Question of the day: When students don’t read

Since it’s been a month since the last one, here’s a Question of the Day that pertains to something presumably all of us have experienced:

“What do you do when the majority of your class (or all of them!) have not done the reading for the day, especially when all your activities were planned around working with the reading(s)?  Do you switch to something else? Try to work with it nevertheless? Yell at them?”

Please respond below…

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8 thoughts on “Question of the day: When students don’t read

  1. This is something I struggle with regularly. I’ve tried quizzing students with relative success. I find that if they see their grades will drop if they don’t do well on a reading quiz, and to do well on a reading quiz they have to read, there’s a sizable uptick in the number of students who have read the material. The problem with this is that with so many other assignments taking up major percentage points (in a writing class, essays and the final portfolio are paramount, right?), it’s hard to make the quizzes count so much that no one would dare come to class unprepared. And now you’re back to square one.

    I recently had a conversation with my husband about how frustrated I was that students didn’t seem to care about learning MLA format and he suggested something that I believe applies here as well. He said, “Just be real with them.” It sounds so easy, but I’m so used to giving students the same speech about why MLA is important (their own credibility, being part of a global writing community) that it’s really not easy at all. Because really, those reasons do not personally and immediately affect them, so there’s resistance there. Adjunct professor David Gooblar says, ” … you have to demonstrate … necessity to students. Show them why it’s important to do the reading. You don’t have to bend over backward to sell each reading, or make unrealistic promises about what they’ll get if they read. But you do have to actually make use of the readings in class, and, if possible, communicate in advance just how you’ll make use of them. In the last five minutes of class, for example, remind students what they have to read for next time, and also tell them why they should read it.” (par 7). I would also add to this that you have to make sure you are talking about parts of the reading that are not necessarily analyzed online, so that students understand that sparknotes.com and other similar sites will not adequately prepare them for the class discussion.

    You can also employ the Socratic Method and hope that showing students that they may be called on at any time will spur them into motion. Is it wrong to think that the good old embarrassment that comes with not knowing an answer when called upon could be useful, especially in our most desperate moments?

    Works Cited
    Goobar, David. “They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again.” Chronicle Vitae. 14 Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014

    • I should also add here that what I’ve mentioned here are mostly tactics for prevention of this issue. I’ve yet to come up with something to do during class time when you have a room full of students who haven’t read and you’ve based an entire class period on the idea that they did, in fact, do the reading. The boring answer here might be to read the text in class, but if it’s too long, you run into a problem. And really, reading a full Faulkner story out loud in class is not too engaging, now is it? I’d be really interested to hear other ideas about the use of that class time!

  2. Here’s what happened when only 3 of my students had read the essays we were supposed to discuss:
    1) I let them see how unhappy I was (without creating too much drama).
    2) In order to have the discussion, I pointed out key passages and the students read them in class.
    3) We did the best we could with that.
    4) I decided, before the end of the class, that I would give them a quiz next time, to prove that they’d done the reading, and told them so.
    5) At the next class, I gave them the quiz. Even though they’d prepared, only a few managed to answer all of the questions.
    6) I delivered a prepared speech, roughly as follows:
    – I really don’t want to be doing this. It feels petty. You’re in college. If you’re asked to read a short essay for class, you read the essay. It wouldn’t have taken that much time. In the future, I may give quizzes or I may not, depending on whether people have done the work.
    7) Then I discussed Kant’s Rule of Universality, which your mother used to express as, “What if EVERYBODY did it?” E.g., if the sign in the national park says, “Don’t pick the flowers,” and you think, “I’m just one person, if I pick a flower, it won’t make a difference” – what happens? Millions of people visit national parks every year – there wouldn’t be a flower left.
    – “Similarly, you probably thought: I’m busy, if I can’t do the homework, that’s no big deal, it’s just me, he won’t even notice. But look what happened: almost no one did it – and it made it impossible to discuss the essays.”

    We’ll see if all of this makes a difference in the future. I really can’t predict.

  3. I really try to build a community in the class that’s about a shared commitment or sense of accountability to each other’s learning, and I make myself a part of this community too. It may sound silly or it does initially have a bit of a joking air to it–but it’s the truth: I promise, early on, never to come unprepared to teach, never to answer my phone during our class ;), and I also promise that I’ll work hard in there every day. I make it clear that being there with them is a great joy for me. In return, I expect them to meet me there and do the work. I hold them accountable in practical ways by asking them to sometimes prepare notes to share with each other, and I also often isolate key passages in readings and build small group discussions around those–and then use them to build out into the rest of the reading during a full class discussion. This is an effort to get students some grounding before large group discussion. I use the board all the time to record (i.e. validate) what they say and the questions they ask. I tell them I’m not a natural lecturer and describe my style so they know it requires their participation to work. I’m not suggesting this is any perfect kind of formula, but these are just a few angles I take that I think have helped me over the years.

    I’ll never forget the day, when I was in college, that a very popular, very skilled political science professor walked out of class because we weren’t prepared. I remember he started class, posed a few questions about the reading and, after we had all stared at our desks for a bit, packed up his stuff and said he didn’t deserve to have his time wasted. Walked out. I ran to the library, did the reading, wrote up notes, and sent them along with an apology. I don’t think that’s a hand that can be played at all regularly, nor am I advocating for widespread walkouts–!!! But what was so important about that moment and how it made me feel as an undergraduate, was that I–we all–knew that the professor was legit. We respected him. We knew he worked hard, that he cared, that he took pride in the work and that he wanted to be there with us. And so because that was clear, the fact of disappointing him had such impact. I think, in other words, that while students will sometimes drop the ball (just as we have our own good days/bad days), the real key is in building relationships in the classroom, making plain to students our own investment, our own work and care, and then holding them to a shared project, in a sense. This isn’t about taking a “gotcha” or a punitive stance so much. It’s really about having expectations for them, just as we have expectations for ourselves. We’re disappointed when they’re not prepared; it’s an insult to our hard work. We shouldn’t do that to them, either–and so we prepare, we learn their names, we return their papers, and so on. You’re inviting them along with you.

  4. I always tell my students I work as hard for them as they work for themselves and no more.
    And, they believe this because I do challenge them to be ‘adult’ students’. I had a class period when I opened a discussion on an assigned reading. It became obvious by the lack of eye contact and the silence in response to my opening questions that most did not read the material. I could feel the energy in the room dying as perhaps one or two students raised their hands to respond and participate.
    So, I stopped and looked at them all. I said, “Can you feel the energy seeping out of this room?”
    No response, of course. So I said, “Okay, seriously, I want to know whether you read or didn’t read this piece.” I asked for a show of hands. Several honest students raised theirs. Many just continued to sit there. So, I said, “You are wasting your time here. This discussion will be meaningless to you if you just sit here and listen. You won’t know what I am talking about.”
    Then I said, “I want anyone who did not do the reading to leave. You would better spend your time finding a corner somewhere on campus and sitting and reading this than sitting here while I do all the work.”
    That infamous day, I repeated myself, “Seriously, if you haven’t read the material, you can leave.”
    They didn’t believe me. I said, again, “Go ahead. Gather your belongings and go find a place and read this.”
    One got up, then another, and another. Little by little I was left with maybe 5 students in the room. Those who remained and I had a lively discussion as I had planned. The rest of them were marked as attending but got a nothing on the class participation board for the day.
    This did a few things…it wasn’t just a punishment for being unprepared. It wasn’t an easy out for them. It gave them a life lesson that every worthwhile endeavor has a price of admission. If they pay the price, they are allowed to participate. If they don’t prepare or have the price of admission, they will get nothing for free. “I only work for you as hard as you work for you.”
    A month or so later, one student told me they were all so scared of me that day. Now, I do have to say that this was all done with a mild and matter of fact demeanor and tone of voice. No punitive tone, no yelling or shaming. I treated them like adults but laid down the law. I gained their respect. Nobody came unprepared to class after that.

  5. I’m joining this discussion a bit late, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. By way of background, I’m new to FYR, approaching the end of my second semester. Before I started teaching I was a lawyer and businesswoman for almost 25 years, which has given me some credibility with students who think FYW is a waste. My question is about the section of the syllabus model that basically says that if students show up unprepared they will be marked absent–does anyone actually have this in their syllabus, and does anyone enforce it?
    When I first saw this during preparation for my first semester, I thought it terribly harsh. Now I’m not so sure. Are doing our students a disservice by not teaching them the life skills they will need in the work world? I like Nancy’s approach a lot. If these students performed this way in an office I managed, they wouldn’t last very long.
    Like Nancy, I suspect, I have a lot of empathy for the students, especially freshmen. They first walk in in September ready to have fun, but quickly acquire that “deer in the headlights” look; they are simply not prepared for what college entails. They struggle with pressures that we never could have imagined when my college buddies and I were in their shoes. My unannounced policy is that if a student contacts me before a deadline with an even remotely plausible request for an extension, I grant it. But still. . .isn’t there a point when they need to “get it,” and shouldn’t we make that clear. . .?

  6. As a couple others have mentioned, I also always attach a writing assignment along with a reading assignment because, frankly, my experience shows that students are much less likely to read without written homework. In fact, about a week or so ago, I realized that the only thing I had assigned on the syllabus for the next meeting with my 105 students was to read a couple of sections from the handbook on research and evaluating sources (in preparation for the Documented Essay assignment). When I noticed this (during our Friday meeting), I casually mentioned that I was considering assigning some homework questions as well, but that since they’d just finished working on their third essay and have been working quite hard all semester, I’d stick with the “easy” reading assignment by itself. They were all relieved and very appreciative. I emphasized, though, the importance of reading these chapters and even hinted that I’d be giving a quiz on them at our next meeting.

    Lo and behold, when we met again on Wednesday and I announced I’d be giving a four-question quiz on the reading, almost everyone gasped and looked very nervous. Surprise, surprise, barely any students (in my two sections) had read the assigned chapters–even despite my verbal heads-up the previous meeting about a reading quiz. Apparently, the warning didn’t stick. Needless to say, the quiz responses were abysmal, and I hadn’t even asked “hard” questions that necessarily relied on students having actually read the handbook (one such question: what is one difference between a scholarly and a popular source?). It is important to note that this was the FIRST time all semester that these students did not do the reading (with the usual exception of that one student in each class who is always behind on the readings…).

    In order to salvage this lesson on how to conduct effective and efficient research and how to evaluate their sources, we discussed each quiz question, comparing their (mostly incorrect) guesses with the actual answers and rationales behind them by looking in the book itself. I would wait until they found the correct explanation in the handbook on their own–basically forcing them to at the very least skim and familiarize themselves with the pages they should have read on their own. At least this way, we were still able to cover the material that was necessary and I was able to get them into their books–locating the information they need to know and reading it with a clearly defined purpose. We ended up having a pretty productive day, but they were all a bit regretful at having failed the quiz–and this is a lesson that, at least for the rest of this semester, I bet they won’t forget. After all, they may not want to do the reading at home, but they certainly don’t want a zero on a quiz! (Of course, these quizzes amount to relatively little when their course grades are calculated, but I find them effective in these situations for keeping my students on their toes–not to mention that the one or two students who DID actually do the reading, get rewarded with a high quiz grade.)

    This example might be a bit unusual, though, because the more common issue is dealing with when students haven’t read from the main course text. So, in addition to the writing assignments that always accompany reading assignments (as I mentioned above), another strategy that I use when on the rare occasion students haven’t done the reading is have them do brainstorming and writing. Regarding the conversation above about having students read during class when they are unprepared,I haven’t found this effective because 1) students read at all different paces, and so it’s very difficult to assure we’ll have time when they’re all finished to actually discuss, and 2) I feel like this is an easy way out for them–not that I want to make things hard for them or even punish them, but allowing them to read in class when they were supposed to do so on their own before coming to class doesn’t seem to send a useful message about how to be a successful college student. Instead, I give a set of questions on the topic of the readings and ask students to draw on their own personal experiences, ideas, and observations in generating responses. I might them have them share their responses in small groups, and then we share and discuss as a whole class. This way, at least we can still have a productive day on the topic at hand, and students walk away with ideas of their own and from class discussion to contextualize the readings that they now have to complete.

    In sum, I find the reading/writing assignment pairing very successful–and for more reasons than simply ensuring that most students will do the readings on time! (But perhaps that’s for another conversation altogether….)

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