Getting Your Students To Crack Their Books

If you have been teaching for at least a semester, you may have noticed that students don’t do the reading we assign them, shocker, I know.  So what can we do about this? Should we throw up our hands, deciding that students are in charge of their own destinies? Do we turn punitive and bitter, writing exams that we know that they will not be able to pass? Or are there actually effective ways to get students to step up the amount of time and effort they put into reading?

I believe that we can make a difference in how much a student commits to our course, regardless of subject, and that the way to do so begins with the first day of class.  I have noticed that it appears many professors still treat the first day of the semester as some sort of  ‘free pass.’  Now, keep in mind I am speaking from my own perspective and experience, and I would love to hear what you might have to share in the comments, but this strikes me as a criminal waste. 

We are setting the tone for the rest of the semester, and the tone I prefer to set is one where the class will be jam-packed with useful information and interesting activities, there will be no slack-time, and we are neither starting late nor ending early, ever.  As a part of expectation setting, I spend a fair amount of time discussing reading, and the rubric established within California higher education.   Here in the Golden State, the expectation across the board (community colleges, CSUs, and UCs) is that students will complete three hours of reading for every hour spent in class. Surprisingly, the vast majority of students claim to have never heard this information before.  It’s an eye-opener for them to realize that when we call 12 units ‘full-time’ we aren’t kidding around – twelve hours spent in class, times three, is thirty-six hours of reading (plus the original twelve) for a total of a forty-eight hour week. Suddenly, they are into overtime!  Many students approach going to college as if the 12 original hours were all that they were expected to do.  They see this as a continuation of high school, where for many of them, just showing up was enough to get them through. By the way, this attitude is also to be found across ALL levels of the California higher education system.  Maybe you live in a happier state where this is not the case, if so, mazel tov.

Another area of confusion is exacerbated by textbook publishers, who will make things jazzy with color blocks of tan, pale green, and lilac.  Students believe that these color-coded sections, rather than being called out for extra attention, means that they will not figure on exams and that they can be skipped. I like to point out to them that they need to read everything and use all parts of the text; including captions, footnotes, bibliographic references, ad nauseum.  To make the bitter pill go down easier, I remind them that, at the prices they are paying, it behooves them to squeeze all of the value out of those books like they were making juice.  Or they may as well have set a hundred dollar bill on fire for all the good it does them.

In addition to not knowing the expectations, many students do not have a sense for where they fall in terms of effort and skill. If they see a friend whipping through a textbook and getting A’s, then the message they internalize is, “a chapter should take a half hour to read” and not, “my friend may have better reading comprehension skills than I do.”  I ask students to self-identify as pro or anti reading – you know, the folks who, given their druthers, wouldn’t read the back of a cereal box.  I have the happy readers talk a little about how much they read as a leisure activity, before pointing out to the unhappy readers that, we aren’t here to change their attitude, but that comparisons may not get them far. They will need to learn what their own reading comfort levels are. To facilitate this, I have students complete a study skills quiz (like this one and collectively discuss solutions to the problems they may be having. 

In a future post, I will write about how I follow-up on these suggestions with strategies designed to keep them reading.  As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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