When my colleague, Madeleine, and I sat down to discuss why students don’t read, we began the conversation with a recap of all the reading we were behind on. Madeleine was happy to share a resource on mind-mapping that she warned me she hadn’t yet finished, whereas I complained about the 10-book stack of dissertation reading that has been glaring at me since November. The irony of the situation was not lost on us.
As instructors, we often rely on reading material to construct productive lessons in class or reinforce tricky concepts students typically struggle with, but when students don’t appear to be doing the reading, it ends up being counterproductive. So, how do we support and encourage our students to read? In our research, we found that students don’t read for several reasons:
- Time. Students often have many commitments that eat away at their reading time: part-time jobs, clubs or sports, and full course loads. Wake Forest University’s Workload Estimator can help you estimate just how long it takes a student to read and understand dense material.
- Money. The price of textbooks often promotes book-sharing, cheaper (and less reliable) additions or PDFs, or even forgoing the textbook entirely. Luckily, at IU, our IU eTexts program has been successful in giving students access to course materials at a reduced cost.
- Motivation. Students are incredibly strategic in the way they approach their assignments (a gesture towards the issue of time above), so reading assignments, which often do not come accompanied with clear feedback either in the form of an instructor response or points, gets pushed to the wayside. Making direct connections between the reading and what students do in class can help make the value of reading explicit.
- Confidence. Many students lack confidence in their reading skills, which can cause them to procrastinate or avoid reading assignments. Additionally, students have varying experiences and confidence with different genres: novels, scientific articles, or historical documents all have their own set of strategies that experts, like instructors, can discuss in the classroom.
- Language barriers. If your text is heavy in technical terms or jargon, students can easily become frustrated and discouraged. Multilingual students also can face unique challenges when it comes to reading-heavy courses. Addressing and normalizing these topics through targeted activities, like the Vocabulary Builder below, can ease students into tricky texts.
Strategies to support your students:
- Reading Charts. Courtney Fecske, from the School of Public Health, generates reading charts for her students to guide them through her reading assignments. As part of filling out the reading charts, students note key concepts, reflect and apply these concepts, and write down questions and connections to previous course concepts.
- Reading Responses/Reflections. Gabrielle Stecher, from the English Department, uses reading response worksheets that ask her students for observations, connections, and questions. Keeping the first response ungraded, she encourages her students to be mindful of their own reading habits, or “readerly rhythms,” and shares her own experience with reading practices, reminding them that even someone whose career centers on reading and writing is not a perfect reader at all hours.
- Vocabulary Builder. If your readings contain vocabulary that students are not familiar with, you might consider ways to encourage students to define the terms and add these terms to their vocabulary. I have found that using a few minutes of class time to define a few tricky words from the reading and keeping a running tally of how often students can use them throughout class is a fun and effective way to build vocabulary skills.
- Student Choice. Li-Shih Huang, from the University of Victoria, helps students take ownership over their reading through having students select readings that interest them or working in groups to facilitate discussion.
- Reading Circles. Jane Gee, from Temple University, assigns groups of students to Reading Circles to encourage students through peer accountability. Each Reading Circle selects their own texts, and students have assigned roles such as the Questioner, Summarizer, and Connector to keep in mind while reading.
- Annotation Software. You might also consider utilizing annotation software, particularly if you are using eTexts for your course. IU offers access to Hypothes.is through Canvas to promote textual engagement. Using this type of software helps students learn from one another and allows you to see if students are understanding the text.
Supporting students and engaging them through targeted reading activities like those listed above can make a big impact on their performance in your course and throughout their educational career. If you want to talk more about how to address reading in your class, contact the CITL for a consultation. Be sure to also keep an eye out for upcoming workshops on teaching important interdisciplinary skills, including concept-mapping!
References and further reading:
Anderson, Kelli. “Students Are Reading Slower and Comprehending Less. Here’s What To Do About It.” EdSurge. 24 September 2019.
Gee, Jane. “Reading Circles Get Students to Do the Reading.” The Teaching Professor. 1 January 2013.
Huang, Li-Shih. “Three Ways to Promote Student Ownership of Reading Assignments.” Faculty Focus. 15 March 2019.
Johnson, Steven. “The Fall, and Rise, of Reading.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 21 April 2019.
Kerr, Mary Margaret and Kristen M. Frese. “Reading to Learn or Learning to Read? Engaging College Students in Course Readings.” College Teaching. 09 Septemebr 2016.
Kimberley, Emma and Mark Thursby. “Framing the text: understanding emotional barriers to academic reading.” Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice. 2020.
Zeivots, Sandris. “Up to 80% of uni students don’t read their assigned readings. Here are 6 helpful tips for teachers.” The Conversation. 23 August 2014.