Why Reading the Book Matters

Every October my team and I meet with students who are struggling in one or more–or sometimes even all of their classes.  Usually, these meetings are a result of panic and fear after a bad assignment grade or failed midterm.  A typical meeting involves the student explaining the problem followed by an in depth interview by the staff member to gather insights into where the student may have veered off course.  Sometimes we discover that the student did not put enough time and effort into strategically preparing for the assignment or exam.  Other times we may find that the strategies the student employed to prepare were not the best strategies for that particular assignment or type of exam.  Too often, we discover that the student doesn’t have a solid understanding of the course material because, although they are attending class lectures, they are not completing the readings.  Many even confess to having been told by the instructor that they don’t need to waste their money on the textbook since the material will be covered in lecture.  Sometimes the instructor may be trying to save the student money–and they may even tell the student that materials are on reserve in the library.  Unfortunately, regardless of the message, often all the student hears is “don’t do the reading”.  Every time a student tells me this, I metaphorically feel an eye twitch I can’t control.  Let me explain why we have to be extra careful when broaching this topic with students and why completing the readings is so important.

  • We make meaning by actively engaging with material (actively participating in a lecture taking notes and discussing class material with a classmate when prompted to do so) and connecting this new information to what we already know.  If I am being exposed to new material for the first time in lecture, I may not have enough background information or context to make sense of what I am hearing.  However, if I complete any assigned readings before attending lecture I have the opportunity to begin to form context or a framework for this new material.  When I attend lecture, I can connect what my instructor is telling me with what I read about and what I might have already known about the subject.  Additionally, I have the opportunity to ask questions in class where there are still gaps in my understanding.
  • Listening is a passive form of engagement while reading requires more active engagement with the material.  In fact, as audiobooks and podcasts have become more prevalent, so has research about listening versus reading in terms of learning gains.  One study actually found that students who listened to a podcast about a new concept in their science class had considerably lower test scores than students who read about the same concept in the same class.  Not surprisingly, students initially reported preferring listening to podcasts to learn new material over reading about the new material.  However, after receiving their quiz scores students reported that they preferred reading over listening to podcasts.
  • Another study suggests that only 20 – 30 % of college students actually complete the assigned readings.  Included in the many reasons why students don’t complete the readings is the idea that students underestimate the importance of the readings to overall learning and comprehension.  This would suggest that while some instructors might think that having assigned readings listed in the syllabus is adequate, we actually need to talk about the reading and explain its importance and relevance to the class to increase the probability that the students will actually complete assigned readings.
  • As academics, we need to be teaching our students how to utilize active reading to increase their understanding and broaden their foundational knowledge.  It has been my experience that students don’t necessarily enter college knowing how to actively read.  I believe that while in college many students figure out how to actively read on their own–by chance or by design.  However, we still have many college students who don’t know how to approach their reading assignments to get the most our of them.  I came across this video created by an educator to help his students understand how to actively read and why they should adopt this practice.  I am convinced that if this practice was taught and explained in all 100-level college classes we’d have fewer students receiving poor grades and failing gateway classes.
  • Students who practice active reading and bring the annotated text to class can then add to and clarify those notes during lecture — spending more time engaging with the lecture content and discussion, and less time taking furiously scribbled notes.

In a digital world where videos, podcasts, and other forms of media are so prevalent, we need to continue to encourage our students to read and teach them how to read effectively.  We live in an era where college professors are reducing the amount of required reading year after year because students aren’t completing assigned readings.  I’m not sure what impact this has on the quality of the education we are delivering and students are receiving.  I encourage all college instructors to do what K-12 educators have always done and continue to do–talk about the importance of reading with your students and teach them how to do it correctly.


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