To Read, Or Not to Read...

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Increasingly I find myself in conversations with folks about assigned reading in higher ed classrooms--and mainly about why students won't/don't do it. Instructors say, "I can't get them to read the text." And theories abound--They're not interested. They can't focus. They live in a culture that skims everything, so they don't value depth. Their eyes might fall across the page, but they don't engage with the text as active readers. (Lots of 'theys" in there, it seems to me.)

If we talk long enough we get around to discussing the characteristics of the texts themselves. Back in the mid-eighties, Bonnie Armbruster and Richard Anderson (1984) introduced the notion of Considerate Texts (or Inconsiderate Texts, as the case may be). Considerate texts are written in ways that actually support the reader's navigation of the message: clear structure, headings, signals, simple-to-understand graphical aids, etc. Inconsiderate texts, as you might guess, do not bear these qualities.

Sometimes, the conversations eventually even turn toward the instructor: What's the purpose of the reading? What are you hoping is accomplished by having students engage in the reading? These are interesting questions, because sometimes it's apparent that reading is the best pedagogical approach; other times it's not.

Then today, I came across a blog post on Mary Ellen Weimer's Faculty Focus. She talks about a new instrument--the Textbook Assessment and Usage Scale (TAUS). The point of the instrument and the series of studies where it was used was to have students weigh in about their perceptions of the text, to determine whether text characteristics were related to text reading, and to see if text characteristics are somehow linked to test performance.

You can read the study, which was conducted in Psychology courses, to get the full gist, but here's the short story--Students often don't read the text. Right. One predictor of how much they'll read, however, is their perception of text quality. Characteristics important to students: quality of research examples, quality of visual elements, pedagogical aids, and instructor involvement in incorporating and advocating the text. Elements that predicted exam scores: Quality of writing and of pedagogical aids.

It would be an interesting exercise to administer the TAUS to students, especially before deciding whether to require a text again, whether to supplement it with other sources, or whether to get rid of it altogether. It's easy to place the blame on "them" for not reading, but it's also important to consider the factors that influence their reading and make changes where ever we're able.

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Thanks for this post, Crystal!

The second time I taught Intro to Physical Geography (GEOG 010), I decided not to require a textbook. I still included suggested textbook readings, but they were optional. I scrounged up about a dozen extra texts from around the department and put them on reserve in the library, for students who felt they learned best by reading. I also found an e-textbook online and posted that as an additional (free) resource for folks.

This was a popular move in my class, as the standard text for the class was pretty expensive, and no one did the reading anyway...in fact, those who did were generally treated to an overly-detailed and sometimes confusing synopsis of the topics we covered very quickly in the intro course. I did offer readings, but most were blog posts and other popular takes on the topics as they came up in the news and course content. In this case I think it was the right pedagogical choice given the class was much more focused on breadth than depth.

Plus when my students began to complain about the amount of work we had in the form of hands-on activities, lab reports and other assignments, I was able to gently remind them that they had more free time since there was no required reading! ;)

I think it's good to think critically about what readings are being required in your classes and why. When I was in my first two years of undergrad (before declaring a major) I did my best to avoid purchasing textbooks that didn't appear to be necessary to learn the material for the class. Don't assume that students aren't working hard or valuing the course just because they're not doing the reading...especially if the reading is in the form of an expensive textbook. These days students are being forced to be strategic in many ways.

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