to hell in a handbasket? Haven’t professors always complained that educators at earlier levels are not adequately equipping their students? And haven’t students from time immemorial skipped the readings?

He reassures himself with the thought that other academics agree with him and that he is “not simply indulging in intergenerational grousing.” That’s not a good response, because the intergenerational divide is not as relevant as the divide between academics and non-academics (i.e., nearly all of their students): professors were not, and are not, normal.

Still, I’m a professor, too, and despite my anti-declinist sentiments and worries about my own cognitive biases, I can’t help but agree that students do not seem as able or willing to actually do the reading, and as able or willing to put in the work to try to understand it, as they have in the past (though I probably don’t think the decline is as steep as Kotsko thinks it is).

Kotsko identifies smartphones and pandemic lockdowns as among the culprits responsible for poor student reading, but acknowledges we “can’t go back in time” and undo their effects. Nor does he offer any solutions in this article.

Are there any solutions? What can we do? What should we do? What do you do?


Related:
How Do You Teach Your Students to Read
The Point and Selection of Readings in Introductory Philosophy Courses
Why Students Aren’t Reading

 

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Cameron J Buckner
2 months ago

On advice from Mike Bishop, I just started doing Canvas quizzes due before class each week on the readings. They are very hand-holdy and conversational; I do a lot of re-assuring and framing that is missing from the readings. There are a lot of multiple choice, true/false, and dropdown type questions that are just designed to ensure that the students are getting basic concepts from the readings, tracking the argument as it unfolds, understanding who holds which positions, etc. I allow multiple attempts so they can keep retaking it until they get it right. I think it has really improved the number of students who do the reading and the level of comprehension of the reading. They come to class knowing what they do or don’t understand, and are much more proactive with questions and discussions. The questions generally follow the order of occurrence in the reading. I don’t usually tell them exactly where to look for answers, but they know if they’re getting multiple questions wrong, they need to go back and retrace their steps until they find the path again.

I honestly get the sense that having a conversational, familiar companion for the reading helps as much as anything, as well as having little micro-feedbacks for every paragraph or two (need that steady drip of technology-doled dopamine these days…). If they’re all just thrown at the reading, they don’t know what they’re supposed to get out of it or why, and many readings in philosophy presume a lot of context and background understanding that most students won’t have. I think it also creates a habit and expectation that I will be tracking whether they’re doing the reading or not on a regular basis.

It’s a lot of work to set up in the beginning, but I’ll definitely keep doing it based on early results. (And thanks Mike! He showed me an example of one of his quizzes and it helped me understand the vibe I should be transmitting.)

Laura
Reply to  Cameron J Buckner
1 month ago

I love this idea – I’m intimidated by the amount of work required to set it up on canvas but I think it would work much better than other methods of either quizzing students over the readings or investing lengthy grading time in more reflective assignments. Thanks for the reminder that I need to try it

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
2 months ago

A response Justin Kalef’s suggestion that some of problems he raised (and they were horrible problems) could be solved by adopting a system whereby courses are not marked by the teachers but anonymously by other members of the relevant the department.

This is an interesting idea Justin,  and perhaps necessary to arrest the downward spiral, but it seems to me to face formidable difficulties.  
It requires  every lecturer to have at least one ‘shadow’ familiar with the first lecturer’s courses and competent to mark his or her assignments.  
 
1) Even when such competence exists – perhaps  in a very large department such as Rutgers  – it is going to be a bugger to organise  the teaching so that everyone gets their own  shadow and nobody is condemned to the shadow-world as a perpetual marker and never a teacher. 
2) In smaller departments  the competence may very well not exist or, if it it exists, may be distributed between different people   Until very recently (I am now on phased retirement) I taught  a 200/300 level course  on Bertrand Russell, dealing both his technical philosophy  and his social and  political thought.  There is are not many people *in the world*, let alone in my department, with the competence to mark ALL of my assignments for this course, though *some* of my colleagues would have been competent to mark the assignments for *some* parts of it.  I also taught a course Hume, the Slavery of Reason and No-Ought-From-Is, with an emphasis on the logic.  The Baier Professor of Early Modern Philosophy could probably have marked the more Humean bits, the distinguished meta-ethicist (Alex Miller) could probably have managed the meta-ethical bits and the distinguished logician (Zach Weber)  the logical bits, but I don’t think the department contained a *single* competent shadow for the whole of that of that course. And of course the problem does not stop there. Though I am a wide-ranging sort of fellow I am not sure that I am competent to do the marking for Alex’s courses  on the philosophy of language and modern metaethics, and I would struggle  severely to countermark some of Zach’s courses on Logic or Greg Dawes’ courses on the Philosophy of Religion.   I could probably manage any one of them in the end but I would have to at least *sit in* on the relevant courses to bring myself up to speed. Becoming a competent shadow would take a lot of time, effort and energy. Conclusion: In smaller departments  there may well be a ‘No (competent) Shadow’ problem, a ‘No Single Shadow’ problem, or  a  ‘No Shadow  without a lot of work on the part of Prospective Shadows’ problem.  These problems may not be insuperable but they are likely to be quite severe.
3) A further difficulty is that a  lecturer may disagree with her shadow either about the content of the course or about the appropriate standards for marking.  Students would rightly resent it if they were marked down for expressing opinions that their lecturer would have approved of or expressing them in a way that the lecturer would have liked. 
 
Now it may that your proposal  is only supposed to apply  to large lower level courses, in which case some of these objections evaporate. The lecturer does little or no marking  herself  *anyway* but distributes it to instructors and tutors. It would be relatively easy for the tutors to mark the assignments from each other’s tutorial groups.   And that would  tend to mean that both the lecturer and her tutors would be evaluated on their teaching competence rather than their tendency to award easy grades.  But if your proposal is meant to apply across the board to upper level classes,  then implementing it would be rather problematic. 
 
A final point: what you are proposing  is a top-down solution to a collective action problem. Each actor pursues as strategy that is individually rational but collectively disastrous  since it produces a result that almost everyone deplores. (Perhaps not the students who are getting easy A-s)  Here, as elsewhere,  invisible hand processes can lift us up or slap down. Solution: we impose from above a rule that eliminates the perverse incentives driving he collectively disastrous behaviours. But implementing your solution would involve a collective action problem of its own.   The plan would have to be applied *at one go* within *every* programme at any given university. Otherwise,  those in search of an undemanding  pass (or even an undemanding A) will gravitate to departments which *don’t* apply it,  since in those departments  the staff will continue to be  incentivised to be give-away graders. And it is not clear that there would be a sufficient incentive for every department to agree to it.

Prof L
Prof L
2 months ago

Maybe the model where the only thing that counts is some massive exam in the topic of study should be the model going forward.

The current way of doing things is so clearly a failure, given the contemporary context and the typical student.

I keep coming back here for that rage-baity comment (that disappeared) by a tenured prof who doesn’t do the reading because it’s not always fun and sometimes difficult, of the undergrad “Kant sucks, I’ve never read Kant” variety. What sort of system promotes that guy through? To tenure? One without meaningful assessment.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Prof L
2 months ago

‘Maybe the model where the only thing that counts is some massive exam in the topic of study should be the model going forward.’
You may be right, but Gosh how depressing! The only thing to be said for exams as a mode of assessment is that they are (almost) cheat-proof. But if cheating going to undermine every other mode of assessment that may be the way to go. Ugh!

Eric Wilson
Eric Wilson
1 month ago

I don’t think suggestions for how to motivate students to read address the problem Kotsko. He’s lamenting a decline in ability, not motivation. I do think it’s useful to be skeptical about narratives of decline. But Kotsko’s seems quite right to me. (And it’s worth noting that he teaches at a small liberal arts college with a reputation for close reading of primary texts. Presumably, his students are more motivated and more able than most.)

If he’s right about the decline and right about some of the causes, it’s important to recognize that better incentives and motivational tricks do not address the problem. The problem is a symptom of major society-wide changes in values, technology, K-12 pedagogy (not to mention the Pandemic, inequality trends, etc.). On the latter, see the journalism he cites about reading pedagogy and common core. To be honest, I don’t know how to address the problem, but it seems important to be clear-eyed about its magnitude and its implications for our jobs and the work most of us care about a great deal.

Eric Wilson
Eric Wilson
Reply to  Eric Wilson
1 month ago

Sorry for the typo in my first sentence. My own powers of concentration have declined as well. It should read: “I don’t think …. the problem Kotsko describes.”

Cameron J Buckner
Reply to  Eric Wilson
1 month ago

I’m not sure we should see the two issues–ability and motivation/attention–as orthogonal. The role I hope is played by the reading quizzes that I described above is to provide the kind of bootstrapping that a student with more…uh…traditional ability and attention span would not need, because they would have already learned how to guide their own exploration of a reading by taking notes and tracking claims/arguments, and how to sustain attention on an abstract reading for a longer period of time. But students who lack these skills might still be able to acquire them *and* the comprehension of the reading topic we want them to obtain if they are provided with more and novel forms of scaffolding. Understanding new challenges to motivation and attention are key to designing these assignments in an effective manner.

Heather Douglas
Heather Douglas
1 month ago

I ask all students to write me at least one question about the assigned reading, to be turned in at least 3 hours before class starts. For courses with less than 50 students, I can read them all before class. Then I know what they are struggling with from the reading. Questions that do not reflect clear knowledge of the reading (like asking questions answered later in the reading assigned) don’t get full credit (on a scale of 0-3 or 0-2).

This way, I know whether they have done the reading and I know what remains unclear. And they are quick to grade.