There’s no arguing with Ryan’s (2009) observation that “coming to class prepared and with some background knowledge transforms students from passive to active learners” (para. 3). But how to get our students to this state of “transformation readiness” is an age-old issue challenging most instructors throughout their careers. I’m sure the struggle also extends to my own students, who are aspiring or practicing language-teaching professionals juggling multiple personal, academic, and professional demands. Research shows that reasons for not completing reading assignments also include factors such as reading comprehension, low student self-confidence, and lack of interest in the topic (e.g., Lei, Bartlett, Gorney, & Herschbach, 2010).
Reflecting on my own teaching, I find this is an area I continue to ponder and experiment with to attain desired learning outcomes. If you’ve been thinking about the same things, a quick look at Faculty Focus will turn up many excellent posts by instructors sharing how they get students to do the reading (e.g., Gee, 2014; Weimer, 2012; Van Gyn, 2013; also the Faculty Focus  special report).
Beyond that, however, is a paucity of research in this specific area; moreover, that which does exist seems to focus mainly on extrinsic-oriented ways to enforce “compliance,” such as giving pop quizzes, adding extra writing assignments, introducing extra discussion credit points, or providing optional reading guides or questions (e.g., Hatteberg & Steffy, 2013; Lei, Bartlett, Gorney, & Herschbach, 2010; Sappington, Kinsey, & Munsayac, 2002). From the instructor’s perspective, such strategies don’t sound particularly motivating, nor are they likely to get our students excited about reading or developing a perspective that values learning. As we all know, grades do not necessarily reflect students’ engagement, and engagement is much more than mere compliance. Through giving more tests and assigning more papers, might we inadvertently be “helping” create more disengaged achievers?
In response to Weimer’s (2015) question “Are there any other alternatives?” (para. 6), I find the following three strategies have worked, with acceptable varying degrees of success, among my graduate, undergraduate, and diploma-level students alike. Although different instructional, contextual, and learner variables may affect how well they work for you, the level of frustration arising from unproductive discussions because students (on average over 70%, Weimer, 2015) haven’t read the readings is likely to be reduced.
1. Providing choice to promote student ownership. Providing choice deals with “students’ perceptions that their teachers provide opportunities for participation in decision making related to academic tasks [and] allow for student input into class discussion” (Wang & Eccles, 2013, p. 14). In all my courses, students are always given options to (a) select a topic within the course’s scope where they’d like to develop expertise, (b) select from a list of two or three readings for consideration to assume the role of discussion facilitator, or (c) propose a relevant reading or readings to share with the group. As I have repeatedly discovered, when students choose a reading to assume the role of discussion facilitator, they tend to approach the reading differently and, in so doing, advance their own knowledge of the topic more deeply than they would in the role of discussant. This approach leads to greater engagement with both process and product of the reading exploration.
As Chan et al. (2014) noted, “Asking for input on and giving students choices about [readings and how to explore them] helps students understand that their input is valued, which sets the stage for successful student ownership” (p. 111). More importantly, the way we think about how such a sense of ownership emerges must go beyond what lies within the student; we need to consider how the different components within the entire learning system of a course interact. When our students can voice an opinion and make decisions about readings, they feel “ownership” because suddenly they have a personal stake in the content, process, and product of that choice. Granted, not all courses can offer such options, but where possible, you can ask yourself, Is there a way to add student choice about readings into my course that promotes a sense of ownership?
2. Providing different ways for students to demonstrate they’ve done the reading. How do you assess whether your students have done the reading? Through quizzes, exams, discussions, a summary or reflective writing piece, or final paper? I teach mainly upper-level courses, and so smaller classes make it easier to consider various “informal” ways students can demonstrate their engagement in and understanding of the recommended/chosen readings. I also don’t require students to purchase textbooks, because there are plenty of level-appropriate, interest-matching articles, either open access or accessible through the library. Over the past decades, I have tried, for example, the following approaches:
- Have a sign-up sheet for two to three students to self-select a time/topic for facilitating a warm-up discussion as a team for each week. Members of the facilitating group may also work together to come up with questions to share with the class by posting them at least three days before the discussion. Sharing questions provides everyone a chance to mull them over and request elaboration if they’re unclear.
- Alternatively, invite students to contribute questions to the discussion to be facilitated by the scheduled team. I require that these questions be posted to the group’s private website at least three days before the class. This allows (i) the session to address questions of concern and interest to the students, (ii) the questions to be thoughtfully integrated into the discussion by the student facilitators and the session to be planned by the instructor as a whole, (iii) all students to have an opportunity to think about the questions before class, and (iv) the facilitating team or the instructor to acknowledge contributions and channel thinking toward areas to focus on within the allocated time.
- Encourage the student facilitators to consider how questions from (a) and/or (b) can be grouped and synthesized in organizing/planning the discussion segment. The warm-up nature of the task necessitates they be selective (through synthesizing/reorganizing and/or collective voting on, say, the top five questions for the warm-up) of the questions they wish to share with their peers. The warm-up discussion is meant to be quite informal and flexible, and students are encouraged to experiment with different formats to get everyone involved. While some students may choose to operate within their comfort zones using the traditional discussion style, I have also been pleasantly surprised at the many ingenious and often fun, engaging ways my students have brought a discussion to life. I often stress that at this stage of their learning, I want them to feel free to explore what they’re reading, and not to worry about task guidelines (often sought by students with lower tolerance for ambiguity or who prefer structures) to follow. Instead, encourage students to let their own and their peers’ needs (through the questions contributed by everyone) take center stage during the discussion. I often weave questions that don’t get picked up during the warm-up discussion into my teaching to ensure that students see their individual questions from their reading are valued.
The benefits of including a seemingly straightforward discussion-facilitation task go beyond getting the students to approach their reading in ways different from how they would if they were not facilitating. These include (as I always explicitly state in a one-page task information sheet) helping students:
- learn to generate questions meaningful to them and that may be of interest to their peers, and to promote dialogic exchanges among their peers—both essential skills to the work of language-teaching professionals;
- advance their own and their peers’ thinking regarding various topics/questions through exploring those put forward by the team and peers;
- achieve a deeper level of thinking and take ownership of their chosen topic/reading; and
- develop their skills as a facilitator or team facilitator, a life skill applicable both professionally and personally.
3. Providing a post-discussion summary post capturing key contributions. Instead of asking each student to submit a reflective post in writing or by audio-recording, which has its own pedagogical benefits and limitations, I have tried sharing a summary post. I call this my “reflective feedback,” attending to the principle of SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Specific: highlight contributions made by individuals during the informal warm-up discussion. A side note: I typically sit in a corner, observing and taking field notes, and am not directly observable by the students, whatever the seating arrangement. This strategy helps me be very concrete in my feedback in acknowledging both specific and overall contributions made by the students individually and collectively while also highlighting the takeaway points from each discussion. It is also a way to make learning observable in that those thoughts and ideas become shared objects about which further questions and thinking can be explored and built upon within oneself or among the group (Wells, 2000). Measurable: provide a summarizing post no longer than a page. Attainable: ask one or two follow-up questions requiring students to read the post and draw on their experience. Relevant: when possible, selectively link points to individual students’ interests, experiences, and previous sessions. Time-based: I always share the post the very next day on the private class website; this time frame creates a bit of distance from the event, but it’s immediate enough that the memory is still fresh. Finally, a trail of such summarizing posts also helps students write a brief, personal reflection at the course’s end about what they’ve learned.
In addition to class feedback, in my feedback to the facilitation team I usually include some guiding questions that members might consider asking themselves to help develop metacognition in learning through self-reflection (Lang, 2012).
- Have I gained a better/different understanding of the topic through my chosen reading(s) and discussion with my peers? In what ways can my new understanding inform my practices?
- Have I broadened my thinking or generated new thoughts or ideas not previously formulated? In what area(s) have my thinking and understanding reached new levels?
- Have I helped my peers clarify their thinking on various questions/issues that concern them, and in doing so clarified my own thinking?
- Contentwise, in what areas of my reading(s) do I need to clarify my understanding or follow up on? What are some ideas I can apply to my current or future work?
- Processwise, what have I learned about my ability to promote dialogic exchanges? What can I do differently the next time I facilitate a discussion (an emic perspective) or participate in one (an etic perspective)?
Bonus Idea: Leave one topic open. Among the key topics listed in the course outline, I always leave one open for those who either cannot figure out at least one area of interest, or who are definite about a specific topic that’s not included. Consider having an open topic option to accommodate and value personal interests in the course content and encourage developing those interests. Weave throughout the readings the central idea of teaching for relevance, where “students feel a sense of autonomy when doing work that . . . relates to their interests and has personal meaning . . . provides opportunities for self-exploration . . . and the activities provided are meaningful, relevant, and related to personal interests and goals” (Wang & Eccles, 2013, p. 14).
I have discovered that instead of those methods commonly mentioned in articles for reinforcing reading compliance, taking an informal approach gives students (a) an option to choose readings meaningful or personally relevant to them; (b) an opportunity to take ownership of their chosen topic/reading(s) through facilitating a warm-up discussion; (c) a way to contribute input to the discussion’s process and product; (d) the experience of contributing to the success of each other’s discussion sessions, indirectly encouraging reading, collaboration, and reciprocal exchanges; and (e) a glimpse of what they can accomplish by embracing their role as facilitator, with process and product directly relevant to their interests and goals as language-teaching professionals. This combination of approaches dynamically embedded in the learning system can create powerful momentum and interest among students in what their peers have chosen to explore.
As Weimer (2012) pointed out: “Few (if any) instructional strategies are universally effective, and few (if any) accomplish all learning objectives equally well” (para. 7). I couldn’t agree more. As long as we do what we do, each course or instruction/learning session is a mini-adventure—a challenge requiring a unique combination of strategies. The perpetual state of change characteristic of what we do requires that we never stop experimenting by attending to the multidimensional nature of active engagement. What will you experiment with this semester to motivate your students to do the reading?
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Wang, M. T., & Eccles, J. S. (2013). School context, achievement motivation, and academic engagement: A longitudinal study of school engagement using a multidimensional perspective. Learning and Instruction, 28, 12-23.
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Dr. Li-Shih Huang is an associate professor of applied linguistics, Department of Linguistics, and the learning and teaching scholar-in-residence, Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria, BC, Canada. She is also the recipient of the 2014 Humanities Teaching Excellence Award.
This article first appeared in Faculty Focus on September 25, 2015. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.