August 29th, 2012

Students and Reading: Round Two


I’ve found another interesting study of students and reading which dovetails nicely with the research referenced in the July 25 post. I’m thinking that as the new academic year begins and readings are being selected and assigned, it’s beneficial to keep thinking about student reading attitudes, habits and skills.

Author and faculty member Mary Hoeft starts with a scenario that is regularly recommended in the literature and ends with a couple of telling questions. Students are discussing assigned readings in small groups. They’re trying to answer a set of teacher-supplied questions that get at the essence of the readings. “As students discuss, professors circulate, eavesdropping on students actively engaged in a dissection of a reading, confident in the knowledge that students have read the assignment and understood it. But are these professors deluding themselves? Are the provocative voices that surface within groups the voices of the lonely few who have completed the assignment?” (p. 2)

To answer, Hoeft surveyed 124 students in two sections of a required first-year seminar course at the small Midwestern two-year liberal arts university where she teaches. She had four objectives in mind. She wanted to know how many students were doing the reading and if those who said they were could demonstrate a basic understanding of the material. She also wanted to compile a list of reasons why students said they did and did not do the readings, and she thought students might have ideas as to what might motivate more of them to complete the assigned readings.

Forty-six percent of these students said they were doing the reading. That’s a higher percentage than reported in several other studies cited in the article, but still not the percentage any of us would hope for and the next finding is even more distressing. To ascertain whether students had a basic understanding of the reading, Hoeft asked them to paraphrase the assignment in three sentences being as explicit as possible. Only 55% of those who reported doing the reading were able to provide a summary. Hoeft wondered if students said they were doing the reading when they weren’t because they thought that’s what the professor expected, or were their reading comprehension skills were really this dismal.

The students who said they did the reading reported they were doing so because of grade concerns and worries that the teacher might call on them in class. When surveyed again at mid-semester, grades remained the dominant reason but it was now followed by respect for the professor. Students said they knew the professor wanted them to do the reading and so they did so in an effort please her. Students who didn’t read reported they didn’t have time to read, had more important things to do, didn’t like to read and didn’t find the assigned readings of interest. They recommended giving quizzes, adding supplementary assignments to the reading (such as the completion of worksheets), and giving frequent reminders about assigned reading and pointing out interesting aspects of the reading.

Her survey instruments (they’re in the article) include lots of interesting questions and I’ve only mentioned a few features of her research design. Hoeft’s article and the one cited in the July 25 post are good pieces of scholarship but more importantly they are great illustrations of what can be learned when faculty query students about reading. I’m wondering if you’ve ever asked students about their reading of material assigned in your class. Do you know how many of them are doing the reading? How much time do they spend doing it? When do they do the reading? How well are they understanding what they’re reading? What do they see as the relationship between content in the reading and content covered in class? If Hoeft’s findings are at all representative, some of the answers might be more depressing than uplifting. Even so, knowing is better than surmising and with accurate information, it is easier to take targeted actions. That’s what Hoeft did and she’s got evidence that her new approach made a difference.

Reference: Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don’t read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6 (2).

  • Matt

    One of the hats I wear is that of an instructor in developmental writing, so of course I have to know a little about the research on development reading. I'd love to see an article in here or in The Teaching Professor on the research out there on text complexity and how it relates to first-year college students in courses like introductory psychology or sociology.

  • Dana Washington

    I generate a short on-line quiz in the course management system to make sure my first-year literature students do the reading ahead of class time. By setting the number of times a student may attempt to take the quiz as unlimited, but setting an absolute closing of the quiz at one minute before classtime, I can forego the old-fashioned pop quiz approach. The students are told that these quizzes are really more like reading guides, designed to help them notice important points, catch subtleties, recognize techniques, and finally, check their comprehension as they go (the course system permits submitting questions for a grade at any point). The quiz component counts 10% of their final grade. Although each quiz typically counts just under half a point, making each question worth a very small fraction of that half point, most students will work with the material much longer than they would otherwise because the grade is absolutely within their control. They are encouraged to work together, with books open, in person or electronically. I'll also give hints about where to look or how to think about an answer if I'm asked (usually by e-mail).

  • Deb Dougherty

    A colleague and I (both teaching upper-level Spanish courses) routinely require students to write and turn in a brief summary of the reading, a personal response or question that the reading prompted, and often an attempt to analyze some element they found intriguing. It helps them to organize their thoughts and in class if the discussion lags we can simply ask them to share something from what they have written. The extent to which we grade the collected assignments varies according to our goals.

  • Virginia Peng

    I come to this discussion from a slightly different direction as my students are all Japanese speakers, but we are required to teach a content course in English for which I have taught Economics. One of the challenges my students have, of course, is the language issue. However, this barrier aside, I have found the students will not do the readings unless they are doing a presentation on the chapter. If I am simply giving a lecture, maybe 95% of the students will not have read the chapter from what I see in their faces. If I am giving a quiz, more students will have done some of the reading. One of my colleagues provides several question online for the students to answer prior to class. While I cannot recall the deadline, students who do not answer the questions online do not get credit for that exercise. This exercise forces students to read the chapter.