What If They Don’t Do the Required Reading?

It’s a perennial problem for teachers.  You plan a great lesson around today’s short story, but it turns out two-thirds of the students haven’t read it.  What do you do?  Do you kick out the slackers?  Give them class time to read it?  Give up and do something else?  As a follow-up to last week’s post on how we can teach students to be willing, if not enthusiastic, readers and writers, I’d like to throw a question out there from frequent commenter CrysHouse.  She asks, How can we use class time effectively if students don’t do the reading before they come?

I have a couple of techniques.  I have them do some written homework based on the reading, homework that they must then use for the class activity.  It counts for credit, they have to show it to me before we begin, and if they haven’t done it, they have to leave class, because they can’t do the day’s work.  Of course, I’m in a privileged spot here – most teachers can’t throw students out of class – but you could have students work on their own to complete the homework, and receive no credit for the class work they miss as a result.

I have been known, if it seems like no one has done the reading, to designate today’s work as a graded test.  They have to work alone to answer some questions or write a short response.  This, of course, makes more work for me, because then I have to grade the things.  It also doesn’t sit well with my most idealistic principles about separating grades from behaviour issues.  However, it’s pretty effective in impressing the importance of the reading on them, and at least then we can do some work with the reading the following class.

I don’t like the coerciveness of either of these approaches.  What’s more, because we do a lot of group work, the fact that some students haven’t read is often obscured, because their group mates cover for them and resent both them and me.  If all work were individual, it would be easier to allow natural consequences to reveal themselves – you won’t get much done if you haven’t read before class! – but this is not always possible, and I hate structuring all my lessons around the contingency that some students aren’t pulling their weight.

Do people have other techniques?  Is this problem solvable?  I wrote three papers on Robinson Crusoe in high school and college, and to this day, I haven’t read the damn book and don’t intend to – so who am I to fault them?  Is it possible that this is one more thing  we’ll just have to let go?


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39 responses

  1. As a middle school teacher, my question is even more basic. We do most of our required reading in class (I simply cannot depend on a good percentage of my kids to do required reading outside of class — even with GATE students); but how do I get them to pick up any reading material (material that they choose and presumably want to read) and read it? I share with them the compelling statistics regarding independent reading and I share them with their parents as well. I also have in-class assignments that are dependent on that reading. But by the time they reach me, so many kids have already lost that love of reading — and many would rather take a bad grade in this area of the curriculum. Middle school teachers . . . what do you do?

  2. I think this is always a challenge for instructors, and I don’t know whether or not there’s an entirely fail-safe way to handle it. The technique of assigning written homework dealing with the reading seems to be the most effective way of heading it off, and there are always short quizzes; a colleague of mine gives his students a quick, one-question quiz on the reading each class, at the beginning of the class. It’s quick to grade, and it’s easy to tell who’s read and who hasn’t. I’ve heard it works rather well.

    • Francesca: I like the idea of a one-question quiz. I used to give multiple-choice reading quizzes – which I hate, as you have to keep an eagle eye out for cheaters – or mini-essays – which take forever to grade. A one-question quiz is a good compromise!

      • I do the one question quiz with my 9th graders and it works very well. I tell them right off the bat that if the majority of them haven’t read (at least half the class) then we will have a silent period for the day. I try to get them to start thinking of themselves as a unit and to hold themselves accountable. I have also divided, physically, the class before into “read” and “hadn’t read” groups. Those who read did a fun activity I had planned. Those who didn’t had to silently read the story and got an “F” for the day. It has worked for me!

  3. The techniques you have given sound effective for showing the importance of reading (at least getting it across a little). And yes, the fact that you have to then grade everything brings home to you (and probably to you alone out of the whole classroom) the fact that any teacher or parent has to deal with the consequences of his child’s decisions–the child is not alone in this. Yes, it’s true that there are books we can look back on as not having read, but that does not mean that our decisions, any more than theirs, cancels the value of the reading. =)

    I love all the techniques being given here, in spite of the fact that it would be much nicer for us as teachers to not have to be “coercive.” Unfortunately, when we set expectations, we have to enforce them if we truly expect the students to meet them.

    A high school history teacher I worked with recently had a similar issue arise in his classroom. He was showing his students a video and wanted them to take notes on it. He kept reminding them to do so, but only a small percentage of the class felt that it was worth their while to do so. On the day of the final exam, when he normally would have collected their entire binder to give them a grade on their history portfolio, he asked for only those notes. Since he frequently did notebook/portfolio grades, the students were sent a clear message about the assignment that they had been given and that he meant what he said. In the end, when pleasanter methods do not work, the gradebook is the final power a teacher has. Admittedly, it is the weakest power we have, but that is because we are not ultimately responsible for the students (and their parents and their past choices). We are only responsible for what we can control and the message that we choose to send about what is important.

    • ATWB:

      “…any teacher or parent has to deal with the consequences of his child’s decisions–the child is not alone in this.” Oh, if only this mattered to our students, our lives would be so much easier! (Of course, it does matter to some of them – they often apologize to me for not doing work, and often my reply is, “Don’t apologize to ME; if you don’t do your work, I don’t have to grade it! You, on the other hand, may see some bad consequences in the long run…”)

  4. I find this apologetic reaction interesting–especially coming from college students–because while they’re answerable to us on some level, I’ve gotten into the habit of impressing upon my students that they’re really only hurting themselves; if they don’t do the work, it’s their grade, their major, their career path, etc, that’s in jeopardy. I wish I could say that impression lasts, but I’m not sure it does.

    • Francesca: It’s two-sided, I think. On the one hand, as this post suggests, it really does inconvenience the teacher if students don’t take the course process seriously, so I appreciate it when they recognize that and apologize for messing up the procedure. On the other, as you and I both say, they’re the ones who bear the consequences (in a perfect world, at least, where consequences line up perfectly with actions…of course, this isn’t always the case…)

  5. Regarding the group work:
    What you could try to do is after the work is done and you’ve graded it, for example by giving them 80 points on a total of 100, you let the students distribute the points amongst themselves. We’ve tried this at our school (with 12-15 year olds), and they often manage to distribute those points fairly among the group members. This way, the students who do pull their weight end up with higher marks, and the students who don’t pull their weight end up with lower marks. At the same time, it makes them evaluate the group process.

  6. I give pop quizzes, which they then grade themselves. Going over the answers actually launches discussion, but more importantly, the quiz both gets their attention and creates energy in the room. I walk around to see the scores at the top, and at least the first few times, I don’t collect the quizzes. Eventually, enough kids have caught on to the fact that they may have a quiz, so they come prepared, and when I say I might not collect it, they protest because they have done well.

      • I also have my students sometimes grade each other’s reading quizzes (short ones). I state the answer that I was looking for. The student can give all, partial, or no credit. When they trade back, those that have issues with their scores put a mark at the top and circle which answers they’d like me to look at again.

        The first few quizzes, I look at both sets, and adjust grades accordingly — sometimes up, sometimes down. I give them feedback on how their grades are aligning with mine. If people are giving too much credit for wrong answers, I don’t count the quiz for anyone. I’ve only ever had to that once.

        After some training, I really only have to look at the quizzes with ‘issues’ to adjust grades.

        • this is how one of my most effective high school teachers (when I was in high school) did things, and somehow we all knew that, while he was fallible, he still knew enough to hold us to a high standard. When I have my kids grade their things, my main purpose is awareness for them–awareness of the answers and their own or classmates’ right/wrong variations

          • Joyous:
            “my main purpose is awareness for them–awareness of the answers and their own or classmates’ right/wrong variations.” Yes, I can see how keeping this goal in sight could make peer evaluation very effective.

      • I have always been concerned that having students grade other students was a violation of privacy. We aren’t even supposed to circulate a roll. I suppose I should check with my department chair, because if this is OK, I would love to use this technique.

        • Dammomachef: I’m really not sure what the rules are – it might be worth looking into. When I do peer editing exercises, I always warn them well ahead of time that they will be required to show their essay to someone else. I have never had complaints, but I suppose it’s possible…

  7. Students not being prepared is an ongoing problem at all levels. If teachers can instill love (tolerance) of reading and the sense of consequence, our students will have learned a lot!

    One of my best history teachers gives the students group quizzes. It is the reading quiz part that says get the reading done, but the group setting gets them to see the inter-dependence to each other. The students can choose to work alone or in groups of two or three. Some students prefer to work alone, even if prepared, but those who choose to work together usually come prepared for each other. There are some who no one wants in their group because they are not prepared. There are a several did-you-read questions and then a thought question. The teacher collects all the quizzes and quickly reviews the read-it questions and then calls on the groups that got it right–and asks them to expand a bit. The students talk more, knowing the answer is right. The grading time is less because some of it is done in class for a few minutes and the number of quizzes is reduced to the number of groups. Then the thought question starts the discussion with more input from students because they have had a chance to think the answer through a bit. I have observed this in class several times and it is impressive to see the students so engaged. I have also seen a student or two wander in a less than a minute late and rush to her group, saying “sorry” and getting started helping on the quiz. Those more than a minute late have to work alone. It is not the points, which are minimal, but the interdependence with fellow students that gets them reading.

    • Patti: What an absolutely fascinating activity. I’m going to have to open a file folder for all these suggestions. The one thing that prickles a bit is the possibility of freeloaders – students who are carried by their friends, who don’t have it in them to turn them away. Nevertheless, I can see how this would be really effective in inspiring, rather than coercing, students to do their reading in order to not let each other down.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this. In this day and age of instant information and access to summaries, quizzes, etc. via Internet– it’s hard to get people to read. (hey– I’m trying to just build my blog!)-
    Anyway– you might want to check out books by Chris Tovani– she does a lot with interacting with the text. To me that’s the way to get students engaged so they’ll want some more. Group work and responsibilities, literature circles, using post-its, illustrating, acting out/ creating readers theater scripts- whatever the class might need- even college students like activities. Gone are the days they’ll read and read. Assign smaller chunks for homework and build in some class time for reading , or at least getting a head start. Even having them read aloud in small groups (no round robin, heaven forbid!) And you have to love the text if they’re going to even like it a little bit- so choose as much as you can what appeals to you.

  9. I also tend to keep Youtube hidden up my sleeve when I really need to get my students–even the ones who haven’t read–motivated to discuss the text. Last year I was teaching a Survey of British Literature course, and Pride and Prejudice, much to my heartbreak, wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. So I went onto Youtube and pulled up two very famous movie scenes: 1- the proposal scene from the BBC Pride and Prejudice, and the scene from Bridget Jones’ Diary in which Mark Darcy confesses that he likes Bridget despite the laundry list of things that are ridiculous about her. It amazed me that, despite that obvious “darcy” reference, that a lot of students weren’t aware that BJD is a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. IN short, we started discussing the way that each film interacts with and revises the text to appeal to a contemporary audience–especially with regard to BJD. It worked like a charm, and we had a very lively discussion. (since my class was about 70 % female, I think I know why. God bless Colin Firth.)

    • Francesca:
      I recently proposed a course to our Liberal Arts department that focused on the connections between classic texts and contemporary pop culture. Unfortunately, the course wasn’t picked up, but I may try to teach it sometime in a non-LA context. I love the idea of getting students to see how past works inform present works – there’s so much more enjoyment to be had out of today’s cultural artifacts if we know where they’re feeding from!

  10. I often have my middle school students correct each others’ short answer quizzes — but I have the correcting student put his/her name on the quiz as well. I let them know that if anything is not graded correctly (and these are very simple quizzes — short answer/multiple choice), I reserve the right to take a couple of points off the correcting student’s quiz. That usually takes care of any funny business — and also leads to many clarifying questions, which is a good thing (but one needs to set aside time for this). By the way . . . I’ve really enjoyed the conversation here and have gotten lots to think about. Thank you everyone!

    • BarbG: I have colleagues who follow this procedure as well, making students responsible for their corrections as well as their answers, and also giving a whole new dimension to the quiz as students ask questions about the answers they need to correct. I’ve been enjoying the conversation too – thanks for your contributions!

  11. Can they use the reading to create something collaboratively in class? This would put them in groups and peer pressure may encourage them to do their homework reading. Maybe they can make a wordle or do a skit or write a poem/song about their reading but they do it in a group or with another person. Not sure this will help but just an idea.

    • Pat:
      I’ve found that this sometimes works, but sometimes has the opposite effect – students depend on others who have done the reading to carry the work for them. That says, who knows? Maybe there are a bunch who are doing the reading because of the group work, and I’m only noticing the ones who don’t!

  12. I have my courses set up with a strong online component. Before class, the students are required to complete a preparation quiz. Several questions are factual, but there is nearly always some short answer and essay questions as well. They can be cumbersome to grade, but it does help them come prepared. For longer books, I have them pick a few things from the reading that struck them particularly and discuss that in an essay that is due before class. They have to substantiate their ideas by using page numbers and quotes from the book. We have had some great discussions when most of the students are prepared to this extent.

    On the negative side, there is nothing stopping the students from opening a quiz and digging around in the text for the answers. That is when I just want to throw my hands up and ask them what they are doing in college in the first place.

    That said, I also NEVER completed the reading for my physical science course when I was a student. So I can relate.

  13. as a student, I know the most challenging and yet most fulfilling class I had in COLLEGE was the one in which my professor actually had pop quizzes. Many students aren’t “bad” readers or learners, they just need a little bit more motivation, especially if they have the attitude of being able to skirt around by staying silent during class discussion, making it up as they go along, being vague etc.

  14. I was lucky enough to have the same English teacher for three of my four years in high school, and what I always found helpful/effective/motivating was our daily reading quizzes. Our teacher would usually give us a general idea of what types of things we should focus on in the reading in the class before it was assigned, and after taking a few of the quizzes I learned what types of things to look for/focus on because I knew what would be on the quizzes and generally what would come up in discussion.

    On average the quizzes were anywhere from 5 to 12 questions, sometimes as long as 20 questions for particularly long or in-depth assignments. Rather than handing out quizzes our teacher would read us each individual question, which we were responsible for numbering and answering on our own paper. After all the questions had been given to us, he usually left a minute or two for people to ask for the repetition of questions that they may not immediately been able to answer, or misunderstood. Once this was finished we passed our paper to the person sitting next to us for grading, and our teacher would go over each questions- sometimes asking for volunteers to answer, other times selecting specific students to respond. This also gave students an opportunity to ask if a substitute answer was possible- if for instance the answer was “wolf” and they, or the person whose quiz they were grading, put “dog” is that an acceptable answer? In some cases it was, in other causes not, depending on the specificity of the question. After grading was finished the quizzes were collected in groups (we sat at tables of six, but it could be done in rows or any other seating arrangement) and alphabetized by a student. Our teacher would then collect the quizzes, scan over each one– I don’t know exactly what the cut off was, but if a student did not score well enough on the quiz they had to leave the class and finish their reading. In some cases my teacher would give them an opportunity to prove that they had done the reading by asking them to tell him about something from the assignment that had not been part of the quiz, and if they could do so they stayed in the classroom.

    While there were always certain loop holes that arose, for the most part this ensured that everyone had done the reading and therefore could participate in the discussions and in-class assignments without skating by.

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