Thing-a-day #9: Reading notes (How do you motivate students to read?)

Like all academics, I do a lot of reading. A lot of reading. 100 pages in a day is typical. But I haven’t figured out how to make a thing-a-day of it yet, because if I don’t take notes or anything — and, for assigned readings where I don’t much care about remembering them beyond this week’s class, I generally don’t — there isn’t a thing that I’ve produced.

In the class I have tomorrow afternoon, the professor will occasionally ask us to post reading responses to an online discussion board. One student is nominated / volunteers to post an initial post, and then the rest of us contribute to discussion, which involves summarizing, repeating particular points that stood out, making critical comments, and contrasting/comparing if there are multiple articles. For this blog, I’m not so interested in the content of my online discussion contributions — I did one, it was pretty typical — as in the function they serve: getting us as students to do the reading and think critically about it.

This is a challenge that all teachers face. As long as you assign readings, you need to decide whether you really care if students read them, and if you do, you need to figure out how to motivate them. This is a real decision; I’ve taken classes where the professors don’t seem to care, or where it doesn’t matter. In one case, the professor walked us through the reading point by point every week, so if you did the reading in advance it was a little helpful to understanding the lecture, but if you didn’t, you didn’t miss anything. I’ve also had professors who didn’t refer to the readings in any way other than by assigning them, which basically leaves it up to you if you feel like doing them or not. And by this point in the semester, there are always other things you could be doing instead.

Among professors who do try to hold students accountable, usually there’s some sort of written requirement like what we’re doing in tomorrow’s class. I started this blog as a place to publish weekly reflective assignments, and the discussion board adds an additional element of group discussion to it. Aside from giving additional assignments, though, in my own teaching I’m interested in finding ways of running class discussion so that students feel interested and accountable for the reading as part of their class participation. The classes where I’ve felt most motivated to do the reading are those where the topic aligns with my own interests, and where I feel like I’ll be wasting my time in class if I’m not prepared. This doesn’t mean discussing the assigned articles, because that typically degenerates into summary, and if I’m going to get a summary I can skip the reading. It means discussing other issues raised by the articles, making connections between different readings, building larger theories, bringing in data and trying applications.

I had to lead discussion in a seminar a few weeks ago, and I tried running it this way. At the end I asked the other students, if I were their regular instructor, whether they would feel they had to do the reading; they generally said yes (of course it’s difficult to say no in this context) and we had some interesting discussion about it.

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