Getting your students to read
How can we help students engage with the readings we assign?Jan 2, 2023
Up to 85% of students do not read the assigned readings for their courses.
As academics and educators, we know the readings we assign are crucial for helping students learn new knowledge and prepare for our class discussions. However, only 15% of students read the assigned materials (Deale & Lee, 2021)! How can we help students engage with these readings?
Over the past twenty years, studies have indicated that students are reading slower and comprehending less. In fact, today’s entering university students are reading 19% slower than their counterparts from fifty years ago. These inefficient reading skills lead to difficulties with both comprehension and motivation because if the reading is super difficult, students won't find it enjoyable. Additionally, students often underestimate the significance of completing required readings. (Johnson, 2019; Shnee, 2017; Lei et al., 2010).
These reasons often result in a lack of class participation, rich conversations, and poor performance on assessments.
Why don’t students read?
A comprehensive study (Kerr & Frese, 2016) identified four main reasons university students don’t engage with course readings:
- Unpreparedness due to language deficit
- Time constraints
- Lack of motivation
- Underestimating the importance of the readings.
“Unpreparedness” is a concerning finding, as it highlights deficits in language understanding and use. Many students have limited knowledge of technical disciplinary terms leading to additional struggles to understand the assigned readings (Macgregor & Folinazzo, 2017). Additionally, students’ previous experiences, including whether English is a first or primary language, can play a role in their perception of, and attitudes towards, assigned readings.
Students vary in how they manage assigned reading materials. Some review the readings, take notes, look up summaries, or translate unknown words. Some don't use any of these metacognitive reading strategies because they are not aware of effective reading skills.
Take ownership: Don’t blame the problem solely on students
The engagement with readings is often seen as an exclusively student-centered problem. Instead, educators need to reconsider the methods used to integrate assigned academic literature into the course design.
Research indicates that educators struggle to clearly communicate the rationale for why students need to read and how these texts contribute to their learning (Bhavsar, 2019). We need to recognize different student personalities and anxieties. We need to develop flexible ways for students to interact with academic literature.
But don’t students know that reading matters? Maybe, but educators regularly engage with complex papers, books, and reports. Over the years, we have developed effective approaches to tackling academic literature. Additionally, academics often forget how long it used to take to read literature.
Most students have limited, if any, exposure to such texts. Many have low reading confidence (Kimberley & Thursby, 2020). This results in situations where students face a black box (of readings) and are simply expected to know what to do with it, how to do it, and, importantly, why. This scenario is particularly likely for many first-year, first-generation, and/or international students (Zeivots, 2021).
Ideas for in-class strategies:
- Gradually increase informed learning concepts and strategies
- Gradually increase informed learning concepts and strategies to help students develop critical academic skills. Invite the Learning Resources Center to speak briefly with your class about reading strategies and time management techniques.
- Invite students to apply the readings to real-life experience
- Invite students to apply the readings to real-life experience, longer assignments, or projects. Activities with clear longer-term agendas engage students and allow educators to observe how students grasp new information. Students are often more motivated to read when it directly ties to these longer-term agendas (Major & Miller, 2020).
- Provide a safe space for students
- Provide a safe space for students to clarify confusing aspects. Weekly reading groups, talking circles, or other collaborations enable students to share and ask genuine questions (Kerr & Frese, 2016). These conversations can encourage students to tackle complex content.
Ideas for pre-class strategies:
- Gradually introduce technical or disciplinary terms.
- Trying to learn too many at once can put undue cognitive load on students (Macgregor & Folinazzo, 2017). Don’t assume students know all specific terms from the start.
- Have students participate in pre-class activities online
- Implement PollEverywhere or use Canvas tools like quizzes to provide a low-stakes or ungraded quiz after a chunk of reading that reinforces important concepts. Using collaborative tools like PollEverywhere allows students to make reading more active, visible, and more social.
- Have students record a brief reflection and comment to each other about the reading using a tool like Flip.
- Offer clear expectations and strategies on what, how, and why to read.
- Demonstrate your own reading strategies to students. You can use the Metacognitive Awareness of Reading Strategies Inventory (MARSI) to help students become more aware of new academic reading strategies (Mokhtari & Reichard, 2002). Invite students to practice different approaches, including unfamiliar to them reading strategies.