How I Got My Students to Read

Anyone who teaches literature knows how difficult it is to get students to read—especially in a sophomore-level survey course, which most students are taking only because it’s required for graduation and in which virtually none of them have the least bit of personal interest.

So what do you do? Cajole? Threaten? I’ve tried both, with limited success. I tell students on the first day that the course will be much more interesting if they’ve read their assignments and we can discuss them together in class, rather than my just lecturing for the entire period. I also explain that they will be tested on the readings and, if they don’t read, they can’t hope to do well on the tests.

As I said, neither of those exhortations has been particularly effective. Students may find me boring, but apparently they’d rather listen to me drone on for 75 minutes than go to the trouble of reading the assignment. And sure enough, in a typical class, more than half bomb on the first test precisely because they didn’t do the reading.

Sound familiar?

It’s true that most of my students start reading (somewhat) after they see their first test grades because they don’t want to bomb on the second one, too. But this past semester I decided that wasn’t good enough. They were missing too much good stuff. I wanted to come up with a way of getting them to read early on, without begging or threatening.

Of course, something else all of us know who teach reading-heavy courses is that the most effective way to get students to read assignments is to give regular quizzes. But quizzes have their drawbacks, too. They seem high-schoolish. They take up a lot of class time. They create more paperwork for the instructor. Students hate them. (Oh, wait. That’s not a drawback.)

After some thought, what I came up with is what I’ll call the mini-quiz. Actually, it’s one long quiz, given in small increments of one question a day. And not even every day. Over the course of the semester—30 class meetings—I asked my students 20 questions about their reading assignments. They never knew on which days they were going to get a quiz question, and they rarely knew exactly what work that one question would cover. If they wanted to be prepared, they had to read the entire assignment.

I always tried to ask fairly obvious questions about surface features, not deep meaning. That way, anyone who had done the reading would be able to answer, even if he or she didn’t fully understand the work. For example, I might ask, “At the beginning and end of the story, what was Young Goodman Brown’s wife, Faith, wearing in her hair?” Anyone who has read the story, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, knows the answer to that question. It doesn’t require analysis. But you probably wouldn’t pick it up just by skimming right before class, either.

After asking the question and giving students sufficient time to answer, I then told them the answer and let them mark their own papers, on the honor system. I also had them answer the questions on a single sheet of paper that they were responsible for keeping track of and turning in at the end of the semester. At that point I totaled up and recorded the number of correct answers.

Did that method open the door for cheating? Probably, although I’m pleased to say that at the end of the semester, as I went through their quizzes, I saw very little evidence of cheating. The only students who got all 20 questions right were the ones who made A’s on all the tests. Most claimed 13 to 17 correct answers, which seems about right. Several acknowledged that they had not gotten any correct or very few—and those admissions corresponded with the lowest grades in the class.

Even if they did cheat, the quiz was for extra credit, anyway. Students could receive up to 20 points of extra credit (one point for each correct answer), to be added to their final total before I averaged. Between tests and papers, there are 500 possible points in my class; it takes 450 to get an A, 400 to get a B, and so on. So 20 is a significant number without being make-or-break. In other words, it’s enough to prod them to read their assignments but probably not enough to risk wholesale cheating.

At least, that’s what I thought going in, and that seems to have turned out to be the case. Based on their class participation, I concluded that more students had read their assignments than in past semesters. Our discussions were livelier, more inclusive, and more fun. Students’ test grades (and final grades) were noticeably higher (even on the first test). The quizzes even helped with attendance and punctuality because I asked the quiz questions at the beginning of class and students weren’t allowed to “make up” missed questions.

Over all, I was quite pleased with the “mini-quiz” strategy. I will probably tweak it somewhat for future semesters, but I plan on making it a central feature of my lit survey courses from now on.

So what was Faith wearing in her hair in the Hawthorne story? It was pink ribbons.

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