Making the Reading Worth Doing

The title of this post was the title of a presentation by William J. Melanson (from University of Nebraska at Oklahoma) at the recent American Association of Philosophy Teacher‘s biannual conference at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.  The problem he addressed is:  how can we encourage students to do the reading, when it is often very difficult (especially for those new to philosophy)?  One thing that keeps them from doing the reading is teaching in a way that makes it such that they don’t have to do it.  For example, some of us (myself included) have taken the strategy of telling students they should do the reading before class, and then spending class time outlining what is in it.This makes some sense, of course, when the reading is complex and the argumentation requires careful analysis in order to make it clear.  But it can also send the message that it’s not necessary to do the reading before class, because after all, the professor will just go over it in detail in class anyway.  What other options are there?

Of course, we could just decide that it doesn’t matter if they do the reading before class;  maybe it’s better if they do it after class, when they can understand it better after the lecture.  What is lost in that case?  The chance for them to engage in meaningful discussion of the text,  unless one spent another class day devoted to that.  Also lost would be much incentive for students to do the reading–if we have just gone over all the important points in class, why do they need to go back and read it?  Especially if our assignments just require that they know the basics we already talked about in lecture.

Melanson offers another, intriguing option with five parts:

1.  Do some lecturing on the text before the students read it:  spend 20-30 minutes in a class day giving some of the basics of the text before they are supposed to read it.  The point of the lecture is to provide background information, motivate issues, give the basics of the arguments.  Then, the point of doing the reading after that is for the students to fill in the details themselves.

2.  Give the students a long list of questions to guide their readings.  These questions ask about the specific details on the text, and he gives around one question per paragraph of the reading (maybe more).  He can easily have 15-20 questions per reading.  Students answer these questions in their own notes before the next lecture.  Are the answers to these questions turned in or marked?  No.  Why would the students do them?  See #s 4 and 5, below.

3.  The second lecture:  students bring questions about the questions given in #2, things they didn’t understand.  This second lecture can also bring up objections, implications, other aspects of the text and its arguments.

4.  Exam questions are taken directly from the lists of reading questions in #2, above, but not in the same exact form.  He’ll write more general questions for which the more specific questions are building blocks.  He gives them 15-20 exam questions a week in advance, that each put together around 5 of the reading questions already assigned.  5 or more of these will be on the exam.  It is in the students’ best interest to do the reading questions in #2 when the reading is assigned, because doing 15-20 exam questions (which each put together around 5 of the reading questions), with only a week before the exam, is harder to do otherwise.  It can, of course, be done, and Melanson doesn’t worry about that.

5.  Term papers:  after the students have done the reading questions and taken an exam or two on the readings, then term papers can actually get into interesting critical issues about the texts.  The students have a much better sense of what is going on in the texts, and their critical responses to them are therefore much better.

I am intrigued by various aspects of this plan.  I especially like the idea of doing a shorter intro lecture before students read the texts, and then doing another one afterwards, devoted to questions, comments, criticisms.  Melanson admits that putting together the reading questions for each reading is a VERY big time investment, but once you’ve done them you have them forever.  No worries about re-using them, since they’re not marked (except insofar as they appear as exam questions, but those are also given in advance).  The one downside to this system is that exams are merely based on regurgitating readings.  But the upside is that doing so can get students to the point where they understand the readings well enough to write a good critical response in paper form.

If nothing else, this session provided a lot to think about, including how I myself am often guilty of NOT making the reading worth doing.