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.

  • William

    This discussion is extremely valuable as we continue to deal with the challenge of engaging students with learning materials. I was having a conversation on this just the other day and my colleague reflected on the fact that university was the place where you go to learn HOW to learn.

    The question of reading skills and levels are both excellent observations. We might also consider two point. First, the depth of reading – there are students who are convinced that they have completed the reading once they hit the last page; however, at no point did they engage with the material. Do they have the ability to recall? Are they questioning terms and looking them up? And, from the front of the room, are we asking them questions that set expectations for engagement?

    The second point is working with the medium of the textbook. Our students are quite adept at pulling video content, using wikis as sources of data, and skimming the surface level of communication inherent with the ubiquitous social media. When are they taught how to engage with the text itself? Here, I refer to the nuts and bolts of reading, note taking, summarizing, and attaching examples.

    Every couple of years, Billy Joel holds a masters class about the music industry; he has been doing this for years. His goal is to talk about a) how to write songs and b) how to do 'the gig'. Quickly, he dispels any notion that he'll philosophize about music – this is a 'how to' class in which process is discussed.

    Looking forward to learning from the rest of you!

  • Kathryn

    Reading is a HUGE issue for college students. There are several points to consider.

    Many students have had poor preparation in reading. I say this as a former K-12 teacher and administrator, not as an outsider. We could waste time on blame, or we can help students learn to read the kinds of materials we want them to read in college. Not all reading is the same. Every discipline has its own expectations for print professionals use. We need to help them understand how to read like a ___ (fill in the blank with the profession for which they are preparing).

    Another issue is the reading level and density of information in college texts. When we choose textbooks, we need to be aware of the reading level of the book, and of the kinds of helps built into the text. What seems perfectly understandable to people who are thoroughly engaged in the subject, may be incomprehensible to others. Further, just because a textbook says it is for undergraduates doesn’t mean it actually is. Even if a readability test says a text is for, say, a 12th grade reading level, doesn’t mean that the students reading it are at that level.

    The idea of reading an entire chapter seems to be overwhelming to many students. I have learned to list page numbers instead of chapters in assignments. Somehow saying “read pages 3 through 32” goes over better. I have no scientific research to back that up, but students tell me it “feels better” when they see they have so many pages to read than the idea of a whole chapter or multiple chapters. Similarly, students seem more willing to read something for each class meeting than for a week. This has led me to create syllabi that specify what will happen on each day, and to specify what the preparation is for each class.

    Students often have no background knowledge that can help them understand what they read. They tell me that readings that have many new concepts or a lot of new vocabulary are difficult to read before class. I’ve experimented with having students read the book after we’ve talked about some of the concepts and gone over some of the vocabulary. It seems to help. I have also been trying out assigning on-line readings or videos that are simple overviews of material we will look at more in depth in class. I have the students read or view that first, then read the appropriate portion of the textbook for the following class.

    Many students have learned in middle and high school to squeak by without reading or by doing what Cris Tovani calls “fake reading.” If they’ve managed to get through high school that way, they tend to try to do the same for college. We often encourage this kind of behavior by lecturing on exactly what is in the textbook. Many times I’ve eavesdropped on student conversations about which professors and classes are those where one actually needs to buy the textbook. Those conversations have led me to try to make class about enhancing the information the students were supposed to have gained from the text, or for new information not in the text. That way I’m not making the textbook unnecessary.

    Many students believe that college classes are something to endure, an inconvenience between high school and career that interferes with “real life.” Our society exacerbates this attitude by promoting the idea that “real life” is the time spent away from work (or school). I do not know how to fix that. I do, however, explain in each class that the expectation is that they will do 3 to 6 hours of work outside of class per week for every three credit class they take. Students scoff and tell me that they’ve never had to do any kind of work outside of a class before. Perhaps we need to start expecting that again.

    I, too, have begun to give assignments based upon readings. The one I’ve had the most success with is what I call “reaction cards.” I have students turn in 4X6” cards for each assigned reading. On the front of the card students are to write 3 things they learned from the reading, and a reaction to that info. On the back they write questions about what they’ve read. The size of the card makes the assignment less intimidating and forces students to summarize. It takes me a while to read through the cards for each class – thankfully I do not have classes over 30! I try to respond to this or that on each card with a sentence or two or even just a word. The questions help me understand what students are having difficulty with and allow me to adjust instruction accordingly.

    I would surely appreciate more and better ideas!

  • Barry

    Kathryn, I appreciated your anecdotes and especially your ideas and tips. Have you written for Teaching Professor newsletter yet?

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