Teachers - how do you make students do their readings?

My teaching experience has, thus far, been limited to teaching university classes, but I’d also love to hear from K-12 teachers and really anyone else. In a nutshell, my situation is thus: I’m finishing up a PhD in linguistics, and for the last two years I’ve been lucky enough to teach 3 classes and not mess up too badly. All three classes were upper-division courses that focused on articulatory and acoustic phonetics, and since a large number of my students were aiming for extremely competitive graduate slots in speech pathology/audiology, they tended be pretty good about doing most of the work I assigned.

Fast forward to this fall. The guy who usually teaches our Introduction to Syntax & Semantics course is on sabbatical, and after sufficient badgering he agreed to let me run the course in his absence. I think I’ve been doing a decent job with the lectures, but instead of the angelic, responsible, and hilariously cutthroat speech science students that I’ve dealt with in the past, I’m having trouble getting about 75% of the class to actually do their damn readings. I can sympathize with them, because reading about Syntax can be even more tedious than hearing about it, but there’s no way I’m going to be able to cover everything they need to know in lecture.

So how have people gotten their students to actually do the damn work? I’m considering holding weekly quizzes on the material, but I’d rather find a less obvious way of tricking people into doing their work.

I stopped buying books my junior year and just took really good notes, fully expecting nothing that wasn’t in lecture to show up in the homework or exams. I did end up having to buy one or two books, but nowhere near the $1000 a semester I would have been spending. Maybe your students are just taking the Cornelius approach to college?

Hmm, that’s a good point. On the first day of class I did a quick “You’re expected to come to class AND do your readings, and to well on the exams you’ll need to draw on information from both resources” spiel, but I haven’t (and probably should’ve) emphasized it since the first day.

I’ve been trying to teach as the professor who usually runs this course does, which is to say I’ll assign weekend readings that cover the basic theory I want to work on, ask for questions from the readings on Tuesday (we met Tue/Thurs), and assuming no problems arise, proceed to split the rest of our time between ‘practicing’ basic techniques (e.g. drawing and interpreting trees, screwing around with predicate logic) and analyzing cooked problem sets to illustrate the theory that I had them reading about.

It might be necessary for me to cover theory more directly in class, but all of the subsequent courses assume that students are coming in with a lot of experience in analyzing data, and since I haven’t taught Syntax/Semantics before, I’ve been using the “Your prof knows what he’s doing, so it’s probably best if you can reproduce his approach without screwing it up too badly” methodology. :slight_smile:

Ask the Prof? Other instructiors/Profs?

It’s a time-waster, but if another “you will need to read the material; it’s on the Final” warning still has them sitting on their hands when discussing specific topics from the text(s): Pop quiz! Should be used as a last resort, but think of it as the tactical nuke of the teaching profession :smiley:

Weekly quizzes are the only way to go, I’ve found, that works.

One of my colleagues gives a quiz at the start of every class, lasting just five minutes, two or three easy questions for people who’ve done the reading and virtually impossible for anyone who hasn’t. He sells it as a chance to score easy points every class, and it motivates both preparation and timely attendance, and ensures that the class is in their seats and ready to go.

They’re short enough that he doesn’t need to hand them back or mark them, just briefly tells the students what the right answers are orally, records the qiz grades, and keeps them to track absences (if student come in too late for the quiz, he tells them to write a note to that effect and hand that in --otherwise they get marked absent.)

I haven’t gone that far, but he swears by it, and the students don’t seem to mind as much as you might think.

IME, new teachers want kids to do the reading, get angry when they don’t, but then do everything they can to make up for the fact that people haven’t done the reading–they treat it like the students are creating a problem that the teacher must fix, and while they get angry and resentful about it, they still go out of their way to “fix” the problem, to make it possible to pass without reading. Usually by lowering their standards to “everything I’ve covered in lecture” without realizing it. This actually punishes the kids who did read, encouraging them to stop.

Assuming this isn’t a huge lecture class, shift your teaching style to something that rewards the kids who did read. Instead of lecturing, sit down and read the material, making a list of open ended questions that people who did the reading should be able to answer as you go. Then, at the end, list any topics that aren’t covered in the reading that you need to address. Then run your class like a Socratic seminar, asking questions, letting students answer, letting the class talk and explore ideas. Make sure you get to the topics “not covered” by the end (directing the discussion to these is tricky–if you have to, straight lecture a bit at the end). If you don’t get to every topic in the reading, don’t worry about it. The discussion gives them the tools they need to understand the stuff you didn’t get to on their own, and if they need more clarification, that’s what office hours are for.

The students who didn’t read will be moderately lost (though if they are paying attention, they will still learn a lot) but the students who did read will have their knowledge of the subject deepened and clarified. This will encourage more students to read for next time, not fewer.
The nuclear option is the “walk out in a huff” thing. However, this really only works if they already really like/respect you. If they do, then when there is a day that it is clear that no one has read, just say 'look, this is ridiculous. There’s no point in having class if all you want me to do is summarize the book so that you don’t have to read it. Whatever, this material is still on the test, but I’m done for today." Then leave. This is not a casual thing. I’ve done it once in seven years. But it makes a hell of an impression.

How big are these classes? My teachers used to ask very specific questions to individual students regarding stuff in the reading. If you didn’t do your reading, you were going to be very lost and look like an idiot in front of everyone. We learned pretty quickly to show up prepared. Obviously this wouldn’t work in a larger class.

This is what I do–very easy quizzes that you can ace if you did the reading, even if you didn’t fully understand it. (For example, I’ll ask a question about an example used by the author. Even students who didn’t understand the point of the example will remember the example, if they read.) It makes for a little extra work, but I emphasize to the students that I’m basically giving away points; all they have to do is read. I finally resorted to this after a few years of teaching because I was tired of the students not knowing anything about what we were discussing in class that day.

Thank you everyone, for your replies. :slight_smile: weekly quizzes are sounding more and more enticing, especially because it’s a pretty big class: last time I checked, 109 students were registered, so I don’t think I can really use the Socratic method without bogging the class down.

Speaking of Socrates, however, has anyone had good or bad luck with randomly questioning students throughout the lecture, as in “<sketches part of a tree structure and pauses ominously at a yet-unlabeled node> what do I write here, Mr. X? (after some mumbled answer) Right, and why am I writing this, Ms. Y?”

In theory I would hope that the threat of potential (mild) public humiliation would help motivate people, but I’m worried that it might just work out to me pestering the unengaged students without actually motivating anyone to do their work.

This won’t work with 109 people, but with a high school class of 30, I give each kid an index card that they write their name on. Then, as I ask questions based on the readings, kids raise their hands and I call on them. If they give an acceptable answer, I tell them to write it on the card, and once they have two acceptable answers, I take up the card. That’s a 100 on a quiz grade. When I have your card, you can’t speak any more. After a while, it becomes painfully obvious that the people who still have cards didn’t read, and I take those up and give them a 50. This system serves many purposes: the overachievers tend to hang back, because they only get to answer twice and they don’t want to blow it on the easy stuff, the middle kids want to get it out of the way, so they clamor for attention instead of leaning back and letting the over-achievers run the show, you avoid humiliating the kid who did read but doesn’t know once specific question, and you mildly shame the kids who didn’t read. I don’t know if there is anyway to adapt this to a college setting, though.

Either way, I really appreciate the advice; I’ve never seen this system before, and it sounds really great for a smaller class. :slight_smile:

It’s too late for me to do it this semester, but I think that an i-clicker could be a decent adaptation for a bigger class. It’s basically a wireless remote control with a unique ID and a bunch of numbered buttons. Each student registers their clicker at the beginning of term, and uses it to key in answers to multiple-choice questions posed during class.

I’ve heard terrible complaints about the system from students, but most of them seem to be about the bookstore’s practice of stocking brand-new clickers every year, forcing people to buy a new unit for every year that they take a course which uses the thing, so I have no idea whether the technology itself is effective.

I’ve also found that the most effective method to enforce the reading is a quiz. I teach college-level biology and I’ve done it successfully in all class sizes. As Pseudotriton Ruber Ruber said, it should be easy for the folks who read. It’s not a test for true understanding or critical thinking; you’re just looking to check whether or not they read.

As for the mechanics of it, I’m a big fan of Blackboard/WebCT. I set the quiz to open the day before class and close at the beginning of class. The timing on it is pretty tight, so as to deter looking in the book for answers during the quiz. I can’t stop them for working together, but I’m okay with that in this case. My goal is for them to be thinking about the topic before class and working together on the quiz accomplishes that goal. The best part here is that it doesn’t take up any class time and it grades itself automatically.

I’ve also used the clickers. The advantage here is that you can discuss the answers immediately. And, you can see what they really didn’t get and spend more time on that content. The disadvantage is that it takes up class time and it can be a little finicky to get clickers properly assigned to students.

Iclickers will earn you everlasting ire on the light side, on the heavy side, a pummeling. I’d drop a class in a heartbeat if I had to get one of those. If you gear the class to a style where you MUST read to keep up, you’re just going to get very low grades and a classroom full of crickets. My Roman Civ teacher did this with the Odyssey. No one said a word except the two people in the front row. Some people pulled out their PSPs and started playing. I read my chess books. So don’t think that peer pressure will work in a college classroom because by that level and in that big of a class, we’re immune to it.

What you’re asking is not how to get them to read, it’s how to get them to want to read. Simple answer-it can’t be done. Give up. I don’t show up for work unless I’m being paid for it and you shouldn’t expect the students to do soemthing unless you’re paying them in points. Give quizzes. It’s the only way.

ETA: But not pop quizzes. That’s cheating. They have to be announced.

Be careful about adding quizzes to your class… if they are not in the syllabus that you handed out in the first day/week, then, at least at my school, they cannot be used for grading unless every single student agrees to it. And trust me, you will have students who will find out your school’s policy on changing the grading scheme mid-way through the semester, and they will challenge it, just to avoid having the class become “harder” for them. You absolutely need to know what your school will or will not allow before doing this!

You could just re-emphasize the readings, and on already-scheduled tests/assignments/exams have questions that come directly from the book. Just start reminding students that you will be tested on textbook chapters X-Y, and be sure to include questions that smart students who didn’t do the reading might be able to get some points on, but students who did read the material ought to be able to get right.

One other option, if you’ve got some kind of class mailing list or discussion board, is to require every student to post a reaction to/summary of the readings before class.

Go all The Paper Chase on their asses.

Come in, pick a name at random, have that person stand and recite the basics of the assignment. Grill them on it for a few minutes, then let them sit and nail someone else.

Works very well in law school.

That’s feckin’ brilliant! I heart you. As one of the students who gives all the answers out loud because no one else will speak up and I get way too sleepy during lectures, I would love this forced excuse to shut up, without turning the class into a “Bueller? Bueller?..” dronefest.

As for the OP, I think the important thing to think about is whether or not the reading really is necessary. That is, if the reading really is necessary, then those who don’t do it will not do well on the first test. If it’s not really necessary (that is, if they can pay attention in class and pass on that), then it’s not necessary and you should let it go. I hate, loathe, despise and detest teachers who lead me to believe I need to spend $100+ on a text, and then go over all the material in class anyhow. I’ve not, honest to god, used more than 10% of the textbooks I’ve purchased over the years. I no longer buy any text before the first test, just for this reason. This semester alone, I’ve saved over $300 because I didn’t really need the text - our intro A&P class rarely gets more in depth than wikipedia and WebMD, and my algebra text turns out to be available online for free, as part of MyMathLab through Pearson.

As you’re not doing a discussion class, but a lecture class, what does it matter to you if they’re not doing the reading? Just keep going. Those who fail, fail. But in all the classes I’ve had, it just takes one panicked test where people realize there’s stuff on here that you never mentioned in class for the reading to become a higher priority.

If you’re feeling guilty for torpedoing them on that first test, give them an opportunity to do a retest for a higher grade once or twice in the term. My current A&P teacher is doing this: we can retake one of our tests before the midterm for a higher grade, and one after the midterm, before the final. It really helps to alleviate test anxiety without making us blow off studying entirely.

Don’t go out of your way to cover every detail in the lectures. Make the final exam challenging. If students complain tell them that next time perhaps they should either save the money and not take the course, or do the work required for it.

Similar to the quiz idea, I’ve had teachers assign “Reflections” on required reading. The way it worked was this, we had a bunch of readings, and were expected to prepare a 1-2 page typed, single space, standard font size (like 14 or 12) response to one or more of the readings. then the professor would collect a random selection of these Reflections to read and “grade”. Basically, if you didn’t have one when you were chosen to turn yours in, you lost points on your participation grade. If you turned something in which showed you’d read andn thought about at least one reading, you got full credit. All Reflections were collected and read by the professor at some point in the semester.

My advice if you go this route is not to worry too much about making the randomness transparent to the students. Nor to worry too much about making sure that Angie and Brad each have their Reflection read the same number of times during the semester. Spending more than 5 minutes of class time every time there is a Reflection “due” deciding which ones you will grade is annoying as all get out–regardless of whether you have a student roll two d20s, use a Blackberry’s random function, or count off by 4s or 5s.

Note: The classes where this was assigned for me had 20-30 students in them. And the Reflections were hated. But at least some of the readings were done. Reflections were hated in part because we didn’t know what the professor wanted, when what she wanted was for us to do the readings and think about it before class.

Just chiming in again to say that this is a great system. I’m a behaviorist, so I was going to suggest some sort of token system as positive reinforcement (which always works better than punishment). Your system combines reinforcement AND punishment, clever!