November 20th, 2008

When Students Don’t Do the Reading


Students not doing the reading or other assigned homework—I’ve already done more than several blog posts on the topic and lots of articles in the newsletter. Hopefully all the “coverage” has offered grist for your thinking and new strategies worth trying. Despite all the previous “coverage,” I’m still finding there is more to be shared on the topic.

I’ve just finished reading Terry Doyle’s new book Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment and would definitely recommend it to folks interested in learner-centered pedagogies (it can be ordered at

In a chapter on promoting independent learning, Doyle asks why students are unprepared to learn on their own. He uses reading assignments as an example. “Students don’t do their reading and other assigned prep work because, based on their experience, they believe that teachers will discuss any important information included in the readings during class.” (p. 67)

How does he know that? Well, Doyle facilitates faculty learning communities where faculty explore a range of instructional issues. Doyle has each faculty participant identify a student consultant. He recommends selecting one majoring in the faculty member’s content area. Faculty then consult with that student on those instructional strategies and approaches the faculty member is considering implementing. (Isn’t that a great idea?) The faculty learning community invites all these students to a session during which students share their thoughts about teaching and learning. During that exchange faculty always ask the students why so many of their classmates don’t do their reading assignments. “The nearly unanimous answer, and this comes from some very bright and motivated learners, is that students don’t read the material because they feel confident the teacher will always review the important points in the textbook during lecture. They often add a comment about teachers loving to talk.” (p. 67)

It doesn’t take a lot of intellectual insight to come up with a way to fix that problem. Now, most students also don’t read because they aren’t very good at it and so expecting them to get what needs to be gotten out of the reading on their own will be a daunting task that few will complete successfully. So, students will still need help, but does it really help them learn how to read when what they need to know from the reading is regularly reviewed in class?

—Maryellen Weimer

  • LGD

    OK, call me out of touch with the latest research, but I expect my students to do the reading ahead of class for several reasons–

    so that I _don’t_ have to review it in class;

    because I have only enough time in class to skim over the reading content if they haven’t done the reading;

    so that class discussion can follow up in depth with one or more of the key points from the reading that I want to stress. Especially if that discussion is the basis for the next step in the class outcomes.

    Now even after the first few times that the students find out that we can’t proceed further unless they have done the reading, and even after their assignment grades reveal that the reading would have been helpful, they still won’t do the reading.

    Now what?

  • Dispersemos

    @LGD. The expectation seems perfectly reasonable to me. If the reading is required to fulfill a course outcome and the students don’t complete the reading, they fail to achieve the outcome.

    If grades are not sufficient motivation (as I believe they are often not, especially in required courses), then it seems that students may need help buying into the course outcomes. A key question for me is: How to get students on board with course goals from the start so that there is intrinsic motivation to do the work?

    It’s a huge challenge, but I think getting students to develop intrinsic motivation makes the most difference in their willingness to do things like course readings.

  • DG

    I came up with a simple solution to the problem. I recalled from my school days that some teachers gave quizzes on the reading material. Even when I didn't feel particularly motivated to read the material, it somehow got me into it. So now, with my grad students, I give several "pop quizzes" with questions they'd have great difficulty answering without having read the material and it really seems to do the trick.