Getting Students to Do the Reading

Small Changes That Create Accountability and Motivation

We’re doing our homework for Carl Wieman’s visit on February 14th, and this week, we’d like to share his advice for a perennial problem across disciplines: getting students to come to class prepared. The CWSEI website recommends asking students to get their first experience with course content independently, through pre-class preparation assignments. Although many of us already assign readings or videos, students’ performance in class often reveals that they have not done the work.

Wieman’s colleagues have found that when they changed their course structure to better support pre-class preparation, 85% of students reported doing the assigned readings before class. A few small changes added up to the large improvement they observed: making the readings specific and relevant; giving reading quizzes on the main points; resisting the temptation to re-teach the same material the students just read; and requiring students to use knowledge from the reading during in-class activities. Other course structures can also ensure that students are held accountable for and see value in doing the reading, but we appreciate the CWSEI’s best practices, which, although written with the sciences in mind, can be applied across disciplines.

Best practices from the CWSEI:

  1. The assignment should focus on what you plan to discuss in class. This creates a clear connection between the reading and the expectations of the students for class.
  2. Omit everything that is not necessary. The shorter the assignment is, the more likely the students will actually read it and focus on the key material. Some instructors believe in longer, less focused, readings from which the students are expected to extract the relevant material. This is an unrealistic expectation for a first exposure to the material.
  3. The reading should be guided with explicit prompts for the students of what to look for while reading.
  4. Give a reading quiz for marks. By assigning marks, you are telling your students that this assignment is important, even if the actual numerical value is small. We have seen that weightings of between 2% and 5% of the course grade achieve similar ~85% reading completion rates, while assignments without associated marks have much lower completion rates.
  5. The questions on the quiz should force the students to read the sections you want them to read and concentrate on the figures that are rich with information. By referring to specific figure numbers, (or equations, etc.) in the textbook, students must at least open the textbook to be able to answer the question.
  6. Refer in class to things from the pre-reading– but do not re-teach them. The point of pre-reading is that the students are expected to come to class prepared with some knowledge. If you re-teach it all, the students will quickly realize that pre-reading is a waste of time and stop doing it. Explain the purpose of pre-reading in your first class and stick with the approach.
  7. While there are various quiz options, we have found that a multiple-choice online quiz is better than a paper or clicker-based in-class quiz. In addition to saving precious class time, having the students do the assignment at home with their textbooks open lets them review – before class – their mistakes (and at their own pace). A reading quiz is not a pop quiz — the idea is to prepare students and not to surprise them. Pre-reading assignments should take less than an hour, with the quiz portion, typically around 5 questions, taking no more than 10-15 minutes of that time. Use mostly questions that all students could answer with the book, but add in a few that require a little more “reading between the lines”. Don’t forget: your goal is to draw their attention to something in particular and to motivate, not to trick or overly burden them during their first exposure to the material.
  8. It is important that the students understand why and how the pre-reading will be beneficial to them. Explicitly explain your rationale and expectations. On the one hand, you expect the students to read the text and try hard to answer the quiz correctly. On the other hand, you do not expect them to “teach themselves” the material nor understand it all completely from the textbook alone. This first exposure gets them started and helps reveal the trouble spots to both the students and the instructor. It is worth repeating the benefits of pre-reading to your students a couple of times during the term.