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Students Aren’t Doing the Reading

For Those Who Teach Reflections on Teaching

Students Aren’t Doing the Reading

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That’s not going to come as a big surprise. What leaves most of us a bit breathless and depressed are the numbers. The study referenced below cites four other studies in which more than 70 percent of the students reported not doing assigned reading. In this study, done in a genetics course—not a beginning course but one with two prerequisites, presumably a course for science majors—54.4 percent said they did none of the pre-lecture reading and 33.3 percent said they did some of it. The students were asked weekly about their reading and these are the overall percentage amounts.

 For Those Who TeachThe consistent not-doing-the reading finding in the research and our classrooms confronts us with a number of questions. Yes, it’s a student problem, but one with large implications for teachers. We can explore questions generically but then I’d like to challenge you to consider them in light of your courses.

If students aren’t coming to class having done the reading, does that matter? Maybe for most students the better approach is doing the reading after they’ve been to class. But that’s a problem if the teacher is presenting material assuming students have at least some familiarity with it. The further complication is a bundle of evidence documenting that most after-the-fact reading happens just before exams. Perhaps that’s better than never reading but it doesn’t garner the research identified benefits of regular reading and it doesn’t make the most of simultaneous content exposure in the text and in class. If students aren’t coming prepared, what are the implications for you, for them?

Why aren’t students doing the reading? In this study they said they were too busy, which seems like a nice, conventional, not terribly truthful response. The more honest answer likely involves the fact that many students don’t like to read and aren’t very good at reading college-level material. The more sinister answer is they aren’t reading because they don’t have to. They can get the grades they need without doing the reading. The prof covers what they need to know for the exam. And for many students, the truth is they’d rather hear it than read it. It’s certainly easier. What are the reasons why students aren’t doing the reading in your course?

That leads us to ask, does learning suffer if students come to class not having done the reading? In the genetics course it did. “The importance of pre-lecture reading cannot be overstated. Not only does it prepare a student for the lecture they are about to receive, but the fruits of this work are also demonstrated in improved exam scores.” (p. 5) Do students learn less in your course if they don’t do the reading? Do you see that in exam scores? Do they see it?

Are there ways of helping students do the reading? In the referenced study, students were given prepared reading guides (ARMs, Active Reading Modules). They consisted of a variety of activities students could complete including concept mapping, outlining, drawing pictures, and using external resources. “Taken as a whole, it seems our intervention was ineffective at swaying student perceptions [as to the value of the readings] and we failed to identify a method to significantly change those perceptions.” (p. 5) In general, most students don’t see the value of reading. They don’t see it as skill worthy of development. They think textbooks are hard—lots of big words, long chapters, and boring details. They don’t think they’ll have to read text-like material after college. Do your students see reading as an essential professional skill?

How do we get students doing the reading? Most of us rely on extrinsic motivators. We quiz them on the reading, we give graded pre-lecture assignments, we have test questions on reading material not covered in class. And yes, there’s evidence that those approaches work in courses where they’re used. But do approaches like these teach students the value of reading? If they did, would we have these large percentages of students not doing the reading? Students need to discover for themselves that when it comes to learning, particularly when it comes to learning on their own, reading is one of the best, sometimes only, way to learn. Are the approaches you’re using effectively teaching students the value of reading?

The Journal of Microbiology is an open-access journal. I encourage you to read the full article cited here.

Reference: Gammerdinger, W. J. and Kocher, T. D. (2018). Understanding student perceptions and practices for pre-lecture content reading in the genetics classroom. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, 19 (2), 1-6.

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