Friday, October 24, 2008

Encouraging students to read before class...is it hopeless?

This is a topic on the minds of many of my faculty colleagues (and me!) -- how to get students to complete the assigned readings before class...or at all. My initial thoughts on this have always been that the readings have to be relevant:

  1. To achieving the learning objectives
  2. To completing the assignments and projects of the course
  3. To student assessment
  4. To the world outside of the course (whether in support of future study, of being a professional, of being a citizen)

Beyond this, however, there are important considerations that have to do with student readiness and time, and faculty expectations and habits.

Student readiness and time

Are students skilled at reading academic text? They may do a lot of reading (of materials like blogs, Facebook/MySpace pages, text messages, popular media text, and so on), but that sort of reading doesn't translate well to academic reading (see previous post on October 2, 2008). Also, students may not know the difference between skimming, scanning, directed reading, deep reading, and so on. Being clear about what we want students to do with their reading, and how to do it requires our attention. So, we need to scaffold students' reading via modeling and think-alouds, and providing them with examples of how we would mark and/or take notes on the text. In addition, we need to assist students in translating their approach to reading to an academic approach to reading. Spending some time on this sort of prereading instruction will help students learn how to process academic text.

Related, we also need to keep in mind that we have prior knowledge -- the schema -- to process new reading on topics we know about. Students may not. So, it takes them longer to process. An additional thing we can do is help students connect new reading to what they already know.


Do students have time to read the text? An interesting study by Ronald Carver several years ago (1985, How good are some of the world's best readers, Reading Research Quarterly, 20(4), 389-419) compared the word count and comprehension rate of strong student readers with people who read as a consistent part of their profession (such as faculty). There was a 150 word per minute difference between the strong student readers and the professional readers. The takeaway for me is the realization that some students do not read as fast as we do, which means that it may take them much more time to complete an assigned reading; something that takes us an hour to read, may take students 2-4 hours to read. If we are asking students to do other things between classes too, we need to take time-on-reading/task into consideration.

Also, students often have legitimate constraints on their time. Many of them work 15-20 hours a week, some have dependent care responsibilities, and many are concurrently taking several courses. The last thing they need are reading assignments that are not directly and clearly relevant to the work of the course (and beyond). I deal with this by making sure that the reading is critical to being able to complete assignments, and I tie the reading into those assignments in terms of assessment. And, I scale back my reading assignments so that students can deeply process, engage with, and apply a few readings, as opposed to assigning many readings and finding that they barely remember anything they've read and cannot apply the content of the readings to assignments.


Faculty expectations and habits

Are we clear about why we are asking students to read something? We need to remind (and keep reminding) students about the connections between the reading assignments and the course assignments and assessment (and the connection to the profession, etc.). Also, it doesn't hurt to share your enthusiasm for the reading -- why you think the reading is good, what some of the "a-ha" excerpts were for you, what you would like them to focus on, and so on. It sure would be nice to instill a love of reading in the process...

Do we lecture on (or provide students with a summary of) the same material that's in the text? When we do this, students quickly learn that they don't need to do the reading as long as they attend to the lecture and/or summary.

Do we engage students in activities that require them to apply the readings?
Again, another thing students figure out quickly is that if we do not actively have them do something with the readings in class or for projects, that they don't need to read. And, it has to go beyond asking for volunteers to share their thoughts about the reading. Students need to know -- preferably in advance -- what you will be asking them to do with the readings during the next class meeting (for example, involving them in small group discussions using discussion protocols). This way they know how to prepare, what to prepare...and that everyone has to prepare (so, no hiding in the back of the room). [Note: I have several blog posts on facilitating discussions and using discussion protocols. I use discussion protocols all the time, and find them to be highly effective in establishing expectations for reading.]

Do we hold students accountable for completing the readings?
This gets at assessment. If we are going to ask students to complete readings, how will we determine if they have been completed and what is the students' reward or payoff for completing the readings (beyond the "learning is reward enough" payoff)? I prefer more authentic approaches to this, so I require students to use the readings to defend their instructional design work; for example, students have to submit design documents in support of a lesson they have developed, and in those design documents they have to use the readings to support their decisions (and I often require them to triangulate their citations so they can demonstrate how more than one author/reading supports each decision). But, I also like assessment strategies that focus on specific readings, such as having students:

  • Write one-minute papers summarizing the readings -- I then assess and award points for those summaries
  • Assign inspiration points to each other for contributing valuable perspectives, ideas, counterarguments, summaries and so on to the discussion -- I track those points and apply them to the final grades [Note: For more on inspiration points, see the post in this blog.]


Getting students to read in preparation for class is difficult, but if you attend to issues related to reading preparation, reading assignments (in and out of class), and assessment, you can take appropriate action and help students be more successful.


1 comment:

mrsdurff said...

I really like your assessment ideas about getting students to read - those would apply to listening to podcasts or vidcasts or attending live webcasts as well. I work with middle schoolers were those ideas won't work for homework but will for in class work. Marvelous! My find of the day!