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The other day, on my last day on Twitter[1], I saw a tweet lamenting a very common teaching problem—lecturing to a class of 25 to 30 students when only a handful have done the reading. 

I’ve been there, and after reading the tweet and scrolling through the various replies of commiseration and advice, I could almost feel the frustration of those moments in my own teaching experiences returning. I didn’t reply on that thread, nor am I going to link to it, because it’s clear that the original tweeter and the vast majority of the repliers are acting in good faith, not trying to demonize students, and because online discussions of these issues often devolve into various camps declaring their correctness and the other’s perfidy.

That said, I found most of the advice in the thread extremely limited and ultimately likely to be ineffective, leading to greater and greater frustration over time for both the students and the instructor. Assigning reading quizzes was by far the most popular technique mentioned, followed by cold calling and then various forms of punishment (docking grades, etc. …) for failing to do the reading.

A number of years ago, I wrote a post about what to do when students won’t do the reading that I think still has some good advice, particularly about the limits of those above recommendations, but in the intervening years, having gone deeper into my own pedagogy after writing a couple of books about it, I think I can offer not recommendations so much as a way of thinking about the issue that will help individual instructors adjust to their unique circumstances.

First, I think it’s a mistake to focus on the surface-level behavior—not reading—and then trying to change that without going below the surface. A reading quiz suggests that the problem of not reading is merely a matter applying sufficient force to engender the behavior, but the limits here should be obvious. Some additional students may read in order to pass a quiz, but this is not the same as reading to be able to critically engage and interact with a lecture, which is what the original instructor is after.

The issue is not just getting students to read in general, but getting them to read in the ways that make the reading and lecture pair in productive ways. This is a more challenging problem.

Setting aside some of what we know about the limits of lecturing as a pedagogical approach,[2] rather than sticking to a pattern of reading followed by lecture, it may be useful to reverse the equation—to lecture first in order to give students the context and necessary curiosity to be interested in and therefore engage with the reading.

Providing context first can often provoke deeper engagement. When my wife and I travel, we’re often given “reading lists” to prepare for the experience, but I never do the reading ahead of time. I need the experience first to make the reading meaningful. Considering how unfamiliar many of the subjects we teach may be to students, a little orientation prior to the reading may pay dividends.

Ultimately, though, some, probably many, students won’t do the reading. If this is the case, you can quiz and punish to your heart’s content, and that system will undoubtedly be “fair,” in that those who do the reading will get better grades than those who don’t, but I would ask if this approach maximizes the potential for learning across 30 students in a class. It is essentially a choice to leave some students behind. Yes, to a large extent this is the by-product of the student’s own choice, but we can’t ignore that it is the instructor’s choice as well.

Before making this choice, I recommend going head-on to the problem, in collaboration with the students. When it is clear that students haven’t done the reading, literally ask them why and encourage them to answer honestly. I have had these conversations many times over the years. These are the two most common answers I’ve heard, and what I think they mean.

I didn’t have time.

This is often true, but it is not always true. For this kind of response, I may ask students to recount to me (or simply to themselves) the flow of activities for the previous day. In a lot of cases, it’s clear that, dang, this student really didn’t have any time to give to what I asked them to read that day. In other cases, however, it is clear that students (like many of us) are struggling with a time-management problem and this probing may force them to confront some dysfunctions in how they go about their work.

For the former group, my recommendation is to make the reading worth doing whenever it is done, so you do not signal that the value of the reading is only contingent on a specific lecture at a specific time. These busy students are often highly conscientious. If the reading quiz they biffed because they didn’t read is gone, they’re less likely to go back and do the reading because you’ve signaled that that bit of the course is over.

For the latter group, sharing some suggestions about scheduling time for reading can help. One small thing you can do on this front when you assign reading is to share how much time you expect it to take. Reading is the kind of activity that tends to get shoved downstream for an indefinite open period that never appears. Scheduling reading as part of the overall workflow can help quite a bit.

I tried, but I didn’t get it.

The attitudes and behaviors underneath this kind of response are nearly infinite.

In some cases, we’re talking about general disengagement, which is a tough nut to crack. If a student is truly uninterested in the material and unmotivated to engage, they may have challenges that are beyond the scope of one instructor to remedy. You do your best to make the learning smorgasbord as tempting as possible, and then if they will not load their plate, there’s not much else to do. Having 30 out of 30 students prepped for every class is a bar that is difficult to clear.

In most cases, however, what we’re looking at is a lack of experience in doing the kind of reading that the instructor expects and desires. Reading is a skill, and there are lots of different kinds of reading. In talking with many students over the years, I’ve found that there is a significant disconnect between what they think of as reading and what an instructor considers reading. It is hard to overstate how limited and cramped student notions of reading can become after so much surface-level engagement (often with very short texts) in high school.

If a student says they tried to do the reading, but they didn’t get it or gave up in frustration or confusion, ask them what they did. Recreate the process so it becomes visible to all and so you can diagnose what’s going wrong inside that process.

My biggest piece of advice if reading is integral to your course is to model the kind of reading you want students to do early and often.

In a first-year writing course, this meant driving students to constantly be on the lookout not just for the meaning of what they’re reading, but to also be alert to how that meaning is conveyed, to analyze the text as a piece of rhetoric. We explicitly practiced this kind of reading all semester, over and over.

In a fiction writing course, I asked them to be alert to the emotional effect of what they were reading and then be able to zero in on the techniques that seemed to achieve that emotional effect. This is learning to “read like a writer,” again, something that must be deliberately practiced.

Show students how you expect them to read, what should be understood, questioned, extracted. Give them the tips and hacks that you have long ago internalized that help them understand how the things you want them to read are made. Show that reading is not just a random thing we take for granted, but an active, embodied practice.

None of this means that every student is going to show up prepared for class—we’re all humans, after all—but it can serve to eliminate confusion, uncertainty or lack of proper experience as barriers to reading.

Before you compel students to do something through force, it makes sense to make sure they know how to do what you want them to do.

[1] Elon’s decision to remove headlines from news links is the last straw in terms of finding any useful purpose in accessing the platform. I can’t say I’ll never post again, but it has ceased to be a useful place to go for useful information and opinion. It’s a shame.

[2] I am not as down on lecturing as some, though this is highly dependent on what we mean when we call something a “lecture.”

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