Students reading/not reading the texts

(The last term, Jan-April 2012, was incredibly busy for me…no time to blog! But now I’m on a year’s sabbatical (July 2012-July 2013), and plan to do a good deal of reading and writing about teaching!)

Some common concerns: How can we engage in good classroom discussion of one or more texts and the issues and arguments they raise if a good number of students haven’t read the texts? How can we encourage students to read the texts before coming to class?

Clearly we need to motivate students so they want to read the texts before class. If the readings were intrinsically interesting to them and they had lots of time, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, those two things are not always true (and with philosophical texts, the first is too often not true for many students). In addition, I have in the past found myself making up for the lack of preparedness by lecturing on the main ideas in the texts myself in class. Which, of course, just makes students even less likely to read the texts: if the texts are difficult, and the professor is just going to lecture on the main points anyway, why not spend one’s precious time in one’s very busy life doing something else? For many college students are very, very busy–probably too much so; but that’s an argument for another day.

One of the courses I teach is “Arts One,” a year-long, interdisciplinary, team-taught course for first year students only. In that course we read a book a week, approximately (sometimes one book over two weeks), and most of the class time is spent in discussion of the books. It is imperative that students have read the texts before coming to discussion class, and in that particular class, I have too often relied on the thought that the students who choose Arts One are already diligent and highly motivated, and would do the work on their own. But that isn’t always the case, and often it’s because they are overworked or the texts are difficult for them to understand on their own.

Things really become problematic when I ask students to do presentations either to the whole class or to small groups, in which they raise questions for discussion and facilitate that discussion. They are understandably disappointed when their hard work results in lackluster discussion because others haven’t finished reading the books.

I have been loathe to use quizzes to “enforce” reading before class, as it does, indeed, feel like a policing manoeuvre. I have tried asking students to write down some thoughts to discussion questions at the beginning of class, mainly for the sake of them having something written down that they could say if I call on them (to encourage speaking by more reticent students), but often students could get away with answering those even without having finished reading the books. I really like the idea of using the beginning-of-class writing exercise as a springboard for later discussion, as a way to encourage participation, and a way to direct discussion along the lines of what students themselves want to say rather than what I want to say. But I need to find a way to mesh those benefits with the benefit of encouraging them also to finish reading the texts before class begins.

I recently read an article by Charles Henderson and Alvin Rosenthal, entitled “Reading Questions: Encouraging Students to Read the Text Before Coming to Class” (Journal of College Science Teaching, 35:7 (2006): 46-50). They argue for the use of reading questions rather than quizzes to encourage students to read the texts before coming to class. One of the problems they cite with quizzes is that it is a teacher-centred approach, that asks only what the teacher is interested in rather than gathering information about students’ own ideas regarding the class material (p. 2). That fits very well with my own concerns in Arts One, where the emphasis is less on students learning particular things from the material than on writing about their own ideas. Also, Henderson and Rosenthal note that quizzes require teachers to judge and assess student learning, whereas giving students an opportunity to assess their own learning is also important (p. 2).

Thus, in their physics courses, they ask students to submit 1-2 questions they have about the reading to the professor via email before class. They provide guidelines as to what constitutes a good question vs. a not-so-good one, which could be tailored to any course and any objectives. The professor then uses these questions in class, focusing on ones that were asked more than once, or that are particularly thought-provoking, etc. The professor also answers some of the questions individually via email (in a big class, this can’t be done for all of them; perhaps the prof rotates whose question gets answered individually?).

There are many things about this idea that I like, including that it could help guide discussion towards what students want to know/talk about rather than just towards what I want to talk about. It also requires that students do at least some of the reading. But there’s the problem–students could ask 1-2 very good questions by just doing part of the reading. In Arts One, where students have to read a whole book per week, they could easily get away with only reading 1/3 to 1/2 of it and asking very good questions for discussion.

I wonder if I might do something like this: at the beginning of each week’s discussion classes, ask students to write down two things:

1. Somehow show that they have read the whole text:
— either give a basic summary of the plot of a novel, or how a character changes over time, or some of the main events in the novel
— or give an overview of an argument in a philosophical text, or some of the main arguments in different sections of a text
— or ask several questions that cover the bulk of a text (not just the first parts), questions that either refer to large aspects of a text, or that address numerous different parts to show those parts have been read

2. Ask one main question they’d like to discuss in class that week, something that will likely generate substantive discussion rather than just a content question that could be answered quickly.

Then students could get together in groups of, say, three, and discuss #2. They could, perhaps, choose one such discussion question to raise to the rest of the class, out of the three given by individuals.

This might be too difficult to do in a short time in class, though. So perhaps they could turn such things in on the website before class. An upside to doing that would be that I could read them before class and answer some of the questions during class. A downside is that these things won’t be as fresh in their minds during class itself, and they may not remember what they said. Many of them have computers or smart phones, though, and they could just go to the website and check. Or I could remind them. So then class could start with discussion of #2 in groups and then move on to the larger class discussion. I could also then, later, answer any questions from #1 that students raised in their website submissions that weren’t addressed in class discussion. I have the luxury of only having 20 students in my Arts One class, so this could be feasible.

I’ll keep thinking about this issue, I’m sure, and by the time I return from sabbatical my ideas on how to address it may have changed!