Why Won’t Students Read for Class?

Textbook imageby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

This question arises frequently in conversations with faculty from all disciplines and at all levels of teaching.  Although we’re quick to blame our attention-deficit culture – they’re too busy texting! – the fact is many students don’t do the reading for our classes because we haven’t actually taught them how.

Rather than “why won’t they read?” perhaps the more interesting question is “why don’t they?”

While there are many answers to this question, here is one of mine:

They don’t “do the reading” because they don’t know what we mean by “do the reading”.

As experts in our fields, we are pros at what I think of as “reading strategically.”  We skim when necessary, picking out the important concepts and data almost effortlessly.  We skip when necessary, reading past multiple examples for concepts we have already grasped.  And finally, we read with a motive in mind: typically we seek out the material we read because we know it will help us answer a burning question or prove a hypothesis or more fully appreciate the complexities of a topic.

Disciplinary novices don’t read this way – unless we teach them to do so.  And if they don’t know that this is what we mean by “reading,” they may see the task as motivated by a completely different goal: to put their eyes on every single word on every single page and to remember them all.  That’s a pretty daunting task, especially if they have to “read” for every course.

The fact is, our students often don’t know that reading a geology textbook is a fundamentally different act than reading a novel, or a procedure manual on flying an airplane, or primary research papers in biology.

If you find yourself frustrated with students who “won’t” read for class, ask yourself how you would like them to read.  Then, tell them that.  A little guidance on how to read strategically might just do the trick.

Do you have other ideas about why students don’t or won’t read for class?  Do you have strategies for getting them to do it?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

2 Responses to “Why Won’t Students Read for Class?”

  1. Debie,

    I love your post and couldn’t agree more: we need to reflect on what would motivate students to read and on how we can support them so they learn to read in useful and productive ways.
    As I started “flipping” my large-enrollment class, I had to think about this issue very seriously. Students need to come to class prepared for the whole flipping strategy to actually work. As you so eloquently describe, though, their reading skills in a new discipline need re-tooling and sharpening. How do we help them along the way?

    Of course, pre-recording lecture screencasts is one way: as students access these lectures on their own time and at their own pace, they get some of that expert “filtering” and rewording of the content, which may otherwise appear quite cryptic and inaccessible as laid out on the textbook page. I like thinking of these screencasts as ways of scaffolding students’ reading, an opportunity for the instructor to point out what aspects of content students should focus on while reading.
    However, that is still quite an “instructionist” approach, and we know that is not enough: students need to be engaged and take an active part in their reading.
    Students need to be motivated to read, and how do we “nudge” them if they are not intrinsically motivated?
    A just-in-time approach to reading assessments is, in my experience, quite fruitful. Every time there are readings, there is also an associated homework, including questions that span the whole Bloom’s taxonomy spectrum (from “let’s make sure you read THIS” to “did you understand what this means”, to “explain how this concept may apply to the specific case of…”). Having students turn in their work electronically, with enough lead time before class, allows me to find out what they already understand on their own and what needs to be reworked in class. So, we have a starting point for class problem-solving, and that is provided by the outcomes of the reading homework.
    Adding a couple of really challenging questions each time (stretching across Bloom’s levels) has also revealed very useful, as in response students will generate questions that THEY now want to figure out the answer to…

    As all (most?) of what we do in teaching, none of this is new, but a combination of ideas that we can put to good use.

  2. I love that “combo” approach — and I hadn’t really thought about how screencasting could be one way to teach and reinforce different ways of reading.

    Definitely, assessments (quizzes, short discussion posts, etc.) can motivate students to make their way through reading material. I especially like the range of assessments you build in — not just to help you see IF they read, but also to see if they understand, etc. The fact that you take their comprehension of reading into account as you develop class plans also creates motive — they are helping to shape the content of class time, and you aren’t spending time rehashing things everyone clearly understood.

    Great ideas, Elena!