“How do you get students to read their assignments for class?”

The Professional Development Center at CLC sends out campus-wide monthly emails with a question or writing prompt about pedagogical practice. This was the prompt for September 2012:

Do your students read the assigned readings before coming to class?
What is your secret???  A common complaint among faculty is that students often fail to have read their assigned readings prior to coming to class.  But there ARE ways to incentivize students to read!

And here is my response:

I’m trying something new this semester. I started this because I’m teaching 3 sections of English 121, and that’s a lot of grading. This was really a combination of an attempt to lessen my out-of-class workload, an attempt to get my students to prepare better for class, and an attempt to get them to engage more with the research process and not just spew out a lot of half-baked prose just before a paper is due.

First, I spent some time the first couple days of class teaching them how to read and take notes on the assigned text. The notetaking includes talking back to the text by writing in it (or on sticky notes, stuck on the pages), selecting important points to record rather than copying everything, using images and maps to crystallize and synthesize new ideas, and writing short reflective paragraphs after each chapter. I told them that *this kind of notetaking* is where great papers come from, especially the reflective paragraphs that connect what they are reading with what they already know and explore their ideas and questions. I told them that I hate being bored, and I have to read a lot of papers this semester, and if they write something boring I might give them a lower grade.

Second, I explained to the students that knowledge gets made in groups, and that they were going to practice that this semester. I organized each class into groups and assigned a group leader. Group leaders and group members each have responsibilities for helping everyone in the group to understand and complete their work, but they are not to do each other’s work, and they are graded individually on their work. Their group participation is part of a participation grade that is built into their final grade for the semester. The point is to learn to cooperate and to practice group knowledge-making, including establishing credibility, observing rules of courtesy, and listening to diverse viewpoints. Groups get rearranged twice during the semester, for a total of three groups per student over the course of the semester. With five groups per class, that means 15 students per class get the chance to be group leader. I usually have my students discuss a topic in their groups and then we discuss it as a class, to give the quiet students a chance to participate more.

Third, I take some time most days while they are doing group activities (led by their group leader) to stop by each group and check off their completed notes on a chart in my teaching binder. I get to see what they are doing and ask them what is working well. I also get to suggest specific improvements and tell the students when they have written something I want them to share in the class discussion. The students see that their work gets attention, and they appear to be encouraged to think more deeply, engage with the text, and participate in class discussion.

So far, it’s working. The students are doing masses of generalized notetaking and not so much reflective writing yet, but I am moving them toward reflective writing one student at a time. The fact that they are trying so hard and are very receptive to my appreciation and suggestions is encouraging. Also, the preparation of purposeful notetaking and group discussion prior to class discussion has greatly improved the quality of our class discussions, because I’m not the only one talking anymore.


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