Three mechanisms to improve your pre-class reading

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Instructors of large lecture courses often have required reading associated with each class period. If asked whether students do the reading, most say that compliance is low. Students themselves agree – data from the 2014 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey gives a self-reported average of 65% of readings completed. Below, we discuss why students don’t do the reading, and give tips to help you improve your student preparation.

First, students don’t do pre-class reading because the time required to complete the reading exceeds the time a student has available. College students at large research institutions today report spending an average of almost 15 hours a week outside of class time working on class work. This includes studying, reading, writing, doing homework or lab work, analyzing data, and rehearsing. Data from UCUES puts the UCI average closer to 13 hours. Students are choosing to spend time on other activities, including work, commuting, research, volunteering and relaxation.
If the reading you want students to complete takes longer than 3-4 hours per week, then it is likely students will not complete it.

Second, students don’t do pre-class reading because the reading isn’t necessary. Some faculty post readings because they feel students will understand the content better if they read beforehand as well as listen in lecture. Others post readings merely as a reference – in case students want to look up information. Many times students are never directly tested on the reading, particularly in STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). In many cases, faculty would like to not cover the content found in the textbook, but because reading compliance is low, they feel they need to (which, of course, means reading is even less necessary).
If a student feels they can successfully complete the course without doing the reading, they will maximize their learning efficiency and not do the reading.

Third, students may also not do the reading if it is too broad, or confusing, or difficult. Most of us with a PhD are quite good at reading a textbook in our discipline. We might even have been pretty good at it during our first undergraduate course. But many students today come from less prepared environments, and are at a loss when presented with a reading assignment like: “Read Chapter 23.” Does the instructor mean to memorize all the names, dates, and vocabulary words? Do I need to be able to define the terms, or apply them? Is it more important to memorize a definition of a theory, or be able to compare and contrast two similar theories? Do I need to understand the figures too?
If you are assigning primary literature from your discipline, students may not have been trained in how to carefully analyze this unfamiliar format. If a student tries to complete the first few readings and feels overwhelmed and unsure how to learn from the readings, they are more likely to give up than to seek out the instructor and ask for help.

Given these difficulties, let’s look at how to maximize the participation and success of student reading:

Assign readings that clearly match the lesson’s learning goals and will be part of an assessment.

A reading that is clearly related to an exam question or a writing assignment is much more likely to be completed. You may have several great readings (or videos or podcasts or art exhibits) that you would love students to also explore — but make it clear which are optional and which are required.
It is also helpful to mention the next reading in the current class, so students recognize that the reading is an important part of how you have designed the course. Point out a certain figure or section as one you find particularly intriguing or one that is often misunderstood.

Describe precisely what students should be able to explain, solve or compare by the end of the reading.

A simple one-page list of what you want students to be able to DO by the end of the reading will guide their study and make them more prepared for class. It will also help you recognize how long the reading is, and help you articulate what parts can be skipped.
You may also find it helpful to give sample “understanding” prompts and “discussion” prompts so students can prepare before arriving at a class where they will need to speak out loud using new terms and concepts. If you have students for whom English is not their first language, a list of important vocabulary words for the upcoming class may also enable them to prepare and be more able to speak and write on the subject.

Assess student understanding of the reading before class.

A number of different techniques can be used to measure student completion of (and understanding of) each reading. Some can take place online, others can occur in class. Some use technology, others are paper- or discussion- based. Examples:

  • Students write regular “reading journal” entries in Canvas, and are quickly graded for effort only
  • Students take an online multiple-choice quiz in EEE or Canvas before class
  • Students take a short clicker quiz at the start of class
  • Students arrive in class and show hand-written reading notes to the TA as they arrive
  • Students are randomly called upon during class discussion and must incorporate something from the reading in their answer

Spend class time training students how to read in your discipline.

If you are teaching students in introductory courses, consider taking time during class to train students to read in your field. Show samples of relevant writing or journal articles on the big screen, and talk through how an expert deconstructs the work. Then put up a second sample on the screen, and have students fill out some sort of outline, or respond to questions that require careful reading. Students can work in pairs or triads, then turn in a single page for minimal grading and participation points.


Are you interested in learning more about effective reading assignments?

An article by several faculty from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on different types of reading quizzes for STEM classes.

More reading assignment ideas by West Point’s Center for Faculty Excellence.