My Students Don’t Read: Responses to a Classic Classroom Problem

All experienced instructors have had this happen to them: You assign an interesting reading that is pivotal to a topic on the syllabus. You emphasize to the students how important it is that they complete that particular reading, as it will be the basis of the next class session’s discussion. Walking into class, you smile, anticipating a smart, informed discussion on a fascinating topic, and ask a basic question to get things going. And then, the silence, and the signs: the blank stares, the eyes that won’t meet yours, the walls and shoes and notebooks that suddenly are the most interesting things in the room. Your smile drops as you realize the horrible truth: none of the students did the reading.

Quickly you realize it’s not entirely true: a small handful of students, the ones you can always rely on, tentatively raise their hands. Others may have skimmed the reading, or tried to do it just as class started. Still others pull it out as you ask the question, trying to do in 30 seconds what they need a concentrated 10 or 30 minutes to do. Despite this, the vast majority of the class simply did not do as instructed.

What’s the dedicated instructor to do?

I have been teaching for more than ten years, and this happened to me twice this semester alone. In one case, only one student out in my intro to IR class had read Thucydides’ short Melian Dialogue that IR teachers the world over use as an introduction to Realism—even though they had weekly reading quizzes on the material. In my intro to American politics course, none of them had read Federalist Paper #84, which outlines the arguments regarding the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. In the moment when I realized that my students were not prepared for the reading-based discussion I had planned, I had a decision to make: how would I respond to their lack of preparation?

A few options immediately came to mind.

Option 1: Storm Out

This is almost always appealing to me. Rant, rave, and then just storm out of the class, warning the students that they had better be prepared next time. After all, if they are not prepared for class, why should I waste my time? Urban legends abound of professors who have pulled this move, and I actually did it once years ago just to see what happened.

Despite the appeal—there really is immense satisfaction in the shocked faces as you walk out in a huff—I don’t recommend this is a response. While it may have the desired effect—in my case, my students absolutely did the reading for the next class—you end up missing an entire class session just to make a point.   Time is always at a premium, and I think there are stronger student motivators than fearing a dramatic professor. There is also the risk of establishing an adversarial relationship with your students. If that is your style, than this method might be very effective, but if not, it poses its dangers to rapport building efforts. And there is also the possibility of it backfiring: if you have students who are eager to cut a class short, they might strategically provoke you so they can go home early. Use this option sparingly, if at all.

Option 2: Shame and Move On

This is a softer version of Option 1. You lecture the students about their responsibility to complete the reading and point out how their lack of participation derailed the lesson—but instead of storming out, you simply move on to the next topic. But first, you inform them that this reading will receive special attention on the next exam, and that you will not provide any notes or assistance in determining its significance. Or perhaps you give them some kind of written assignment on that reading, or announce a quiz on it at the start of the next session. The key is that their lack of preparation is met by your unwillingness to give them the answers, making their task even harder. Now they not only have to do the reading, they must do so without any guidance from their teacher.

This has the advantage over option 1 in that time is not lost. You acknowledge the issue, and then move on to the next topic, so time is actually gained, not lost. Students still miss out though, on the opportunity to learn together and under an instructor’s guidance, so the punishment is still somewhat harsh.

Option 3: Limited Engagement

This is another variation on option 1, except instead of the instructor walking out, you kick out the students who are unprepared. Alternatively, you let those students stay, but only engage with the prepared students, leaving those who didn’t read in the dark about the main points or details of the reading. With this method, you avoid punishing those students who did prepare (unlike options 1 and 2) but provide no assistance to those who did not.

While this approach seems fairer, it can be quite awkward to employ in practice. It may not always be clear who did the reading—if you ask, some may not raise their hands, either because of social pressure or because they feel they did not understand the reading or think about it enough to answer any upcoming questions. And if a non-reader wants to answer a question, it may be difficult to ignore them if they are the only volunteer.

Option 4: Soldier On

Of course, another option is to just tell the students the main points and significance of the reading, giving them the basics they need to tackle the activity or discussion you hoped to use. Either the instructor or a prepared student can give this introduction. This method is highly dependent on the point of the planned discussion of the reading: if the goal is to practice critical reading skills, then obviously this method will not suit, but if it is to get a basic set of ideas out there, and use that as a basis for debate, then this option might work very well. This method does involve a greater investment of time, however, as instead of starting with discussion, you need to carve out time to bring everyone up to speed.

Option 5: Reading Time in Class

If the reading is shorter, you can give them time to complete it in class, and then discuss it as normal. I did this once, with the Melian Dialogue that caused me trouble last week, and it was by far the best discussion I’ve ever had on the subject with a class. After vigorous debate regarding the Melians and the rationales for their actions, I asked them whether they had enjoyed the class. They all immediately nodded their heads, and I followed that with as close to a mic-drop moment as you get in class: In a sly tone, I noted, “see what happens when you do the reading?” In this way, ten minutes lost for reading time was well worth it, not only for a great discussion, but also for the lesson it imparted to them about doing the assigned reading in the future.

One note is that this method does pose problems for students who have accommodations for extra time for reading and assignments, as they may not be able to finish the reading in the same time allowed as their classmates.

Option 6: Prevention

Perhaps the best option is to think ahead about preventative techniques that limit the likelihood of being in this kind of situation in the first place. Incentivizing students to do the reading, or to plan lessons with the assumption that they have not done the reading, have their own benefits and costs, but in terms of tackling this particular problem may be the best route. Rather than hope that students will make the time to do the reading for our class, and recognizing that there are increasing demands on their time and attention (other courses, work, family, etc.), we can create an environment that encourages students to do the reading, or that works seamlessly whether they have or not.

There are two tactics here:

First, you can incentivize students to complete the reading through positive or negative incentives. Quizzes (of the planned or pop varieties) can work, particularly if the students know ahead of time that they are in-depth and can’t be passed through a cursory skim of the material. Alternatively, you can award extra credit or tokens to students that demonstrate quality of engagement with the reading. Or you can attach an attendance or participation grade to the ability to effectively engage in discussion on the readings.

My personal preference is to require students to write about the readings prior to the class session. This can be through the completion of reading guides or by having them write critical analyses of the readings each week. I do the latter in my upper level seminars: every week, students must write 1000 words on the assigned readings for the week and propose discussion questions that come out of the reading; those discussion questions form the basis of the class session. They are graded on an excellent-pass-fail basis, and therefore take very little time to grade, but work quite well as an incentive for students to read while also forcing them to actually think about and engage with those readings.

The second tactic is to plan your courses around the assumption that students will not complete the reading. Take a hard look at your syllabus and teaching techniques, and consider whether the reading is essential or simply supplementary to a given topic. In some cases, the reading IS essential, and discussion the best technique. In such cases, use positive or negative incentives to ensure fuller participation. But in cases where the basis for discussion is covered in lecture, or through a video, or grounded in previously covered material, consider building the lesson on the assumption that most students will not have completed the reading. This is a particularly useful tactic for lower-level courses, where much of the material in the textbook is supplementary detail to the major principles covered in the lecture, and where students are perhaps less invested in the subject or less prepared for the requirements of college preparation.

As my own teaching has matured, I turn to Option 6 as much as possible, crafting most introductory lessons on the principle that students will not have done the reading, and requiring writing when in more advanced subjects and topics when the reading is absolutely essential. When this does not work I tend to try a mix of Shaming and Move On (option 2) and Soldiering On (Option 4). With the Melian Dialogue last week, for example, I lectured them on the importance of doing the reading, dithered for a moment about whether to just move on or not, and then decided to share the Dialogue’s story with them and discuss it. I chose this route because the story is easy to share without giving away the main point—you can explain the arguments of the Athenians and Melians and then ask them how this illustrates the main theoretical approaches of international relations. In another case, when my American politics class failed to read Federalist paper 84, I used option 2: I lectured them on the importance of doing the assigned reading, informed them that I would directly test this reading on the exam, and then moved on to the next topic.

Whatever options appeal to you, its important to think ahead of time how you will organize your class around the necessity of doing the reading, and how you will respond should the students fail to do the reading. Storming out can be dramatic, but you should do it as a calculated choice, rather than an emotional reaction. Know how you will respond, and if you can, plan to make sure you never have to deal with a room full of students with blank eyes that won’t meet your gaze when you ask a question about the assigned reading.

5 thoughts on “My Students Don’t Read: Responses to a Classic Classroom Problem

  1. Option 7. Collaboration, communication skills and Inspiration
    Information overload is a critical issue for our age, not just for students. There is just too much essential, excellent and important reading around, which everyone has to learn how to deal with. Another skill we all need to learn, particularly in politics, is how to distil and communicate important information. One way of combining these challenges is to get students to share out the texts so that one or more are prepared to present specific texts in a compelling way to the whole group, with a reading, talk or other form of presentation which brings the text alive and conveys the essence. Choose a time limit that works for your group – as little as three minutes, and never more than TED’s 18 minutes, but 5 – 10 minutes is usually enough. Then have the discussion, and some students may be motivated to read it afterwards. This approach develops skills of comprehension, summarising, communication and collaboration, all of which are at least as valuable as the content of any text, and can make the classroom experience memorable and enjoyable. Some students may find presenting terrifying at first, but with encouragement, support and practice they will overcome their fears. It could even become the most valuable lessons they learn.

    Titus Alexander, author of Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy (2017)

    1. This is a great idea, Titus. I generally think the more we can do with building oral communication skills, the better, and this sort of low-stakes assignment is a great way to give students practice in such skills. If you’d be willing to write up this idea with a little more detail we would love to feature it as a full post on the blog.

      1. Thanks Amanda,
        I plan to write more on this but am frantically planning a high-level conference on learning for democracy (in the UK) and preparing for a couple of talks, but this is on my to-do list!
        Titus

  2. A variant on Option 7 would be to assign a set of readings that everyone reads and then to divide the class into groups that each focus on an extension reading and present it to the whole class. This works particularly well for comparative politics courses, where you can give everyone a bunch of theoretical or thematic readings and then assign different case studies to different students, which they then reconstruct and present to the whole class.

    I do this with my ‘Comparative Indigenous Politics’ syllabus, where each group is assigned a particular country or region to follow through the whole course (Australia, Canada, Mexico, Scandinavia). Each group submits a short report ahead of class that summarises the case study reading, links it to the thematic reading for the week’s topic (which everyone has presumably read) and poses discussion questions for the seminar. In the actual seminar, discussion focuses first on the thematic issues and then ways of linking each group’s case study both to the theme discussed each week and to the other countries that the other groups are looking at.

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