Motivating Students to Complete Pre-Class Readings: Strategies and Tips

Reading is critical to academic learning. Yet, the perennial lament among university professors is, “Why won’t students just do the reading?” It is reported that only 30% of students read the assigned material before class on any given day (Bhavsar, 2020; Hattenberg & Steffy, 2013; Hoeft, 2012). The reasons for not reading encompass poor reading comprehension, time constraints, lack of interest in the reading material, as well as inadvertent signals from faculty that completing reading material is of low value. Why read if the material that was supposed to be read out of class is repeated in lectures?

What are effective teaching and assessment methods for getting students to come to class having read the assigned material? Hattenberg and Steffy (2013) conducted a study that included 438 students enrolled in eight introductory sociology courses to examine effective compliance reading techniques. The results showed that announced quizzes, required reading questions, and required short writing assignments were the most effective methods whereas unannounced reading quizzes, optional reading guides, and being called on randomly in class were the least effective compliance methods. In addition, the noncompliant readers in Hoeft’s (2012) study recommended giving quizzes and supplementary assignments as effective methods for getting students to read.

It is evident that announced quizzes and required writing assignments are effective in achieving reading compliance. But are they really effective in motivating students to come to class prepared, and in supporting their learning in the long run? There is also the caveat that relying on these compliance methods may seem punitive to students, and that at best, they only promote surface, not deep reading. To expand the teaching and assessment repertoire for motivating students to read and complete class preparatory work, I propose five strategies in this resource guide:

  • Rethink Syllabus Reading Lists: The starting point in motivating students to read is to ensure that assigned readings are closely aligned with course learning outcomes. Use a “triage process” to classify each reading material according to its relevance to student learning success in the course. For example, consider using “absolutely essential,” “good supporting material,” and “exotic—appealing to experts” (Hobson, 2004, p. 3). The materials categorized as essential become the required course readings. Also, entice students to read by including different kinds of reading and media in the required reading selections.
  • Use Transparency: Transparency calls for clear clarification and intentional discussion of the connection of each assignment to the learning outcomes, the focusing topic/module, and students’ personal and professional goals and interests. Explain the purpose of each reading assignment, the task that students are required to perform, and the criteria for assessing their performance. Transparency supports the expectancy-value-cost theory of motivation. The more transparent an assignment is as exemplified by clear and friendly explanation of its benefits, task requirements, and performance criteria, the more students are motivated to accomplish it (Bhasvar, 2020; Ford, 2016).
  • Support Deep Reading: Help students transition from surface reading to deep reading by using handouts, guides, and effective teaching strategies to help them get the most out of what they are reading. Where possible, teach reading skills directly or indirectly, by modeling how you make meaning when reading a complex material.
  • Build Community—Peer-to-Peer Interaction: Students thrive when they are actively engaged in learning with their peers. Incorporate peer-to-peer interaction surrounding readings to motivate students to complete pre-class readings, and to come to class prepared.
  • Require Accountability: Tie a portion of the course grade to reading to hold students accountable for completing pre-class preparation assignments (Johnson, 2019). However, instead of relying exclusively on quizzes, consider using a variety of methods for example individual or group writing assignments, presentations and structured debates to encourage deep reading (Shaw, 2012).

Finally, it is apparent that giving students global reading assignments for example “Remember to read chapter 12 before the next class” is not a great inducement for getting them to read. Motivating students to complete pre-class readings requires careful planning, clear instructions and effective teaching activities to support deep reading, as well as the application of conducive accountability methods. Moreover, language matters. Consider renaming reading assignments as learning opportunities to emphasize their focus on learning, not on fulfilling the professor’s expectations (Farias, et al. 2010).


Bhavsar, V. M. (2020). A transparent assignment to encourage reading for a flipped course. College Teaching, 68(1), 33-44.

Farias, G., Farias, C.M., & Fairfield, K. D. (2010). Teacher as a judge: The dilemma of grades versus learning. Journal of Education for Business, 85, 336-342.

Ford, N. M. (2016). Expanded transparency and enhanced reading in the first-year literature survey. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 27(4), 19-30.

Hattenberg, S. J., & Steffy, K. (2013). Increasing reading compliance of undergraduates: An evaluation of compliance methods. Teaching Sociology, 41(4), 346-352.

Hobson, E.H. (2004). Getting students to read: Fourteen tips. IDEA Paper No. 40, Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development.

Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don’t read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(2), 1-19.

Johnson, S. (2019). The fall, and rise of reading. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Shaw, J. (2012). Using Small Group Debates to Actively Engage Students in an Introductory Microbiology Course. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, 13(2), 155-160.

Funmmi Amobi, Ed.D., Instructional Consultant, Center for Teaching and Learning

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