Failure to Read… What Am I Doing Wrong?


A few weeks ago, I expressed to one of my classes that I was concerned that they were not reading the material listed (by date) on the course syllabus, re-emphasizing that this was important information.  I also announced that within the next week or two, I was going to give an in class quiz on the reading assigned for that week.  “Like a good Boy or Girl Scout, BE PREPARED,” I admonished them.

Image result for students taking a test

    So two weeks later, I gave a quiz over the reading for that week.  The first question on the quiz was:

   I ___________ read Articles #12-14 on Poverty.”  
     a.  did
     b.  did not

There were three other short answer questions on the quiz, each on asking for the gist of the article.  I didn’t ask any “picky” questions, or any detailed “trick” questions.  All I wanted to know is if they’d read the articles and had a basic comprehension of the main ideas of each.  The reading totalled less than 25 pages.

Most of the class finished very quickly.  This worried me.  And when I graded the quiz right after class, my fears were confirmed.

100% of the class answered “b.” to the first question–not one student had read the articles.
The “answers” (read “excuses”) I got from my students were pretty typical.  I heard these before.

Image result for college students reading
  • I really don’t have time to read all my school assignments.
  • I didn’t think the articles were that interesting.
  • (Students who read them last semester said they were very interesting.)
  • I couldn’t find my book. (Seriously??!!!!)

And while these answers didn’t thrill, the one that broke my heart–the one I hear most often–was:

  • I don’t really like to read.  (Often accompanied by the qualifier, “That is, books.  I avoid them if at all possible.”)

Even as I write this, my heart is heavy and I get discouraged.  Am I failing as an instructor?  What is going on?

There are a number of reasons, I think, why students don’t read.  Here’s my beginning list, and I would invite any of the readers of this blog (if there are any out there) to add to the list or elaborate on these:

  • Students don’t feel competent or confident in their own reading skills.
  • Students weren’t really required and held accountable for reading in high school.
  • What students HAVE read in school has been boring, so they assume ANY school (even college) reading is boring.
  • The reading is too complex for their current reading level.  (For college transfer courses at YC, we require only a 9th grade reading level.  It’s almost impossible to find books in sociology and psychology that are written at that level.)
  • Perhaps the biggest reason is that, for many of our students, technology (that is, entertainment technologies, including smart phones) have replaced text as the primary medium of communication.  Books (even e-Books) and reading is seen as “old fashioned” and unimportant in todays tech society.

The research is clear:  Reading engages and develops the human brain in a much different and deeper way thnt visual images alone.
Image result for reading and the brain

I see getting students to read as one of the foremost challenges for professors.  Yet developing a love of reading–which goes hand in hand with a love of learning–is perhaps our primary task.

Image result for college students reading
Thoughts, anyone?

9 thoughts on “Failure to Read… What Am I Doing Wrong?

  1. I see similar things Mark. I see our goal as educators as two-fold because of this issue. I see our mission as 1. Motivate and 2. Teach the material. When I say motivate, I don’t mean extrinsically. The trick is to intrinsically motivate students. Light a little fire in their soul that is fueled by their curiosity and desire for more. I think that it ties in with the idea of ‘teach a man to fish’ analogy.

  2. I imagine 100% failure is rare. I hope so. There’s got to be at least 1?! It’s worrisome, and I look back at the long history of fear for the next generation, and our future. Elders have looked at the ones coming up and been right to worry. Yet, that next generation took up the mantle, for better and worse. At least they sound relatively honest.
    The abundance of distractionTube and SquirrelBox is surely a factor, though in many ways technology forces us to read more, even if it’s a shallow skim. I wonder if the person what the person who doesn’t read books does read. The person who said they don’t have time: even if it’s not true, the mindset that “we have no time for such things as concentration on complex language” creates the resistance, which self-disciplined reading practice might break down.
    I’m so curious about the rest of the college, which probably experiences the same thing in various doses.
    I don’t know what you’re doing wrong, but whatever you’re doing right, keep doing more of.

  3. I also think it is important for parents to instill a love of reading at an early age. Start reading to babies, and continue reading to your children daily. As a former elementary school teacher, there was a vast difference between 3rd graders who have been read to since infancy, and 3rd graders who were left to their own devices.

  4. Hi Mark,
    I actually teach reading, and I offer activities to help the students learn how to get meaning out of the textbook chapters. I started having the students read in small groups in a circle. Then we have discussions, create an outline of the chapter, create a map, and so on. If I am lecturing on a chapter and no one has read it, I am not sure how well they can make the connections.

    I also have them read passages and then set them up to get right into groups and give them assignments on the passage. One writes a summary, one draws a graphic/picture that represents something from the chapter, another creates the discussion questions, and so on. This activity puts peer pressure on them that they should have read the chapter, and if not, then they must quickly read and create their part of the assignment at the same time.

    One more thing that I do is have them either complete Chapter Review cards or Chapter Quizzes in Canvas prior to class, so they at least have to skim-read the chapters to complete these activities.

    I am not sure if any of these ideas would work for you, but I do seem to have good success with getting them to read.

    Thanks so much for your post!


  5. I have had the same problem, Mark. It is hard to get students to read course material. I have tried a few different approaches. At first, I thought I just needed to assign more interesting readings, so I had a humanities class on science fiction, where we just read science fiction short stories. It sounds like it would make the reading fun and desirable, yet even with these relatively interesting and entertaining readings, many of the students didn’t actually do the readings. I tried daily quizzes, similar to the one you describe above. These were just one question quizzes given at the start of each day with a simple question just to see if they did the reading. But this didn’t encourage much depth of thought or comprehension of the readings. Now, I teach a course that actually has them read academic articles from professionals in the field, far more challenging reading than the sci-fi stories. For these readings, I have them respond to a graded Discussion Board question with a 200 word minimum response as part of their reading homework. This has increased the reading in the class, but it is far from perfect. Many students still find ways to avoid the reading, such as guessing the answer to the question for two hundred words or reading everyone else’s responses and simply re-mixing these responses into their own.

    Overall, my hunch is that students have a lot going on, and many only do the readings if they feel like they have to. They prioritize the demands in their life, and reading for enjoyment, enrichment, or even education is often placed low in comparison to other needs and wants. Further, our society tends to reward efficiency, which often takes the form of simplifying life by cutting out unnecessary steps, a means of survival and creating a comfortable life in our hectic society. In the classroom this often translates to cutting out any work that does not have to be done to achieve the grade they need to get degree or certificate they want. My best answer is to make the reading a requirement to passing my course. This doesn’t mean that they have to all participate in classroom discussions on the readings. While this would be lovely, I realize that not all of us are social extroverts. Instead, I ask thoughtful and relatively rigorous questions on my Discussion Boards that make them really think about an aspect of the reading and make these discussions an important part of their course grade. So far, this has motivated my students pretty well, though they still find work-arounds as I mentioned above. Maybe there are other, better ways to make reading a top priority for our students? Does anyone have any suggestions? I would love to hear them.

  6. I see one possible explanation in understanding that human development that goes from stage to stage seems to have a different focus in different generations. Without wanting to sound judgmental I try to see the generation born in the late 90s and since 2000 as human beings that, although dealing with huge challenges of a different kind, remained in the “breast- or bottle-fed” stage, where a lot of these children never were asked or encouraged to actually start “chewing”, when they developed teeth. Why would you know how to put the effort of using your teeth for their purpose into it, if you continue to be provided baby food? Translated into cognitive activity, I think this goes a long way to explain the passive-oral attitude we are experiencing. No sense of having to put effort into obtaining something you desire (food as equivalent to knowledge), no experience of the joy to “tear apart and digest bits and pieces” of a text you read and chew on it to savor the flavor and gain nutrition and energy out of it…it goes along with a chronic low-grade depressive outlook at the world, who may not leave you hungry, but also is not very interesting or hopefully exciting. Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably numb” comes to my mind.
    So my answer: let children use their teeth when they develop, even if they try to bite you in the beginning! Yes, it takes more time and energy to actually interact with them than just feed them to keep them quiet, but they will develop more initiative, autonomy, self-confidence and be happier and more productive. Petra

  7. How do you get art students to read scientific and technological textbook assignments? I see the look in their eyes when I explain the reading assignments: “I have to READ? I took an art class so I don’t have to study. I only have to make art to pass” More important, how do you assess that they have read and absorbed the reading? As a disclaimer, the following concepts are not original and I apologize to the professor of record for not being able to give him credit or remembering where I read his article. It was many years ago and has served my students well. What follows is my adaptation (and paraphrasing) of his concept.

    The student’s job is to gain knowledge, absorb the content and show ability to apply that knowledge. The instructor’s job is to facilitate that process. The challenge is not only to disseminate the information, but also to engage the students in absorbing and applying,

    Tests and quizzes designed to determine if the student has read the assignment do not determine the objective of absorption. Nor do they encourage discussion. I am upfront with my students at the first class session: You will be assigned weekly reading assignments. I need to asses your accomplishment of that task. We can do that in one of two ways; a weekly quiz of the reading material, or what I call “muddy points” where you let me know what you least understand about the reading assignment. No one selects weekly quizzes!

    My adaptation of this concept is excerpted from my syllabus for my digital printing technology class:

    ” Each student is required to e-mail me a sentence or two about the required textbook reading that they understand least well, your “muddiest point”. These e-mails are due by 8 AM, Tuesday of the week for which the reading is required. The feedback you will provide prior to my lecture allows me to adjust my lecture strategy so that classroom time is devoted to the topics that students regard as the most difficult. This allows our class discussions to start from where the class really is, rather than where I think you should be.

    There are twelve weeks in the semester for which you have required textbook reading. Each weekly e-mail is worth three percent of your final grade, with a maximum of thirty percent awarded for the “muddiest point”. That means you can miss two weeks of the “muddiest point” without penalty. Choose those weeks wisely.”

    Up front, each student who has submitted the assignment has already asked a question so, no matter how shy, they have joined the discussion. And I am no longer lecturing on the bulk of the content, but engaging the class in a discussion of the content. The last class I taught using this concept scored 93% participation.

    1. My apologies, After reading my post, my last sentence is misleading. Participation in my noted last class was 100% with an average grade of 93%. I also want to note that a muddy point from a student stating “I understood everything in the reading assignment” was not accepted and gained no credit. It was made clear that a question was required.

      In support of this concept, I also give a mid-term exam that is generated by the students. They are each required to submit 3 multiple choice questions from the reading material covered to mid-term. This assignment is worth 5% of their final grade. I create the mid-term from a selection of the questions submitted by the students. You would be surprised how little students know about creating multiple choice questions.

  8. Mark,
    I struggle with this issue as well. I have minimal choices for reading assignments as I teach PHARM. And none of it is exciting. We switched books to an interactive e-product so, for example, the antibiotic section takes about 2 hours to view instead of 6-8 hours reading 500 pages. And it is still “too much work/time/content.”

    So I wonder – is this another area of fallout from the NCLB and Common Core initiatives? And we cannot decrease our expectations because when we do, it decreases their confidence in their abilities. I have seen that happen.

    No answers…more interaction in class, group activities and assignments, and holding up the standards…strategies I use.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *