Blog 134

Reframing the Problem of Students Not Reading  

By Carolyn Steele

The issue of students not completing, or even trying to complete course readings is, to my way of thinking, one of the most persistent and pressing issues facing university instructors in text-focused disciplines.

For the first few years I taught, I was increasingly frustrated by the percentage of students who had not done the assigned readings. Based on anecdotal evidence, I would estimate that roughly 50% had not done the readings at all, and of the remaining 50%, less than half had completed them, and almost none had taken notes to support in-class discussion. This required me to summarize the readings in class so that students has some basis on which to apply them to the in-class assignments/activities I had planned. This was not only an arduous process, with the burden falling on myself and the few students who came to class prepared, it also had the effect of reinforcing the very problem I was trying to solve by providing the information students needed to do the group work without requiring them to do the readings. I tried to impress upon my students the value of the readings, and the potential impact not reading would have on their grades. I tried interventions like having them do weekly summaries (tedious to read) or assigning small groups to lead discussions based on each week’s reading (better in theory than practice more often than not). Nonetheless, I could not seem to make substantive headway on this problem.

Maybe, I reasoned, my energies were misdirected – clearly, they weren’t effective in the direction I had been taking. I began to reframe the problem I was trying to solve. Perhaps students not reading was not the problem but rather was a symptom of another problem or set of problems. If that were so, it opened up new possibilities of what I might do to mitigate these effects, even if I could solve the root cause. Before I go further, let me clarify. I am not taking an essentialist, either/or position here, nor suggesting my experiments are without their own issues, or a panacea for a desperately complex set of issues. Rather, I am suggesting the issue of student reading is much more nuanced than is commonly expressed among the professoriate.

My line of inquiry began with frank conversations with students about their lives outside of my class, their motivations for attending to university, and their reasons for selecting this course. While several admit to having poor time management skills and a reluctance to prioritize schoolwork over social engagement, one of the most salient themes expressed was a lack of time and balancing priorities. In some case this reflected a dismal ability to manage time, but in many more cases, students were trying to squeeze a university education into lives that were already jam packed with non-negotiable obligations such as family and work obligations and extraneous factors like computing time. This forced me to reconsider my own preconceptions about who should come to university – only those with the time, money and inclination? Students in my classes reported trying to read on the subway, late at night, after working all day and caring for family or in short moments grabbed throughout the day, none of which supports the deep, contemplative engagement with texts they need to excel at the university level.

In response to these conversations, I’ve been experimenting with various forms of collaborative reading as one way of increasing students’ baseline level of comprehension of course readings. Since I often teach in a computer lab, I have assumed access to the internet in my approaches to collaborative reading, which may make this approach inapplicable to many other teaching contexts. I ensure all readings are provided on Moodle in links to e-resources in the library or pdf form in advance of class to enable those who prefer hard copy to print them out, and those who prefer solitary reading or to read in advance of class to do so. In class, students are assigned segments from the readings of about 5 pages. Typically, there are several students reading the same chuck (I teach seminar-size classes). As they read, they create and post reading notes of key points in a Google doc that I have preformatted into the same order of the reading groups. When the class finishes reading (30-40 mins), depending on the density of the material, each group of student reading the same pages then meets for about 15-20 mins to discuss the key points that they want to present to the class. There is a sense of “broken telephone” at this point as they don’t know what comes before or after their section. The connective concepts emerge as the groups, “talk through” the reading, with each group linking their segment conceptually to the groups that come before them. This gives me an opportunity to correct any confusion/misinterpretation right away, and helps to weave together the overarching themes and concepts of the reading in a manner more interactive and engaging than other methods I’d tried. The whole process, including the reading time, takes about 90 mins. In the end, everyone in the class has read, written notes and discussed at least part of the reading, has a reasonable understanding of the whole reading and is then equally prepared to participate in group activities applying the reading to in-class assignments. This doesn’t replace deep reading by any means, but the Google doc provides “breadcrumbs” to key passages they will need to revisit and understand to complete more substantial course assignments in the future. It enables every student to participate in the activity without overreliance on a couple of peers, gives them practice writing reading notes, and enables them to focus on the application of theory to practice, which further reinforces their comprehension of key ideas.

This approach will be inappropriate in some teaching contexts, especially when the text itself is the focus of study as in literature or philosophy. But by reframing the problem of students not read from one of immaturity to one of systemic complications, it does encourage pedagogical approaches that are more inclusive of overburdened students who, unable to complete readings, then find themselves unable or unwilling to participate in class discussions and activities further impoverishing their learning experience.

For more perspectives on this topic, go listen to TC Talks, episode 3: https://teachingcommons.yorku.ca/podcast/

About the Author

Dr. Carolyn Steele designs and teaches undergraduate courses in digital culture and community-based learning in the Department of Humanities at York University. Her Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research focuses on pedagogical approaches to critical reflection, and the integration of digital technologies into classroom learning.