July 18th, 2008

Getting Students to Read


Getting students to read their textbooks is like pulling hen’s teeth! Even syllabus language just short of death threats, firmly stated admonitions regularly delivered in class, and the unannounced quiz slapped on desks when nobody answers questions about the reading don’t necessarily change behaviors or attitudes. Rather, students remain committed to seeing to get by without doing the reading, or only doing it very superficially, or only doing it just prior to exam dates.

Most of us know the problem is bad but most of us don’t have the courage Jay R. Howard did. He started and continued surveying despite grim results. Only 40 percent of his students reported that they usually or always did the reading. Grades and reading were linked. Of the students who got C’s, D’s and F’s, only about 31 percent of them reported that they usually or always doing the reading as compared with 54 percent of students who got A’s and B’s. Even so, I think most of us would cringe if we found out that 40 percent of our best students were not regularly reading the assigned material.

I admire Howard for facing the truth and trying to do something about it. He developed a quiz mechanism—it’s described in the article referenced below—and he reports data showing that it changed students reading behavior dramatically. In the August-September issue of The Teaching Professor, there’s an article by Roberts and Roberts that presents another unique strategy designed not only to get students doing the reading but one that helps to develop college-level reading skills which many students don’t have and which is one of the reasons they so dislike reading.

What I’m seeing more clearly now is that we can’t just bemoan the fact that students don’t read. Furthermore, we don’t really get anywhere by assigning blame (especially when we end up being blameless). And finally, doing what we’ve been doing, mostly threatening and quizzing, isn’t solving the problem. The better solution involves designing the course so that students can’t do well without reading. The better solution involves assignments that require students to do more than just passively read. The assignments must be structured so that students engage and respond to the reading. A number of faculty have already arrived at this conclusion and like those summed in the August/September issue of the newsletter and Yamane (reference below), they have written about the effective ways they are getting students to do the reading.

P.S. As I regularly remind you, don’t worry that these articles are written by faculty who teach sociology. If you assign textbook reading, these assignments can be used or adapted. One of my favorite things about teaching is that we can learn much from and with each other.


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.

Yamane, D. (2006) Course preparation assignments: A strategy for creating discussion-based courses. Teaching Sociology, 36, 236-248.