Turning the tables: Getting your students hooked on their weekly readings

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Convincing students to complete the weekly readings before coming to university classes is a common struggle. More often than not, students show up to class not having done the readings. This can be enormously frustrating for tutors who, in turn, have planned their tutorial activities around the assumption that students indeed do their reading beforehand.

In this post, we’ll unpack some of the challenges behind motivating students to complete their weekly readings and share some handy tips you can use to help tackle this age-old teaching conundrum.

Why is it so difficult to get students to do the readings?

There are a few answers to that question. Firstly, we need to be mindful of our student’s overall reading demands. How many readings are your students expected to do in a week across all units they are currently studying?

many students don’t know how to read an academic text

Furthermore, many students don’t know how to read an academic text. This is true for undergraduate as well as postgraduate students. Reading is more than decoding symbols on a paper, and academic reading is particularly difficult. It can often involve complex academic language, vocabulary, and terminology that many students have never encountered before or that is significantly more challenging than their high school texts. Even the term “Reading” is disciplinary and context-specific. The way you read a novel (intensively at part, perhaps rushing through other sections) is different from how you read a list of words at the optometrist (every letter very carefully), to how you read the flight screen at the airport (skimming and scanning until you find what you are looking for). The same goes for academic readings. Reading in English is different from reading in maths, and reading in history is different from reading in science. Are you reading to find out more about theory? Interested in the methodology? Their findings? You will adjust the way you read depending on the purpose of reading. Skim and scan at parts, read carefully elsewhere. Many students are never taught how to read academic texts in their disciplines, and they progress through their degrees feeling anxious and disheartened by academic reading.

If students don’t know how to read our texts, or don’t know the purpose of why they are reading a particular text, then it quickly becomes a daunting task that is too conceptually demanding (and too time-consuming).

students may not have the relevant background knowledge

Another important aspect of university reading is that students may not have the relevant background knowledge. This relates to the concept of schema, which is sort of the mental representation or structure of our prior experiences. When we read, we connect what we are reading with our prior experiences. If we don’t have the relevant background knowledge, then our minds will be working overtime trying to connect what we read with what we already know (or don’t know). Indeed, research has shown us that if you read about a topic that is familiar to you, then you will be reading much faster than if you read about an unfamiliar topic. Furthermore, a reader has much higher recall of information if they read a text they are prepared for and know something about, compared to when they read a text they know nothing about. By recognising this, we can adjust the way we work with weekly readings at university to ensure that all our students are able to engage with texts in meaningful ways.

While knowing how to read academic texts and having relevant background knowledge is important for all our learners, many of our students are also learning English as an additional language or dialect. About half of the students at the University of Sydney are international students, and even more of them have English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D). These students need extra support and time learning to read and engage with academic texts in English.

A text that may take you (the tutor or coordinator) half an hour or an hour to read, can easily take half a day for your students to read. Indeed, talking to our international students I hear that they often sit up long after midnight trying to understand their readings. It becomes near impossible for them to engage with weekly readings in a meaningful way.

But there is good news…

The academic fields of teaching disciplinary literacy and second language acquisition have a lot to share, and the solutions can be quite simple. Most important is to prepare your learners for the texts.

Don’t start with the text but work your way towards it

Don’t start with the text but work your way towards it. As previously mentioned, reading about familiar things significantly speeds up both the reading time and the recall of information so it is in your best interest that the students are familiar with the content of the text before they read it. These “preparation for pre-reading activities” don’t have to be complicated, but you could (for example):

  1. Tell students (the week before) what the texts are about. Tell them why you want them to read these particular texts. Is there something specific you want to draw their attention to? Are there any specific parts of the text you want them to focus on more in-depth?
  2. Connect students’ prior knowledge to the content of the text the week before. This will build up motivation and prepare the learners for the text. Have a “hook” where you ask them questions or even show pictures about relevant topics that they will read about. Finish by explicitly explaining how this is related to the text they are about to read.
  3. Early in the unit, show them “how to read”. Perhaps it sounds silly, but as mentioned above many students do not know how to read an academic text. You can model how reading is done in your discipline and show them how academic experts engage with text.
  4. Highlight critical readings and suggest skimmable sections. Are there lots of readings? Perhaps tell students which reading they should read closely (or what part) and what part they can skim across.

A lot of tutors are concerned that they don’t have time to do pre-reading activities or feel that doing so takes time away from “content”. However, ensuring that your students are set up to be proficient readers in your unit will help them access that content much more efficiently. So it is a long-term investment in your learners that will set them up for success.

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