Why Won’t They Read the F***ing Book?

Yesterday, I was walking down the hall near my office in Rasmussen, behind a group of five or so students who were discussing their lower-than-expected grades on an exam they’d just gotten back. “It was all from the reading!” one of them exclaimed; “I didn’t do the reading! I just studied my notes!” You will all be pleased to know that I resisted the temptation to say something like “You were tested over actual course material?! YOU POOR DELICATE FLOWERS.” But I rolled my eyes like a CHAMPION behind them.

We’ve all encountered something like this, right? It’s a consistent issue, and it hurts when our best pedagogical intentions crash headlong into the brick wall of non-engagement. How do we get students to read? The numbers can be grim, folks. One 2004 study found that about 30% of college students read required course material regularly. Thirty. Percent. Before you gaze too deeply into the Void, though, bear in mind that this was a study that sampled from the entire post-secondary student population, so it may not speak directly of our students. So how many of our students are reading? Well, it ain’t all of them. So our task is to figure out why.

I would suggest that we approach the non-reading conundrum from two angles: student issues and non-student issues. Non-student issues are factors beyond the students’ control (and sometimes ours, too) that interfere with completion of all the assigned reading material. For example, declining public support for higher education and structural economic inequality mean that more of our students work more hours to pay for college. For some of them, sustained reading becomes a logistical impossibility. But more localized factors can also contribute. We should ask ourselves, for example, if everything we say is “required reading” is indeed “required” for the learning we’re asking our students to do. Do our syllabi and our own instruction make it clear why what students are reading is both relevant and necessary to their success? Do we do so in ways that go beyond the simple bromide that Reading is Good? Do our assessments engage the reading we’re asking students to do in a meaningful, as opposed to a rote “fill-in-the-blank,” fashion? Do our texts align with the level and experience of our students in a particular course? (Am I asking a 100-level course to read Hayden White’s theory of narrativity as a deconstruction of Western historical method? And if I am, WHY?)*  It turns out, then, that there are a number of non-student-related factors which impact the amount and frequency of student reading.

So what about the student-related factors? One of the most prevalent, and significant, problems students bring to reading is the environment in which they pursue it. Where and how do our students “do” their reading? Paul Corrigan suggests we imagine possible settings:

They sit on a sofa in their dorm room late at night, music blaring, social media buzzing, friends coming and going, pizza boxes and soda bottles everywhere. They skim the text while waiting their turn in a video game tournament. They think they’ve got the gist. It is about the economy and stuff . . .

And we can guess how that might go, right? Corrigan suggests, though, that we “find ways to bring our attention and our students’ attention to the act of reading,” to ask students to think intentionally about how and why they “read,” and whether their strategies are the most effective ones. In the end, Corrigan argues, the goal is to promote, teach, and get students to engage in “Active Reading.” 

On a broader level, though, reading is but one part of engagement with the course. And students don’t engage with a course or its material if they don’t feel connected to, or a part of, that course’s community. Student voice is important, because it reflects students’ presence (in both a cognitive and social sense). And students who aren’t engaged in a course may not be engaging in the larger academic community either. Thinking about it from a student perspective, that disengagement may make sense: how many institutions (including, but not limited to, higher education) really value student’s voices? Not in a token sense, but in a genuine affirmation and inclusion of their perspective? In an incisive post that raises a number of essential questions, Joseph Adelman observes:

Our university students, who undertake a general education program in the liberal arts as part of their degree programs, are just not engaged. Why? Their next answer floored me. I asked, “how many of you think your voice matters?”

One student raised her hand. One.

The image of a full classroom of thirty-five students, with one hand in the air, has stuck with me. We have high hopes for youth engagement, and we say in our mission that we’re interested in training our students to think about the world around them. But they don’t seem to think it matters, and honestly, I’m not sure I blame them when I think about their perspective on the world.

As we design, implement, and teach our courses–with and among our students–we should keep this question in mind: do students’ voices matter? I would argue that the best way to ensure regular and meaningful engagement from students is to regularly and meaningfully demonstrate to them that their voice does indeed matter. Their doing the required readings matters because we incorporate their insights about them into our discussion and class assessments. Their participation in class matters because we give them credit for it and create the supportive discussion environment where participation is encouraged and risks can be taken. Their efforts matter because we give meaningful feedback on their assignments and return them promptly, to encourage them to incorporate that feedback into their subsequent work. Students’ voices matter when they are part of these kinds of processes rather than passive recipients of prepackaged “content.”

There may be no one way to fully solve the not-reading dilemma, but there are significant ways to create the type of learning environment where that dilemma is at least minimized. It turns out that there are a number of factors over which we and our students can exert significant control. Let’s take the opportunity to do so.


*As one 1992 study (Maleki and Heerman) pointed out: “On the surface, the ‘reading problem’ is a mismatch between college students’ reading ability and the difficulty level of their textbooks and other readings.” They continue: “Reading achievement of college freshmen has been declining since 1965, while college textbooks have become more difficult to read.” In that vein, we should consider if our expectations and our course levels align.


Don’t forget that tomorrow, Saturday the 5th, is your opportunity to come to not one, but two, fabulous CETL workshops:

9-10:15     Promoting Reflective Learning and Metacognition

10:30-12:00     Blackboard Workshop/Q & A

Both sessions will be in Rasmussen 220. All faculty (full and part-time) and staff are invited to join us for one or both! We look forward to seeing you there! If you think you’re coming, please RSVP to Linda MacKinnon so we can make sure to have enough refreshments and coffee!

Looking for resources? Ideas? Help?

Click here to contact CETL

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