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Getting Students to Read

A teacher can enter the classroom . . . with severely misplaced expectations. Having spent many years in a highly literate environment, we tend to take a similar level of literacy in our students as a given. Many of them, on the other hand, have gotten along reasonably well without getting too entangled with the subtleties of the written word.

Robert Leamnson, Thinking about Teaching and Learning: Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and University Students (p. 31).

A common complaint among students in the mid-semester evaluations I conduct is that their professors’ reading requirements are unrealistic–that the texts are too hard, that there’s too much to read, or that the books or articles are irrelevant and never reviewed in class.

By now, faculty know that students generally do not do everything we ask them to do in order to prepare for class. In the latest National Survey of Student Engagement report, 43% of full-time students report spending 10 hours or fewer studying each week–a finding consistent with NSSE surveys in previous years (2005, p. 11). While these numbers are troubling, no one seems terribly surprised by the truth. In the faculty survey (FSSE) which complements the NSSE, results show that “faculty members expect students to study about twice as much as students actually reported,” but that if asked to guess how much students actually do study out of class, faculty perceptions are fairly accurate. (p. 5.)

If we assume that students are willing to put more time and effort into their schoolwork (an optimistic but necessary assumption if we hope to improve matters) then what is causing this lack of application–especially in regard to reading before class? And what practical strategies can we use to encourage greater attention to reading and study?

Many students enter college with limited reading strategies–indeed most approach all of their reading tasks the same way, and with one essential goal: to get through the material as quickly as possible. Yet we know that our own professional reading strategies vary tremendously according to the time we have available and the goal we set for the task. One focus of our teaching, then, should be to help students develop readings skills and strategies appropriate to the kind of material we’re asking them to understand. As Ken Bain notes in his study of excellent teachers (What the Best College Teachers Do), “we found among the most effective teachers a strong desire to help students learn to read in the discipline” (p. 56).

Second, many students haven’t been trained in reading with a specific set of goals in mind–for example, for arguments or in order to distinguish the major issues from the details or examples; they tend to approach all reading in the same fashion. Again, in disciplines whose vocabularies and conceptual structures may be unfamiliar to many students, we must provide assignments that help them develop the capacity to read for specific reasons and finish assignments with clearly outlined accomplishments.

Based on examples I’ve seen at UMBC, here are some suggestions for methods of encouraging more and better reading in classes.

  • Provide guided reading questions that help students read with a purpose. Ask questions about the major concepts or issues so that students learn how to identify them and the examples or details which support or explain those concepts. Refer to these questions in class.
  • Construct on-line, open book, reading quizzes. Many faculty members have used the resources of Blackboard to construct simple quizzes that force students to read and digest the information in readings; many students say such weekly attention to the textbook helps them keep up with the material.
  • Require students to post questions and responses on class discussion boards. Good class discussion can often be jump-started by requiring that students ask and respond to a certain number of questions each week. It’s not difficult to skim through contributions in small classes; in large classes, Karen Readel of Geography and Environmental Systems has students keep track of their own contributions over the semester and turn in a portfolio with a certain number of their best questions and responses.
  • Discuss and model reading approaches in class. Especially in introductory level classes, spend some time going over readings (and providing methods for taking notes on or using the information in them).
  • Connect lecture materials directly to sections of the text. Make the sorts of explicit links, in lecture, that you hope students will eventually be able to make themselves. Don’t assume they see the connections that are obvious to you.
  • Ask students to summarize the major points in the readings. At the outset of class, choose a student and ask him or her to summarize the essential argument or topic of the reading assignment. Professor Lynn Zimmerman has had great success in large lecture classes asking a student to summarize the essential points of the previous lecture. In similar fashion, if it’s clear that you will begin each session calling on someone to provide a summary of the readings (or a question that the reading raises but doesn’t answer) then students will come prepared to provide a synopsis.
  • Prepare projects, tests, or assignments that reflect attention to the important issues in the readings-not simply the details which students might or might not have memorized.

(Other useful suggestions are provided in Eric Hobson’s article, listed below, and available online.)

While we might be tempted to blame students for not studying enough, we must take some of the responsibility for their failure if we are encouraging procrastination and avoidance by assigning difficult reading materials without properly preparing students to understand them. While students need to be challenged, they must have methods of succeeding if they are going to continue to invest time in arduous tasks. Asking under-prepared students to spend hours with writing that is, to them, incomprehensible and inaccessible mostly leads them to invest time in activities they consider to be more productive.


  • Bain, Ken. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
  • Hobson, Eric. (2004). “Getting Students to Read: Fourteen Tips.” (PDF) IDEA Paper. No. 40.
  • Leamnson, Robert. (1999). Thinking about Teaching and Learning: Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and University Students. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) (2005).
  • Zimmerman, Lynn. (2001) “Engaging Students in the Classroom.” TLT Brownbag lecture.