Getting Students to Read

We have all experienced students who do not read and students who depend on the yellow highlighter of used textbooks.  While we may be tempted to blame students for apathy toward reading, we need to remember that good teaching techniques can significantly increase students’ compliance with course reading requirements.  What are the factors that actually contribute to student reading apathy?

Why Don’t Students Read?

Faculty factors that contribute to student reading disengagement:

  • Not using the reading in class
  • Lectures that summarize the reading for the students
  • Failure to hold students accountable for the reading
  • Unrealistic expectations about students’ reading abilities
  • Failure to make reading relevant for students
  • Failure to “scaffold” difficulty and content of reading

Student factors that contribute to reading noncompliance

  • Students become overwhelmed when they cannot keep up with the reading.
  • Students sometimes lack the general and/or discipline knowledge to benefit fully from the reading.
  • Students fail to relate the relevancy of the reading to the course.
  • Students do not recognize a sufficient payoff for reading the materials.
  • Students think that reading before the exam is sufficient.

Learning Factors Related to Reading Compliance

Reading apathy is correctable by relating reading to a sound understanding of learning and by effectively planning to use the reading systemically within the class.

Readings must be related to students’ prior knowledge.

Each discipline in higher education has its own nomenclature that students must master.  Good instructors help students by relating new terms and ideas to information that students already know.  The importance of relating new materials to prior knowledge is evident in an experiment developed by Bransford and Johnson that showed the importance of prior knowledge to understanding.  They tested students’ comprehension of the following paragraph with the only variable being that some students received a prior knowledge prompt.  How much of the following paragraph can you remember?

The procedure is actually quite simple.  First, you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup.  Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do.  If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set.  It is important not to overdo any particular endeavor.  That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many.  In the short run, this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise.  A mistake can be expensive as well.  The manipulation of the appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory, and we need not dwell on it here.  At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated.  Soon, however, it will become just another fact of life.  It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell.  (“Contextual Prerequisites for Understanding,” Journal of Verbal Learning 11, 722)

Comprehension of the paragraph without the benefit of connecting the material to prior knowledge was substantially lower.  However, students who were told that the paragraph was about washing clothes scored much better in comprehension than students who heard the paragraph without prior knowledge of the topic.  If prior knowledge can influence the understanding and comprehension of a paragraph about doing laundry, one can only imagine how more complex texts would benefit by relating materials to prior knowledge.   

Remember that reading acuity is sharpened over time and diminished with non-use.

Reading entails a developmental process. According to Katherine Snow, “The process of comprehension has a macrodevelopmental aspect.  It changes over time, as the reader matures and develops cognitively, as the reader gains increasing experience with more challenging texts, and as the reader benefits from instruction” (Reading for Understanding, 13).  Teachers should plan their courses with an awareness of this development.  Texts and readings should progressively build students’ understanding of the subject.  Easier readings should set the stage for increasingly more difficult readings to allow students to develop over the course of the semester.   

All learning requires sustained active employment. 

If a student does not use the information, they will forget it.  Reading must be systemic to the work of the course.

Many students think that reading only requires plowing through the assigned pages.  They fail to realize that good readers actively engage the text to gain an understanding of the materials.  Help your students to read actively by giving them assignments that ask them to do something with the reading.  “Assignments that ask students to do something with what they have to read – to answer questions, to summarize the ideas, to think of an example, to defend or challenge an assertion, to write a question for discussion – usually bring students to class better prepared for discussion” (Prichard and Sawyer, Handbook of College Teaching, 348).

Reading engagement requires a payoff.  It must be part of your assessment of student learning.

In My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, Rebekah Nathan discovered that students are insightful when deciding to read or not read an assignment.  Your students ask themselves the following questions when deciding whether to read:

  • “Will there be a test or a quiz on the material?”
  • “Is the reading something that I will need in order to be able to do the homework?”
  • “Will we directly discuss this in class in such a way that I am likely to have to personally and publicly respond or otherwise ‘perform’ in relation to this reading?”

Students decide to read based on the “payoff.”  If an assigned reading has no real benefit in terms of course performance, students will not read.  To increase the likelihood that students read assignments, you must intentionally use the reading in your formal and informal assessment of learning.  When students know that quizzes and exams will include the assigned reading material, or that they will have to discuss the reading in class, they will be more likely to comply with reading assignments.