A teacher can enter the classroom . . . with severely misplaced expectations. Having spent many years in a highly literate environment, we tend to take a similar level of literacy in our students as a given. Many of them, on the other hand, have gotten along reasonably well without getting too entangled with the subtleties of the written word.
Robert Leamnson, Thinking about Teaching and Learning:
Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and
University Students (p. 31).
A common complaint among students in the mid-semester evaluations I conduct is that their professors' reading requirements are unrealistic--that the texts are too hard, that there's too much to read, or that the books or articles are irrelevant and never reviewed in class.
By now, faculty know that students generally do not do everything we ask them to do in order to prepare for class. In the latest National Survey of Student Engagement report, 43% of full-time students report spending 10 hours or fewer studying each week--a finding consistent with NSSE surveys in previous years. (http://nsse.iub.edu/pdf/2005_inst_report/NSSE_overview_rev.pdf p. 11.) While these numbers are troubling, no one seems terribly surprised by the truth. In the faculty survey (FSSE) which complements the NSSE, results show that "faculty members expect students to study about twice as much as students actually reported," but that if asked to guess how much students actually do study out of class, faculty perceptions are fairly accurate. (p. 5.)
If we assume that students are willing to put more time and effort into their schoolwork (an optimistic but necessary assumption if we hope to improve matters) then what is causing this lack of application--especially in regard to reading before class? And what practical strategies can we use to encourage greater attention to reading and study?
Many students enter college with limited reading strategies--indeed most approach all of their reading tasks the same way, and with one essential goal: to get through the material as quickly as possible. Yet we know that our own professional reading strategies vary tremendously according to the time we have available and the goal we set for the task. One focus of our teaching, then, should be to help students develop readings skills and strategies appropriate to the kind of material we're asking them to understand. As Ken Bain notes in his study of excellent teachers (What the Best College Teachers Do), "we found among the most effective teachers a strong desire to help students learn to read in the discipline" (p. 56).
Second, many students haven't been trained in reading with a specific set of goals in mind--for example, for arguments or in order to distinguish the major issues from the details or examples; they tend to approach all reading in the same fashion. Again, in disciplines whose vocabularies and conceptual structures may be unfamiliar to many students, we must provide assignments that help them develop the capacity to read for specific reasons and finish assignments with clearly outlined accomplishments.
Based on examples I've seen at UMBC, here are some suggestions for methods of encouraging more and better reading in classes.
(Other useful suggestions are provided in Eric Hobson's article, listed below, and available online.)
While we might be tempted to blame students for not studying enough, we must take some of the responsibility for their failure if we are encouraging procrastination and avoidance by assigning difficult reading materials without properly preparing students to understand them. While students need to be challenged, they must have methods of succeeding if they are going to continue to invest time in arduous tasks. Asking under-prepared students to spend hours with writing that is, to them, incomprehensible and inaccessible mostly leads them to invest time in activities they consider to be more productive.
Resources
Bain, Ken. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
Hobson, Eric. (2004). "Getting Students to Read: Fourteen Tips." IDEA Paper. No. 40. http://www.idea.ksu.edu (under "Idea Papers" in left column).
Leamnson, Robert. (1999). Thinking about Teaching and Learning: Developing Habits of Learning with First Year College and University Students. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Zimmerman, Lynn. (2001) "Engaging Students in the Classroom." TLT Brownbag lecture.