Assigning Reading at the University

When I do faculty workshops, I sometimes ask, “What are your biggest complaints about students?”  Usually at the top of the list is “They don’t do the reading until after the in-class discussion.”  This leads to a lackluster and frustrating discussion session with a lot of awkward silences in which the instructor finds him or herself answering all of his or her own questions, thinking all the while, “Maybe I should just go back to lecturing.” Attempting to lead a discussion that just won’t take off is one of the most frustrating of all teaching experiences, and for new instructors a recurring teaching nightmare.  It gets lonely in front of a classroom of unprepared students.

One common solution is to form small groups and assign each group a set of discussion questions to explore.  The students are now reading the assigned text in class looking for answers and trying out different perspectives with the group members.  After several minutes, the groups report their thoughts about what they have found to the class.  This usually works well.  Everyone comes away with a good sense of what the text is about, what issues it raises, and what the others think.  However, class time that could have been used for other activities has been spent reading the assigned text..  Perhaps more importantly, the students have now been given a powerful disincentive to reading the assigned text before class.  If they just wait, instead of a difficult solitary reading they can participate in an engaging group discussion and come away with a good sense of the text with minimal personal effort.  Their lack of reading actually results in an easier path toward understanding, and the class is now on a slippery slope that leads to all reading being negotiated in class.

When I first started asking this question and getting this response from faculty, I was deeply engaged in developing the first version of the CSU Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC) and I knew from  that experience that students were telling us something important with this behavior.  They were saying that they did not like reading difficult texts cold.  They wanted to know why they were reading the text, what the instructor thought was interesting in it, and what they should pay attention to when reading.  The easiest way to know these things is to wait and see what the instructor does with the text.  However, the ERWC Assignment Template outlines activities that ensure that students know a lot about the purpose, structure and content of a text before they even begin to read it.  Applying some of these ideas to university assignments seemed like a good idea.

Of course, the ERWC Assignment Template goes beyond prereading activities.  In addition, it sets up activities that can occur during the reading and rereading of the text, connections to writing assignments, and strategies for productive revision.  The whole package may be overkill for the university environment, but it is clear that the basic pedagogical moves would address at least some of the causes of students not reading the assigned text before class.

I have written and revised a fair number of ERWC modules.  The ERWC Assignment Template is more than 25 pages long and I found it unwieldy to consult when I was in the process of writing a module, so I developed a two-page “cheat sheet” that included the first, second, and third-level headings along with questions designed to prompt a module writer about what kinds of things might be done at each stage.  I think of it as my inspiration machine.  A version of this cheat sheet eventually became “Appendix A” of the actual template, but I still use my original minimalist version.

The original ERWC Assignment Template “Cheat Sheet” can be downloaded here.

I also created another version of the cheat sheet that has been adapted for use at the university level.  I call this a “Reading Assignment Checklist.”  This is a similar list of pedagogical moves that might be used for prereading, reading, postreading, writing, revising, and responding.  It is does not describe specific activities, which would vary from discipline to discipline, but suggests factors that an instructor might think about when assigning a reading or sequence of readings, especially if the readings will lead up to a writing assignment.

The “Reading Assignment Checklist” can be downloaded here.  This version has been improved by feedback from my graduate students in English 589, “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar.

Implementing even a few prereading activities should be enough to avoid those awkward discussion days that never ignite.  Designing and implementing an entire sequence of reading, rereading, and writing activities around a text will help students engage with the issues of the text and the course, and use the words, ideas, facts, and arguments of the text for their own purposes.  Good assignment design leads to better reading, better writing, and more learning, as well as fewer awkward moments in front of the class.

5 thoughts on “Assigning Reading at the University

  1. While I’m not teaching American college students, I am familiar with the challenge of getting them to read. I’ve also struggled with the challenge of trying to have a classroom discussion on material that only a few students have read. Right now, I have assigned students “extended reading” where they get to choose their own books and very few are actually doing it. The problem is that I don’t have enough class time (or just haven’t made the time) to allow them to discuss their books with each other. As a result, I’m getting very little “buy in.” I’m trying to decide if I should just drop it next quarter or make an effort to at least devote some classroom time to valuing this process.

  2. guitarsophist

    If we end up doing all the reading, writing, and discussing in class because students won’t do it out of class, the course becomes very small in both duration and concept. It is usually said that a student should spend 2-3 hours studying for every hour of class time. From the informal surveys that I have my Professional Writing students do, I would say we are lucky to get 2 hours per week per course. In the past, the face-to-face meeting was only 25% to 33% of the course time, but today it is probably 75% to 80%. The in-class time used to leverage a lot more study. Even with spectacular teaching, less learning is probably going on. I think we need to win back some of that out-of-class time. Pre reading activities that make students more comfortable with reading on their own are one way of doing that.

    Having said that, it is very difficult for one teacher to paddle against the whole current of changes in student culture. A concerted effort from the administration would help. However, while the administration generally thinks that seat time is an old-fashioned concept, which it certainly is, it doesn’t think much about what might replace it. What we need is more time on task.

  3. Alex Gulecglu

    Pre-reading activities definitely pave the way for a more productive classroom discussion on readings. In addition, I believe finding text that students are/might be interested in also contributes to an effective, interactive class time. Of course, this comes with two dilemmas: Does every student find the same topic interesting? Also, should we, as teachers, have a word in what topic to assign to our students? For example, when I taught my ENG102 (College Composition for Multilingual Speakers I) last spring, I tried to assign an article about college education. However, to be honest, I felt it was a wrong choice as the classroom discussion didn’t turn out to be as interactive/productive as I expected. Then, I tried to bring in social media and its use in college education. This got the students a bit more interested since they all had Facebook or Twitter accounts, and thus had something to say about the topic. Therefore, I believe a mix of both (student and teacher interest) should help solve the issue Jim mentioned about getting the students interested. Using what the students already bring to the class with themselves seems to motivate them as they find a starting point and jump in the discussion. Many of the articles and books I have read over the past two years (Downs&Wardle, Bartholomae, Gee, Shor) also emphasize the importance of benefiting from the already existing student experience, for example. Finally, I would also choose two students to co-chair the classroom discussion with me. Of course, I wouldn’t tell who when I assigned the reading. They would find out when we started the discussion in class. I think this gives some authority to the students as they take responsibility.

  4. As a student, I like the in-class discussions, but sometimes am worried that I am assisting others in not doing the reading. This causes me to watch what I say in the group or awkward moments where people do not understand what I am saying because they have not done the reading…I would love a way to make these discussions more productive, because you are right, the lectures do nothing when not everyone has read.

    I thought Alex Gulecglu’s comment made a good point–I’ve had students next to me take a sudden interest in the reading once it was contextualized…and at the point where they are so far behind, they’ll never get around to reading it. These moments always make me a little sad because they missed out on something that interested them and something the professor wanted to highlight.

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