Blog 20

The day vicarious readers met a vivacious teacher, or the pedagogy behind making them read


Genevieve Maheux Pelletier, Teaching Commons

So you have vicarious readers in your class… It may not be such a bad thing!

I subscribe to the notion that active learning not only reinforce concepts but also enables learners to understand course material at a more complex level. In my work as an educational developer, I have had many conversations that go something like this:

Me: Have you thought about active learning strategies like the Jigsaw Puzzle? You give different reading tasks to students. In class they pair up with someone who read a different part and together they piece the whole thing together, acting as knowledge expert for the portion they were responsible for.

Prof: That sounds like a good idea, but it won’t work. My students don’t do their readings.

Me: Perhaps so. Do you know why?

Many a professor have complained to me that “this active learning stuff” won’t work with their students because they come to class unprepared. I then ask her how they structure classroom time. And often, the scenario goes along those lines: class time is mostly taken up by a lecture segment followed by discussion (if time allows).

Sounds familiar? If so, perhaps then it is no surprise that students don’t do their readings. The underlying message is that coming to class well prepared is good practice, but not essential: “[s]tudents 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.” (Doyle 2008: 67). Only 20% to 30% of them report reading the course material regularly (Divoll & Browning 2013).

Of course, there are many reasons why students do not do their readings, despite our best efforts to encourage them to do so. About half of them, according to Kuh et al. (2005), do not have the necessary skills to read effectively when they graduate from high school. That they do not know how to read well is something I have heard from York professors, too. So it sounds to me that part of our role is to help students become better at reading, and sometimes to get them to read at all, which means that we may need to rethink how we deal with course readings.

Many years ago I struggled a lot with my students’ lack of preparation, or at least what I perceived as such. One day, fed up with the blank stares, I dismissed class 10 minutes into it, summoned my group of ESL learners to come back the following week only if they had done the readings, and stormed out of the classroom. I’ll admit, it was a decision driven by emotion rather than good pedagogy, but it yielded a positive outcome. The following week one student dared telling me that he did not understand the short text I had asked them to read. I was stunned! But getting feedback from one of them helped me adjust my teaching strategies and we worked the text together. Now that I am more experienced, I understand that what I needed then, and still use now, was a set of strategies to help me diagnose my students’ current level of understanding in order to pitch my lesson at the appropriate level. That I would like them to be able to understand their reading is one thing, but effective pedagogy tells me that what I do in response to their current level of understanding has to be driven by what they were actually able to process. Holding strong onto my belief that they should have been able to understand something does little to facilitate that critical discussion I strive for.

Some years later, I encountered a similar situation in an upper level linguistics course. We tackled theory, so I would lecture about different concepts, provide examples and ask students to work on application problems in small groups in the last portion of the class session. Again I realized quickly many students came ill-prepared and assumed they were not completing the readings. Only in this case, it was in large part because, as Doyle (2008) argued, my students knew I would go over all the material for them before asking them to work on problems. Upon making this realization, I flipped things around and started class with the hands-on activities, and my student preparedness generally improved thereafter. I would end the session with a quick lecture in which I emphasized the concepts that gave them the most trouble, an approach that shares the theoretical basis of Just-in-Time-Teaching.

There are other strategies to encourage students to complete their readings. In some cases I may suggest pre-lecture quizzes to be done online. At times I call them “accountability measures” as the goal with these kinds of quizzes is generally to check that the student has read and absorbed basic, mostly factual information. Indeed Divoll & Browning (2013) warn that while quizzes may boost reading rates, they are typically made of surface-level questions that do not foster deeper understanding. But really, ascertaining through a pre-class quiz that the readings were understood at a basic level may be an effective strategy to enable a critical understanding of the material later, during face-to-face activities. Other strategies to hold students accountable for pre-class work include A Ticket to Enter.

From the Divoll & Browning study, we also know that retention is facilitated when students actively interact with the content in various formats and share answers with peers. They in fact make the argument that peer interaction about the readings may be more important than the act of reading. So perhaps we can relax a little: if not all of our students do all of the readings all of the time, we can still structure class time such that even the social loafers learn something from the readings they didn’t read.


Divoll, K., & Browning, S. (2013). “ ‘Read the Text, as if!’ The Reading Retention Strategy,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 7: No. 1, Article 8.

Doyle, T. (2008). Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment: A Guide to Facilitating Learning in Higher Education. Stylus Publishing.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J., & associates. (2005). Student Success in College: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Comment on “Blog 20

  1. Thanks for this lovely and inspiring read. As practitioners we often know that active learning strategies are good for us, our students, and our teaching. You have shared some significant personal experiences which further help to bolster the importance of why!

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