Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How can we get students to read their readings? Some strategies explored

R. L. Summers
Educational Development Unit
Edith Cowan University

A very simple strategy for getting students to do the reading set in a course will be demonstrated. This was used by the author in teaching a unit to undergraduate students (n=25) this year. Other strategies will also be explained and the advantages of this strategy over others will be outlined. Some practical problems encountered will be discussed and some guidelines for avoiding pitfalls will be presented. A further question posed as a dilemma is how to extend this strategy to off campus (online?) students?

This paper outlines a strategy that the author used to get his students to do the set Readings for the unit that he taught. The strategy is not one that the author invented, rather it was described to him by a colleague in the UK who had no idea from whence it came. Should the original owner of the idea recognise it here in print please contact the author so that due recognition can be given!

Basically it's a simple idea. At the beginning of the semester, indeed in the very first lecture, students are advised that they are to make summaries of each of the suggested readings for the unit. Such summaries are to be made on index cards (ruled lines provided), all of which are 6" x 4" and obtainable from the University bookshop in packets of 100. It was suggested that a few students band together to defray costs, which are not very great (approx. $3.50 per pack).

Summaries must conform to a few guidelines. They must be in the student's own handwriting or printing. Each ruled line must contain only one line of writing or printing i.e., no writing between the lines! Summaries are to be handed in at the end of the lecture period for the week in which the heading is prescribed to be covered. Students cannot hand them in for someone else! They must therefore be present at the lecture.

The incentive for students to do so is that the summaries are collected by the lecturer and scrutinized for their authenticity and kept until the examination, at which time they are handed to the student in the examination room and can be used to assist in the answering of examination questions. Students were a little sceptical at first, but gradually became assured that it would really happen.

As well as the students doing the readings almost religiously, the scheme had some extra benefits.

Attendance at lectures was very good indeed. On that odd occasion when students couldn't attend they rang in and were given 1 week's extension. They weren't allowed any more than 2 of these over the semester unless they had medical reasons which could be verified.

They became skilled at reducing whole articles to the keypoints contained therein. An introductory session on summarizing was scheduled in week 2 of the course and assisted them to do this.

The quality of examination answers improved over the previous semester. Students didn't need to memorize the content of the readings (most of them kept a photocopy of their original summary to remind them of what it was that they had submitted and therefore what they could expect to get back in the examination).

They had to spread the workload over the semester. They were not given the option of doing them all just before the exam.

There was a downside to it all - the lecturer had to collect them, inspect them briefly, collate them once a few week's worth had been handed in, and store them safely! As a safety check the cards were handed back during the last lecture period and students asked to verify that all of their work was present. Fortunately none had gone missing!

There were a few 'hiccups' that could have been potentially disastrous, however;

One of the students injured herself in a car accident and was granted a deferred examination so her cards had to be kept for a longer time and the lecturer had to attend the deferred exam to hand over the cards.

Two of the students applied to Administration (Student Services) for extra time to do the examination due to disabilities. This was granted and the students started the exam 30 minutes before the main group and in a different examination room. The lecturer was not told of this arrangement!! Consequently there was a frantic supervisor hunting around the campus looking for the 2 sets of cards that the students insisted on having delivered to them. Fortunately it was the lecturer's home campus and he was located 'in the nick of time'. A mental note was made not to assume that all students would be in the same room at the same time (or even on the same campus!). Administration has amended its procedures to include notification to unit coordinators of any variation to normal arrangements.

This approach to getting students to do their readings is only one of many that have been used for such a purpose. Carol Hogan at an earlier Forum proposed a strategy that had students divided into pairs take one of two readings for the week, represent that reading in some symbolic way ( a diagram or a drawing or a flow chart, but not a written summary) and present it to the other member of the pairing the following week. This had the advantage of requiring representational thinking of each class member. Many teachers and tutors get students to answer set questions based on the readings for that week. They might then share their answers in a 'round robin' activity. Each approach has its merits and its place, depending upon the objective to be met.

The dilemma that the present strategy poses for those who wish to use it is how to extend it to off-campus, distance-learning students, scattered as they may be across the country or even across the world! Your suggestions are welcomed.

Please cite as: Summers, R. L. (1999). How can we get students to read their readings? Some strategies explored. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 401-402. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/summers.html

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