January 13th, 2011

More on Students and Reading


Last week’s “Sink or Skim” blog post on students and reading generated some comments! Yes! Thank you!

Dave shared his daily quizzing strategy which he describes as “brief but challenging.” His approach includes several noteworthy design features. First, before the quiz students can ask him about anything in the chapter this is unclear to them. Then they take the 10 question multiple-choice quiz. After that they retake the quiz in groups of three and their score is an average of the two quiz scores.

There is no question that quizzes work—they get students (well, most students) doing the reading before they come to class and Dave is so right. The caliber of discussion when students are prepared is so much better. However, it seems to me quizzes are a short term solution. They are powered by extrinsic motivation—students are reading because they have to not because they understand that material in the text is relevant, important and having read it beforehand enables them to give and get more out of a class session. I know that sounds like pie in the sky—imagine students reading because they want to or even because they have discovered that there are benefits to reading beyond quiz points.

Why don’t students see the value of course-related reading? Why don’t they understand that professors assign reading for very good reasons? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I wonder if part of the problem is that so many of our students struggle to read college-level materials. They are not good readers and if you don’t have much in the way of reading skills, then learning anything from the material has got to be a struggle. Does a quizzing strategy help students develop more sophisticated reading skills? Or, do they learn how to find the answers to likely quiz questions?

During the past several years I’ve run into several articles describing activities that successfully get students coming to class prepared at the same time they work on developing good reading skills. Almost all of these I’ve highlighted either in the blog or the Teaching Professor newsletter so I won’t repeat the content, but I will share references to these articles. Never mind that they might be in discipline-based pedagogical journals not in your field. I can assure you that each of the strategies described in these articles (and each is different) can be used in any course where text and reading material are assigned.

All of them have students responding, usually in writing to the assigned reading. And here’s where quizzes have the real advantage: if you recycle the quiz questions and your only task is marking the answers, then quizzing is a time efficient strategy. The thought of having to read and grade more sets of papers can cause many faculty to back away from these kinds of class preparation assignments. These articles contain a number of good suggestions for making that a manageable task. Sometimes we hold ourselves to impossible standards. If we’re going to have students respond to the reading prior to coming to class, we think we must have them respond to multiple prompts for every assigned reading. Noble but unrealistic. Perhaps it’s a combination of quizzing and written responses, or perhaps its written responses with only some submitted for grading.

Teaching and learning are way too complex for definitive do’s and don’ts. Quizzes are not wrong or bad—Dave’s strategy is a commendable one. I like how it gives students a chance to benefit by sharing what they’ve gleaned from the reading. I think the more salient point is that with any instructional strategy, it’s useful to parse out its effects on learning.

Howard. J. R., (2004). Just in time teaching in sociology or how I convinced my students to actually read the assignment. Teaching Sociology, 32, 385-90.

Roberts, J. C., and Roberts, K. A., (2008). Deep reading, cost/benefit, and the construction of meaning: Enhancing reading comprehension and deep learning in sociology courses. Teaching Sociology, 36, 125-140.

Tomasek, T. , (2009). Critical reading: Using reading prompts to promote active engagement with text. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21 (1), 127-32.

Yamane, D. , (2006). Course preparation assignments: A strategy for creating discussion-based courses. Teaching Sociology, 34, 236-248.