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.