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Challenging our Assumptions: Getting Students to Read

Amy Gross, Ph.D.

Have you ever felt frustrated when your students don’t come to class prepared? A frequent complaint I have heard from faculty on many campuses is that they just can’t get their students to read the assigned material. For a number of years I have referred many of those faculty members to one of my favorite IDEA PapersGetting to Students to Read: Fourteen Tips, by Eric Hobson. I like it because while it acknowledges issues of student preparedness to read at the collegiate level and their compliance with completing readings assignments, it also challenge instructors to reflect on their own assumptions about why and what students are asked to read in the first place.

Basic assumption: College level courses need to have a text or reading packet.

How many courses have you either taught or taken where the textbook was really not used or not very helpful? Are we requiring reading simply because we have required the purchase of a textbook? Do we teach the course around the textbook, or do we design the course based on what we want students to learn?1 We need to assess the extent to which the text (or reading of the text) is really required for student learning versus serving as an additional (perhaps optional?) resource. Is the text adding value or simply expected?

Basic assumption: The readings used for the class need to be “required.”

Are all reading assignments equally central to what students need to learn or is it redundant with other class experiences? Do you do something during class that builds on the assigned reading, or do you simply repeat it? (In my worst college class ever, the instructor, bless his heart, literally read the text out loud to us!)

Hobson suggests a review of the course reading assignments and rank each according to its potential benefit to student learning and success in the course. He suggested categories like, “absolutely essential,” “good supporting material,” “exotic,” “appealing to experts,” or “idiosyncratic choice.” Only those identified as “absolutely essential” should be considered as “required” reading. He suggests this process will help make reading loads more manageable for students and promote reading compliance.

Basic assumption: Students will be the same kind of learner that we have been in earning our advanced degrees.

Citing Leamnson (1999), Hobson reminds us that “having spent many years in a highly literate environment, we tend to take a similar level of literacy in our students as a given.” Related to this, we need to remember that as students are learning the content, they may find the reading difficult to comprehend, especially those who are less skilled readers. We need to make sure the reading material is appropriate for their level of knowledge and reading skill. Further, not all textbooks are well constructed for the novice learner. Many students may find the organization and structure of textbooks difficult to navigate. What are the best reading resources for our intended learning goals?

Considering these three basic assumptions, we may need to adjust our expectations for “required reading.” At the very least, they provide some structure for us to reflect on why and what we want our students to read. I invite you to review the entire, yet succinct, IDEA Paper, Getting to Students to Read: Fourteen Tips. The full discussion of the underlying assumptions of required reading and the specific 14 tips offered in the short 10 pages is worth the time to facilitate our own reflection about our expectations for student reading and what can we do to get them to read.

References and Additional Resources

Leamnson, R.N. (1999). Thinking About Teaching: Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and University Students. Sterling, VA: Stylus

For additional references on designing a course based on what you want students to learn, see:

Fink, D.L. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Fink, D.L. (2005). IDEA Paper No. 42: Integrated Course Design. Manhattan, KS: The IDEA Center.

Walvoord, B.E., & Anderson, V.J. (2009). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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