Evidence shows what many faculty already know: that many students are not doing the assigned readings for their classes. The numbers are striking. Today’s college student spends an average of six to seven hours per week on assigned readings, down from 24 hours in the mid-20th century (Johnson, 2019). In fact, anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of students do the required readings for a class in a normal week.
A common reason given for this drop is the high cost of textbooks. The costs of textbooks rose 82 percent from 2004 to 2014, and a study in 2020 found that almost 65 percent of students chose not to purchase textbooks (Goode et al., 2021). But there is evidence that correlation is not causation, at least not for all students. Goode et al. found that higher textbook costs were not associated with fewer purchases. Quite the opposite, in fact: courses with higher textbook costs actually tended to have higher purchase rates.
Goode and colleagues also found that “access to materials did not appear to be correlated with success in the course.” This suggests another reason for the low reading rates: students simply do not see value in the assigned readings for their courses. According to the study, “Students perceived they could achieve a passing grade without buying the required texts.” Many students also believed that they could find sufficiently similar information for free on the internet. As a result, large numbers of students waited to see whether they actually needed the textbook for the class before purchasing it.
Why assign readings?
While faculty and researchers lament the low compliance rate with assigned readings, if students are right that they don’t need to do the assigned readings to pass a course, then can we blame them for not doing the readings?
This raises the question of why faculty assign readings at all. Why can’t students get all the information they need for the class from the face-to-face lecture or the online course module? There are many fields in which someone can become quite proficient simply by watching YouTube videos, so why can’t instructors use video alone for course content? Do they assign readings assigned merely to satisfy the “rule” that each hour of class time should be accompanied by two hours of studying? Or because they did a lot of reading in their studies and so are biased toward reading as a method of learning?
Perhaps instructors assign readings to help students cultivate the skill of reading itself. But reading comprehension is not a general skill (Pondiscio, 2020). Fully understanding a text requires a lot of background knowledge that students often lack. Plus, students do not typically know what they should be reading for, so they latch onto irrelevant information rather than what’s important.
This raises another possible reason why some students do not do the reading: they simply do not understand the readings well enough to think them worth the effort. As an undergraduate philosophy who was assigned to read primary texts by Plato, Descartes, and Kant before class, I was frequently amazed by how much my interpretations of the reading differed from the instructor’s. Lectures seemed to be about telling me what the author really said, which raised the question in my head of why I was bothering doing the readings if they were just leading me astray.
A better way to assign readings
Instructors can address the problem of students lacking the context to understand a reading by reversing the reading-class order. Instead of assigning students to read a text and then covering it in class, instructors can cover the topic of the text in class or in the online module first and then have students do the reading on it. This approach provides students with the context they need to understand the text and alerts them to what they need to get out of it.
Some instructors might object that once they have covered a topic in class, there is not much incentive for students to do the reading. True, but if students aren’t doing the reading to begin with, the situation can only improve. Those who have not been doing the reading will either start doing it or continue to not do it. Meanwhile, students who have been doing it will have even more incentive to do it now that they are likely to get more out of it.
In addition to assigning reading after covering the topic in class, instructors can scaffold the text by placing it in a cloud-based social annotation tool, such as Perusall. Doing so allows the instructor to highlight areas of importance, drawing students’ attention to what they should focus on. To reinforce this guided focus and ensure compliance with the reading, instructors can insert questions about the text into the annotation system for students to answer.
This flipped strategy has the advantage of giving students a solid foundation on a topic their understanding of which they can then enrich through reading, ideally with guided questions. This method would have helped me understand the difficult texts I read as an undergraduate much better than the “get misled and then be told the right answer in class” method used by my instructors, which is neither pedagogically sound nor very motivating.
 The executive director of a regional higher education accreditation commission told me that this rule is an academic urban legend; no such formal rule exists.
Goode, J. R., Morris, K. K., Smith, B., & Tweddle, J. C. (2021). Why aren’t my students reading: faculty & student research unveiling the hidden curriculum of course material usage. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 15(1), Article 2. https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2021.150102
Johnson, S. (2019, April 21). The fall, and rise, of reading. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-fall-and-rise-of-reading
Pondiscio, R. (2020, November 30). Reading comprehension is not a “skill.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpondiscio/2020/11/30/what-good-readers-know