Assigned Readings: Strategies and Ponderings

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  • posted byLeah McCurdy
  • dateAugust 24, 2015
  • commentsNo comments
CategoryMain Story

To mark the beginning of the fall semester at most US colleges and universities, we would like to return to our series of blog postings by the Anthropology Teaching Forum (ATF) at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Here we have posted Leah McCurdy’s summary of a spring discussion about assigned readings, led by Lori Barkwill Love, a PhD student and University Teaching Fellow at UTSA. Given that most instructors this week will be going through their syllabi with students, we thought the timing was appropriate!

In a spring meeting of the Anthropology Teaching Forum, Lori Barkwill Love discussed the issue of assigned readings: how instructors combat the issue of blank stares from students who didn’t do the readings. In particular, Lori noted several important techniques for getting students to approach reading as something they should really take on as a responsibility, as well as a learning opportunity. (Sourced from Weimer 2010):

  • if you use a textbook, take the time to actually explain why you use it (this may be difficult if you are teaching at an institution where you are required to use a textbook that you do not particularly care for) and if you use other types of readings, why you have chosen them;
  • give some pointers or a handout on how to read a textbook or other types of readings—don’t assume that every student who walks through your door can sit down and ingest a textbook, it can be hard work;
  • for a pretty strict approach, make it clear and follow through with sourcing a good percentage of your exam or quiz questions directly from the textbook;
  • develop response or essay-based assignments that prompt students to react to or relate the readings to their previous experience or personal life, as a way for them to assimilate the information.

We all clearly favored this last strategy, and discussed how a formative/summative approach would provide opportunities for the students to grow in their critical responses. Some options include:

  • “course preparation assignments” which are response papers or a variety of other products (such as mind maps, group presentations, or creative videos) structured by clear objectives and guiding questions (Yarnane 2006)
  • “pre-reading strategies” where class time is devoted to a discussion of an upcoming reading so students can ask basic questions (regarding vocab or organization, for example) that may be stumbling blocks (Bandeen 2010)
  • “just-in-time quizzes” in which students construct short answers to guiding questions about the reading a couple hours before class and the professor takes stock of student responses and incorporates their points in that day’s lecture (Howard 2004)
  • “structured reading groups” with rotating role responsibilities including “discussion leader” who develops critical thinking questions; “passage master” who sources key passages and summarizes them; “creative connector” who comes prepared with thoughts on media and general life connections to the reading; “devil’s advocate” who develops challenging arguments and criticisms; and “reporter” who summarizes the group’s discussion in real time (Parrott and Cherry 2011)

These ideas, depending on the class and student context, can be implemented relatively easily. Lori amassed a series of helpful references for anyone interested in deeply pursing this issue (see readings below).

During our discussion, I was struck by a question that I had not really thought through before: why do I assign readings? Lori noted that many studies indicate that students feel readings really aren’t that important, or see them as less important than what the professor actually says in class. This made me question whether the readings that I assign are important. Are all the textbook chapters that I pile into the early part of my introductory courses really that important? Do they provide anything above and beyond the information I provide in class? Do they serve a unique purpose that is valuable? If a student asked me why I assigned the particular textbook chapter for the particular class slot, could I give an honest response about the significance of that reading (beyond that the college requires that I use this textbook and there is a chapter relevant to this class session topic)?

Honestly, and unfortunately, for many of the readings I assign, the answer is no. I’ve been influenced by the lecture-driven mentality of “set them the textbook reading before class, then I will cover it all again in lecture, then they can ask questions, and then I will ask them questions on the test.” As so many educational scholars show, this method often results in surface learning, memorization, and very low retention, not to mention a disdain for any reading requirements. In a similar vein, many professors combat the lack of reading through reading quizzes in class, online, using clickers, etc., or even by implementing pop quizzes if they really want to make a point. While there are merits to this strategy many still find that this simply leads to surface learning and the quizzes become just another burden that students feel they have to trudge through to complete a class. The more active approaches described above are probably a better way to ensure that students actually take something away from a reading beyond what they need to know for the quizzes or exams. But if we really think about it, even if students are reflecting on or discussing textbook chapters, does this inspire or provide opportunities for all the things we really hope for our students, such as transformative learning, deep learning, and critical knowledge production? There are probably much more meaningful and impactful readings to assign if we can get over the convenience of the textbook.

Questions I am asking myself as I prepare for the upcoming semester include: What readings do I really want my students to spend time with, think about, and eventually internalize? Do any of the textbook chapters qualify? How do I incorporate articles as daily readings without students feeling overwhelmed? How do I allow students the time it will take many of them to become familiar with the more difficult concepts and accumulate the skills to understand scientific or highly academic language? Should I seek out articles that I can have students tackle a chunk at a time as a reading series to complement several lectures versus assigning a single, different reading for each class? As I don’t use traditional exam assessments in my class, I am not worried about losing source material for test questions, but if you do and are exploring these options, you should think about how changing your approach to readings may affect your approach to assessment and testing.

Thinking about assigned readings made me reflect on the role of readings in my classes and how uncritically I have been using them. Moving forward, I will attend to readings, their significance, and their value for students.

Readings (ironic isn’t it?)

Bandeen, Heather M. 2010. “Pre-Reading Strategies: Connecting Expert Understanding and Novice Learning.” In 11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned. Faculty Focus Special Report.

Howard, J.R. 2004. “Just In Time Teaching in Sociology or How I Convinced My Students to Actually Read the Assignment.” Teaching Sociology 32: 382-390.

Parrott, Heather Macpherson and Elizabeth Cherry. 2011. “Using Structured Reading Groups to Facilitate Deep Learning.” Teaching Sociology 39: 354-370.

Weimer, Maryellen. 2010. 11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned. Faculty Focus Special Report.

Yarnane, D. 2006. “Course Preparation Assignments: A Strategy for Creating Discussion-Based Courses.” Teaching Sociology 36: 236-248.

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