Activate Student Interest in Reading with Three Proven Strategies
“I just can’t get the student to do the readings.”
It’s a refrain I hear with each new class of college instructors I teach. We will be discussing classroom management methods and inevitably the topic of student reading comes up, and the class will laugh and sigh with frustration. As a faculty educator, this has made me question how to get students to read what they’re assigned. More importantly, how to get them to want to read what they’re assigned.
Since COVID-19 has pushed classicists into the brave new world of online facilitation, the clamor to answer these questions has reached a crescendo. In a recent Blackboard post, one of my student-instructors wrote: “I found that most of the time, [my] students fail to do the student readings prior to class. I end up having to teach from scratch during my classes and conduct a lot of checks-on-learning…This has been my role and method of classroom management for the past couple of months. Next semester, when I can actually lay the ground rules, I will be holding them accountable for not doing the pre-readings.”
His frustration is palpable.
After selecting the perfect readings, writing hefty notes in the margins of the texts and articles, and framing in-depth discussion points for the class, it would follow that a vibrant class discussion on the lesson’s more nuanced points would occur. But then, only a fraction of the class actually completed the reading. It’s a letdown, and now that precious class time is used to discuss the fundamentals from the reading. Everyone loses, little is gained, and lots of potential is lost.
The quandary of getting students to read is an ongoing concern that’s magnified now. The typical pre-pandemic reasons students had for not reading have unavoidably shifted over the last few months. Now, students must manage the distractions of the changes in personal circumstance and reprioritize their motivations for everything in life, including the reading they’re assigned. Where they may have been intrinsically motivated to read for the purpose of informing a class discussion or a quiz, that motivation now fails the common sense test against the extrinsic motivators of figuring out how to live and operate within the restrictions of their new lived reality. Put another way, students must now balance priorities that fall at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, whereas the assigned reading is part of the self-actualization category.
This means that if students are expected to complete their readings, the material’s utility must do more than just inform a conversation or a test. Instead, it must meaningfully coalesce into something more tangible.
To get at this, I’ve used a unique strategy that promotes reading completion, emphasizes critical reflection, eliminates punitive grading, and uses tools that promote democratic learning.
1. Scaffold Readings into Meaningful Responses: Instead of assigning readings as a standalone requirement in service to the next class, shorten the feedback loop by coupling the reading into a pre-class assignment. This is done by creating an interactive pre-class assignment and then merging the reading into the assignment’s instructions. By incorporating the reading into the assignment, the reading scaffolds into the larger task, which forces critical reflection and meaning-making.
Here’s an example: Issue a relevant scenario based on the class’s topic. Next, include a list of questions that require the students to explain, describe, or apply certain points from the reading to the scenario. This makes the reading and the associated need for critical reflection a by-product of the scenario and allows the students to understand how the reading is relevant in a qualified context.
2. Segment the Readings: If you have ever watched an online lecture, after a few minutes of active listening—unless the speaker is engaging—it’s easy for boredom to creep in and to become distracted. The same is true for reading assignments. Assigning a 40-page chapter or a 25-page case study is similar to assigning a 40-minute lecture to watch. Reading non-narrative material can be overwhelming, especially material that’s peppered with data and complex language; that’s even onerous for seasoned academics.
Instead, consider segmenting the reading into smaller chunks. Don’t just expect students to push through the 40 pages of reading and to then critically reflect on it before the next class; give them a roadmap through segmenting. To do this, instruct students to read a set number of pages each day and to actively engage with the text (highlight key points, write in the margins). Consider giving them a structured overview for distilling the essence of each segment (i.e., what it was about and why they think it matters). Explain that this level of critical reflection will help them apply the readings to the pre-class assignment.
3. Encourage Mixed Media Responses: Essays and journals have long been the standard for capturing student reflections. But they are limited as mediums of creative expression. Now, plenty of other digital interventions exist that easily democratize learning by giving students the maximum flexibility for critical reflection on their own terms:
- Most LMSs include a discussion board utility for active learning and student community building. Discussion boards are well-tested and have been found to promote critical reflection in a safe environment. As a medium for reflection, discussion boards benefit students by allowing more time to think and to see peer responses, unlike the immediacy of an in-class intervention, such as a quiz.
- As an educative medium, blogging is a bridge between what students are digitally familiar with and what is being asked of them in the academic world. For the digital classroom, blogs are a gateway experience for empowering students with the freedom to uniquely structure their prose, incorporate videos and pictures, share their posts on social media, and to interact with their peers in the comments section.
- Similarly, vlogs (video blogs) give students much of the same capability as blogs, but focus on the video feature versus the text features of blogging. In the last few years vlogging has increased in popularity, with one organization reporting that over half (52%) of Americans say they watch a vlog and millennials (72%) responding that they are especially likely to be viewers. This means that the target demographic using this medium is also likely interested in creating new content, even for educational settings.
- The same is true for COVID-19 has caused students to reimagine what’s important in their academic lives, leaving course readings in limbo. But there are ways to positively motivate students to read what’s assigned.
- With the proliferation of podcasts in the last decade, students not only listen to them, but are also creating them with increased speed. With a variety of free smartphone apps like students can create digital content with relative ease and produce high-quality digital content with little-to-no training or expense.
Encouraging students to apply their digital prowess is a wonderful means of enabling democratized learning. When democratized strategies like blogging, vlogging and podcasting is consistently used for getting students to read before each class, those products can then be merged into an evaluated portfolio at the end of your course. This gives students an extrinsically motivating post-course benefit that they can always carry with them. Imagine having a well-produced podcast or streaming video series about your course’s content that shows off the quality of your material and your students’ creative skills! With the resources at their disposal, that’s possible today.
However, the technology should make sense for enabling course outcomes and augmenting a course’s strategy; it should never consume the course. What an instructor is comfortable with matters just as much as what’s available in the student’s digital repertoire.
Also, be aware of how students’ socio-economic reality affects their choices of digital engagement. Students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds or lacking the means or skills for using mixed media may feel disenfranchised, especially if they see the instructor prefers certain mediums over others. Make it clear that none of the options are preferred over the other, especially for grading purposes.
By incorporating these strategies, the readings become a natural part of a larger process, and are nested within a process where students can critically reflect on their import in a meaningful way. Students can then come to class prepared to engage with in a way they otherwise might not have when the readings were left unbundled from a more immediate intervention.
Anthony Clemons is an Ed.D. student at the University of Illinois, a Researcher with the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and a faculty educator supporting the DoD. His latest book is Multicultural Andragogy for Transformative Learning (IGI Global 2018). Tweet him @anthonycclemons.