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All instructors have to deal with changing expectations. I remember being surprised by the page-long list of books I was given each week at Cambridge as “background reading”; apparently most students don’t bother to read them (I certainly only read my tutors’ assigned readings until I was studying for exams). Last year, I experimented with “essential blocks”: 2-5 pages of required reading for times when you were just too squeezed with other assignments to be fully prepared for class. To my dismay, some students did not even complete that (although, to their credit, many students did far more).
Indeed, students’ unwillingness or even inability to do their assigned readings is well documented. Sheila Valencia suggests that the problem lies not in students’ work habits, other responsibilities (such as work or family), or even boredom with required material. Rather, students don’t read because they can’t understand it. They aren’t taught to read for full comprehension, but for completion. As Valencia argues, the focus on speed over content leads to students skimming over bold words on the page and considering the task done. Unfortunately, this habit does not allow them to comprehend or remember what they’ve read.
Declining (or even stabilizing) adult literacy rates has been a concern for a long time. Many have blamed the internet for a promoting low attention spans, but in the case of homework, the computer may not be to blame. Students who learn that it is more important to finish a book than to understand it will continue these habits in their subsequent education, not necessarily connecting that to declining academic performance at the postsecondary level.
When I design courses, the readings complement what I say in lecture. They do not reiterate it. Students who do only one or only the other will take in 50% of class material (which is equally tested on exams). This is a low starting point, even though, as I discussed last week, I do level the playing field a bit with other types of assignment.
There are ways to help students read more effectively, although depending on their need a reading specialist might be necessary. For the run-of-the-mill, busy student, it helps to include signposts of the most important aspects of the reading(s). This can be through directions (‘pay attention to the analysis of the Battle of Waterloo’), specific questions (‘what is the author’s argument on p. 50?’), or more open-ended questions (‘What do you think the author means by “disenchantment”?’).
This additional work should, of course, be assessed through a method of your choice, and improvement noted. With positive reinforcement, students may take these active reading techniques into other classes, their careers, and (who knows?) pleasure reading — maybe even on the internet.