“My students aren’t doing the reading.” Sound familiar? I hear this all the time and certainly have experienced this universal phenomenon in my own classes. Students cite a lack of time as the most common reason for not completing the assigned reading, but if we probed a little deeper, I suspect we might learn the real reasons why they opt out. Many students don’t see the value in the reading or more specifically, think they can get by without doing it. This fact alone reveals an important problem – many students haven’t learned how to be self-directed learners.

The good news is that we can help them figure this out. Simply taking a few minutes to describe, or better yet, show them what an article, chapter, or passage might look like if they annotated it, should help. I’ve done this before and was surprised at how many students didn’t read this way.

The main point is to get students to think about what they’re reading and ask questions, relate content to what they already know, and emphasize the “aha!” moments. We can help them do this by creating reading guides ahead of time that prompt them to interact with the content they’re reading, or taking a look at their reading notes for some low-stakes points, but the real value here is in moving students toward the intrinsic reward associated with learning.

Well-read students can draw upon a much richer memory and make connections between what they are learning and what they already know. Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, in Make it Stick, call this Deep Learning and it occurs when we develop the ability to integrate what we are learning with our existing mental models of our world. Deep learners consider the ambiguities in a text and can therefore engage with the material on another level.

Students’ ability to engage in active inquiry will grow with practice. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Don’t go completely digital. There is power in putting pen to paper while reading a paper book. It is difficult to highlight, circle, write questions, draw, connect ideas, and create new synapses when it’s all on a screen (and much less distracting too).
  2. Provide some scaffolding. Beginning learners need more guidance so teach them how to read, annotate, ask questions, internalize, and test themselves. I teach my students not to get lost in the weeds. In a journal article, the “weeds” is often the methods and/or results sections. If they get stuck there, they lose sight of the take home message.
  3. Promote a growth mindset. Students who believe that they have only one learning style may be missing out. We learn better when we engage with material in a variety of contexts. Read, discuss, listen, mind map on whiteboards, demonstrate, move around the room, and get creative.

Don’t back down! Reading is often difficult and students need to develop an appreciation for difficult reading. Provide the right supports and treat the act of reading for deep learning as a lesson in and of itself. This will be time well spent for both you and your students.

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2 thoughts on “When students don’t do the reading

  1. Kara and Faculty,

    Thought I would share a related resource. Science (the journal) has a pretty amazing resource for this. They have a whole series of articles, across disciplines, that have been annotated to make them more accessible, and to help students learn how to use scientific literature. They are also accompanied by educator guides to help you help them. Find it here: https://www.scienceintheclassroom.org/


  2. In case it’s valuable to others–
    I’m solving this problem this quarter through a slightly wacky “choose your own adventure” points structure, which I read about in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Basically, I have more points available in the course than I’m actually scoring the course out of (450 available, scored /400). This lets students choose what grade they want to earn, and which assignments suit their learning style and/or schedule. Since there’s a quiz associated with each reading, students can opt to earn points by demonstrating their understanding of the reading. And since my readings are mostly drawn from secondary and tertiary sources and not a textbook (we bring primary research in during class to explore those secondary/tertiary sources), students so far appear more likely to complete the readings. Fingers crossed!


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