When Students Won't Do the Reading
A common complaint. What can we do about it?
Is there a more common lament among college instructors than, “Why won’t students just do the reading?”
It’s an important/difficult question. When I wrote last week about the problem of “boredom,” in the comments, a number of people remarked that one of the reasons they believe students say they are “bored” in class is because students often haven’t done the reading, and therefore lack context for whatever discussion is happening in front of them. No doubt this is true.
In my experience, students aren’t particularly happy about not doing the reading and many understand, at least in the abstract, that the reading is important.
Last semester I taught a “Learning Community” course where my first-year-writing class was paired with introductory sociology. Our class periods were back to back and the first question I’d ask most days was, “What did you learn in sociology today?”
On test days, a consistent refrain was, “I learned that I should’ve done the reading before the night before the test.” When I asked why they hadn’t read earlier, I was told that there wasn’t enough time.
Sometimes the students just shrugged in answer. It was a mystery.
Rather than being some kind of generational character defect (it would be a defect that affects every generation), I think not doing the reading is rooted in the patterns and systems of work within which we ask students to labor.
Objectively, for most students, there is enough time to do their work if they do their work when they have the time. If reading was a priority (or if they perceived it as such), they would have read. It just wasn’t a priority relative to the other work (or non-work) they had to do during the time they had to do it.
Considering why students don’t do the reading has me thinking about how I work with deadlines and the ways my work differs from what students do. I used to be bad at these workflow issues, now I’m pretty good. What happened?
Each week I have a combination of work with “hard” deadlines, “firm” deadlines, “floating” deadlines, and “non-deadlines.”
The hard deadlines are the classes I teach. An example of a firm deadline is the column I write for the Chicago Tribune book section, Printers Row as my alter ego, The Biblioracle.
One of my floating deadlines is writing for this space. I must write weekly, but no one says which day.
The non-deadlined work is primarily my long term writing projects that are neither promised to, nor explicitly requested by anyone: short stories, a novel, a book that draws on the material in this column, a couple of other things.
Guess which work gets the least attention. Those big projects almost always wait for breaks.
But in student-world, there are only hard deadlines, aka, stuff that’s going to be graded.
Everything else is more like a non-deadline. This includes reading for class up until they’re going to be tested on it when it suddenly becomes a hard deadline.
The reasons why many students seem to find it difficult to act except in the face of hard deadlines seem fairly obvious.
One reason is because hard deadlines are the only deadlines we tend to give. Very few of us are flexible on due dates for essays or exam times. Under the structure of a semester, we generally believe students must move in concert. There may be wiggle room, but very little freedom.
Additionally, the structures and patterns of school condition students to only respond to hard deadlines.
Given the different ways we signal that the most important part of school is their grades, we shouldn’t wonder why things that are going to impact those grades get the most attention.
We should also acknowledge that while many of us can plan our semester deadlines around other demands on our time, students are subject to the deadlines of five different courses, many of which are going to conflict. If your reading assignment is up against someone else’s exam, that reading isn’t getting done.
Let us also remember that managing one’s deadlines is a pretty difficult skill that only comes with practice. I didn’t get any kind of handle on proactively managing my workload until I was into my 30’s, and much of my progress on this front was born out of necessity.
So, what can we do about this?
If we want students to read, one solution would be to make that reading a “hard” deadline and attach a grade to it.
I’m not a fan of this for a couple of reasons. One is that a common way to induce reading is to give short “reading quizzes,” which often ask a series of surface-level questions about the content of the reading. I worry that this technique models a shallow engagement with the text that’s little better than not reading. It also reinforces the notion that the only deadlines that matter are the ones attached to grades.
Short response papers are perhaps better alternatives, though they come with the downside of leaving more for the instructor to assess, and in my experience, when students perceive that they are only assigned to get them to read and aren’t the subject of much instructor attention or integration into the rest of the course, the responses tend to receive minimal, pro forma effort.
My preference, and what works best for me, is to craft a plan where students are going to have to do something with the reading in class. We’re not going to only discuss the reading (though we are going to do that), but we’re going to use it. They might have to do a rhetorical analysis, or rewrite it for a different audience, or take one side of an argument and debate it with students on the other side.
As with combating any boredom-associated issue, the key to success is providing context. Whatever I’m asking students to do has to fit within the context of whatever larger assignment is under way at that given time. Readings and class become the building blocks of the project they’re working on that has the hard deadline attached. I want students to always know how the blocks of the class fit into the larger structure of the assignment, and that missing the opportunity to work on this in class comes with a heavier cost down the line.
Because writing courses tend to be project-based work, this is relatively easy to do, but even in courses with exams as the central tool of assessment, each class period can focus around how what’s contained in the reading may show up in an exam, the type of question that is born out of that material.
Rather than attaching a grade via a quiz or response, I’m trying to model a world where we can only get to the destination if we make the necessary stops along the way. If you think about it, this is how most of us manage to complete our non-deadline work, by seeing these smaller acts as part of a larger whole and working incrementally as we can. Students have very little practice with this, mostly because we’ve never modeled it, instead choosing to move from hard deadline to hard deadline.
My goal is to demonstrate that they have significantly more agency over their work than they perceive. If I can deemphasize the “hard” deadline aspect of the course and instead focus on the incremental journey, I’ve given me and them a fighting chance.
 I have to do a lot more thinking on this, but there’s probably ways I could do more to give students greater latitude over their deadlines. This is the case in courses where I use portfolio grading at the end of the semester, rather than putting scores on things as we go.
 The most important lessons were in getting a couple book contracts with long lead times where I had to create my own urgency in order to make the actual hard deadlines. There’s no such thing as cramming when you owe a polished 60k word manuscript.
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