When Students Won’t Do the Reading: Aim for Transparency

By Gad Allon

A recent Inside Higher Ed post on the problem of student preparation provoked a lot of conversation among academics, and a bevy of opinions about how we as educators can motivate students to ‘do the reading’.

The fact that this is an issue should come as no surprise. It’s an age-old problem that transcends generations and cultures. Just what (if anything) can actually be done about it is a bit more complicated and nuanced.

The Fallacy of Hard Deadlines & Grades

The author makes a good point when stating that ‘in student-world, there are only hard deadlines’ – and goes on to specify that such hard deadlines often involve items that are going to be graded. (He later refutes this approach.)

Before I share what I believe is missing from his perspective, I will first say that hard deadlines preceding a performance evaluation are incredibly motivational in moving students (or employees, for that matter), toward a desired result.

Assigning a hard deadline to a given assignment – be it a project, paper or presentation – is a proven way to incite action in students.

How is this motivational?

  • Grades are concrete. They represent the stark truth about students’ efforts, and can serve as an open door to further educational or professional opportunities, or, conversely, a locked gate. You want that coveted ‘A’, because it will make you appear more qualified or attractive to those who make decisions based on quantified effort.
  • Grades (are supposed to) signal a certain level of quality of performance. They’re just not all that effective in encouraging exploration of content or a robust understanding of the topic at hand. In reality, a grade-driven focus turns everything about learning into a means to an end.

How can we reverse this thinking so that learning is emphasized, instead of discarded as a possibly byproduct en route to the ‘real’ goal?

Ensuring More Robust Student Preparation

The author cites an alternative tactic that he uses to ensure that his students will arrive prepared for class: he develops an activity in which they’ll have to actually apply what they’ve read.

For example, how many times have you come to class, knowing you’re about to give a presentation without preparing at all whatsoever? Probably zero. You knew you were going to stand in front of a group, and you had to have visuals, and you had to say something – there was nowhere to hide.

That seems as though it’d be effective enough. The knowledge that one will have to put subject matter to immediate use could encourage a decent level of preparation. Perhaps it would even increase participation (albeit in a potentially lackluster or superficial fashion).

But I would take this one step further.

Instead of writing a rhetorical analysis, rewriting the content itself, or debating in a large group, as is suggested, I believe that wherever possible, in-class discussions and student participation should be emphasized.

Individual participation, that is. Sharing original thoughts, analysis and opinions in real time. (And before I continue, I acknowledge that this cannot easily apply to the occasional 400-student freshman psychology course. But it’s not impossible in this environment, either.)

The mere notion that you may have to speak to your own perspective in class has shown excellent results in boosting students’ motivation to prepare. I’m not talking about ‘cold-calling’, where a professor randomly calls out names, but rather, an approach that uses technology to tease out who said what about a given topic. This is the backbone of the platform I developed to solve exactly this problem: why students don’t come to class prepared, and how to spur conversations in class without having a superpower giving me the ability to know who agreed with whom, or which students were almost on-target but missed a few critical points.

This is a flipped classroom model with very real, very tangible in-class results. This is total transparency.

The student who knows that he or she may very likely have to speak on the subject, explaining the rationale submitted prior to class in the open—directly in front of his or her peers—has a very real motivation for doing the work.

No professor can read through dozens of essay questions and memorize students’ answers, but that’s where content aggregation and data visualization change the game.

These students are much more likely to not only skim the reading, but to arrive prepared. They’re aware of the new parameters, and they respond accordingly—without a heavy emphasis on hard deadlines or grades. And perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there’s no aversion to this approach on the part of the student; in fact, many students surveyed by professors using ForClass say it added value to their classroom experience.

It’s my belief that this kind of classroom environment, which emphasizes better preparation through content immersion and analysis, will ultimately improve students’ learning experiences. We’re seeing evidence of it in the classrooms of 190 professors around the world.