If you believe the research, on any given day, something like 70 percent of our students come to class having not done the assigned reading. That phenomenon is immensely annoying to most faculty members. Who among us has not faced a classroom full of blank stares, with seemingly no one prepared to answer the well-thought-out question we've asked about the reading?
How can we solve that problem? How can we ensure that students are meeting what should be a very basic responsibility?
Well, we can give quizzes. Testing students in class is a good way to make sure they are reading the assigned texts. If students can see very clearly that skipping the reading assignments will cause their grade to suffer, they will make sure they read. But most teachers, myself included, do not feel comfortable giving lots of reading quizzes (despite their benefits). For one, quizzes come off as punitive, treating students like children. In addition, many teachers are loathe to devote a significant portion of class time—and the final grade—to something as seemingly basic as making sure students have done the reading.
So what else can you do if you don't want to introduce regular reading quizzes?
The first thing to do: Make sure that your required reading is actually required. Students, because they have what seems to them to be an enormous amount of responsibilities—multiple courses, a budding social life, the apparent need to sleep upwards of 12 hours a night—are pre-eminent prioritizers. If they figure out that it’s not really necessary to read everything you assign to do well in your class, they won’t read everything you assign. They (and here I’m talking generally about the majority of students, not those ideal students we all want more of) will only do the reading if not doing it will lead to a poor result. Otherwise, they’ve got better things to do.
So go through your syllabus, and make sure that all of your reading assignments are there for a reason, and that it’s actually necessary to complete the readings to meet the course objectives. Be ruthless and honest with yourself about what students need to read, and whether they can get it all done in a reasonable amount of time.
Next you have to demonstrate this 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. How will the next class build on the knowledge they get through their reading? What will they need to understand from the texts to take full part in the discussion? What questions should they be looking to answer through their reading?
Many teachers have taken to using handouts that prime students with questions to help them get the most out of each reading. The questions can be the same for every reading assignment (What is the main focus of this reading? What’s the most important point the author makes?), or tailored to the specific assignment and your course objectives. Peter Filene hands out “discussion questions” that students consider on their own before discussing in class with their peers. Even better, I think, is a handout that concludes by asking students “What one question would you like me to answer in class about the reading?”.
That last idea points to a way to use quizzes so that they lose some of their punitive feel. Instead of the usual quiz that asks questions to check if students have done the assignment, turn the quiz into a sort of questionnaire. Make the questions about the student’s preferences for how you should handle the reading material in class. Ask students which parts of the reading they grasped easily and thus don’t need explained further. Ask them to tell you the parts that aren’t clear to them. Ask them for the questions raised by the reading. By asking questions that point to the use you’ll make of the reading, you’ll underline the fact that the reading is indeed integral to the course. You’ll also provide yourself with useful information to guide your lecture or class discussion.
Such questionnaires can still be used to monitor your students’ reading: You’ll collect them, and it will be pretty clear who has done the reading and who has not. But this approach has the added benefit of treating students like the mature intellectuals you hope they’ll become, instead of like disobedient pupils who need to be watched over by a surrogate parent.
Perhaps most important: Make use of reading material in class without rehashing it. Many teachers—particularly those who suspect that students haven’t done the reading—spend a large amount of class time breaking down the most important parts of the reading assignment for students. While many disciplines require readings to be the main subject of a class discussion, it’s important to make sure you’re not doing all the work for your students. If you’re just going to tell them what they need to know, why should students spend all that extra time reading? So aim to have in-class activities build on the readings, rather than recap them.
Demonstrate that students need to have done the reading to take full advantage of class time—and to get a good grade—and they’ll quickly figure out that your required reading is definitely not optional.