We instructors often take it for granted that students read the materials we assign to them. If we have evidence that they do not—for example, when their posts on the class forums are completely off topic or demonstrate they do not understand the material—we may take these as signs that the student is not engaged and is unwilling to do the work. These are, after all, students who in their day-to-day life text, tweet, and post. As my librarian friend put it, “Many students do know how to snack, but they do not know the pleasure of sitting down for a meal” when it comes to reading.
Whatever the reasons are, I find that there is another explanation for why students do not read what is assigned and, as a result, do not do well in the class and do not learn. The truth is that we assign a lot of text—text that is very familiar to us but is completely new and strange to many of our students. As a result, students often become overwhelmed when first presented with dense academic articles or even textbook material. This is especially true about nontraditional students who have not had much (or any) exposure to this kind of writing and to the abstract concepts—and I would argue that many of our online students fall under this category. By nontraditional students, I mean older students, first-time students, students who work, students who have children and families, disabled students, and so on.
For students who are not used to the type of material that is very detailed and contains many unfamiliar concepts, it is easy to “lose the forest for the trees” and feel overwhelmed unless they approach the readings in an organized way. These students quickly become discouraged and may stop reading altogether.
Many of us instructors take it for granted that students know how to read for understanding, but I find that this is not necessarily the case. In order to lessen their anxiety and make class readings less intimidating, a few years ago I put together a document containing tips on how to read in a focused way. I share these tips with my online students, who seem to appreciate this basic but useful help. This advice is based on my own experience with reading. As a graduate student at Stanford University, I was sometimes expected to read up to 500 pages a week of dense academic text. Not only was I not familiar with many of the concepts, I am also not a native English speaker, which added another layer of difficulty. To make it all manageable and avoid frustration, I developed a way to approach these readings in a more focused and productive way.
Here are the steps in approaching class readings that many students may find helpful:
First, read the assignment or the instructor questions for the online forum carefully before reading the assigned article or chapter. After you do that, decide which question or topic you find the most interesting and familiar. This will not only help you decide which question you want to respond to, but it will also help you read in a more focused way.
Second, take a good look at the article's or chapter's topic; then read the abstract (if available) and all the headings and subheadings.
Third, read the introduction to and conclusion of the article or chapter. They are usually organized into separate sections. Even if that's not the case, the introduction and conclusion are usually identifiable. The conclusion, in particular, will give you a sense of where the author wants to take the argument. This will give you a “framework” for reading, and make it easier to focus on the most important parts of the reading and to not get lost in the details or the complexities of the description, discussion, and analysis.
Fourth, start reading the article or chapter and, as you read, identify the section or sections that relate to the question to which you plan to respond. As you go through the reading, it is a good idea to underline or highlight (on paper or electronically) the most relevant parts or sections. Look for short “catchy” quotes that you can then incorporate into your paper or use as a discussion forum response.
Finally, read the entire paper or chapter and keep in mind that you will not necessarily understand every single concept. Do not get stuck on a single word, sentence, or section, but make a note of them so that you can get back to anything that is perplexing if you have some extra time after you finish reading the entire piece.
After following these steps, the student should have enough familiarity with the material to be able to complete the assignment.
I also remind students that as they get used to reading academic articles and have a continuing exposure to some of the same or similar ideas and arguments, reading these articles will become easier and less time-consuming.
As a sociology instructor, I found it counterproductive to pretend that students have an unlimited amount of time, energy, and patience to read and reread the sizeable amount of written material assigned to them. At the same time, I do not think that we should necessarily cut down on the readings. As a graduate student, I once asked one of my professors if she believed that any students are truly able to read and absorb 500 pages of text per week. She smiled and said that she hopes they will read as much as they can, even if only 300 pages. But, she added, if she assigned 300, then they might only read half of that. This really made me think. Now, in my almost 10 years' practice as an online instructor, I understand that instead of pushing students to do the impossible or setting them up for failure, we have the responsibility to provide tools to help them manage their schoolwork in the most productive way. By providing these tips, we are also supporting them in developing good reading habits that will last beyond the online classroom.
Kasia Polanska is an instructor of government and sociology, Title III project coordinator, and an English tutor at the University of Alaska Southeast—Ketchikan.