One of the most common complaints that instructors have is that students do not complete the readings. No matter how interesting or unique or provocative they are, many students fail to crack their books at all prior to an exam, and some of those who do fail to retain any of the information or arguments. For those of us who use those readings as a foundation for a class session, this behavior can lead anywhere from mild irritation to downright aggravation.
One way to solve this problem in an upper level seminar is to turn the reading from a passive exercise to an active one. Assign the readings by week, rather than by session, and have your students write an analytical response on the readings each week. Each critique must also pose a discussion question at the end. Papers are typically two pages, though that depends on the type and number of readings assigned. They are posted the day before class and shared online in a discussion forum. The discussion questions and different perspectives can then be used as a basis for discussion that week. Scoring is based on a check plus/check/check minus/pass/fail system (which loosely corresponds to A-F) but no comments are made by the instructor after the first week or two.
I tried this in Spring 2011 in my Environmental and Energy Security class, an upper level seminar with ten students, with great success. All of my students came prepared to class having completed and thought about all the readings. In addition, their writing occurred throughout the semester, allowing multiple grading opportunities and a chance to improve their writing. The papers also made prep for class very easy: I facilitated a conversation and provided context, but the students drove the discussion. Quiet students could be drawn in to the conversation without fuss, since their perspective was already public. Finally, grading is minimal. It only took a few moments to read through the critiques and see what level of effort and insight students brought to their papers.
The downside is that students will whine about having to actually do the readings and write every week. But in a class that is really built around the readings, my students came to appreciate being forced to do the readings and to think about them, and they liked that their work was brought so obviously into the class through the discussions. It made them feel like their work was driving the course. I was able to be a true facilitator and participant rather than just their teacher, and the critiques were cited as a positive on my evaluations rather than a negative.