As university professors, we spend a good deal of time planning our courses, selecting the reading material, and deciding exactly the kind of work we want students to produce. I’m certain that all of us have seen our plans go awry when students simply don’t read the assigned material or don’t seem to understand it even if they went through the motions of reading. As Professor Lindsay Tan says, students need to read, but how do we get them to do it, especially if the material is difficult or boring? And, how do we get them to understand and be able to use the material they do read?
I’m sure we’ve all known professors who give up asking students to read and just tell them in a lecture what they need to know. In fact, giving up simply teaches students that they needn’t bother to read at all. Likewise, some faculty use reading quizzes hoping to force students to read, but quizzes don’t teach students how to read so much as they penalize students who don’t read or can’t remember what they’ve read. Professor Tan’s approach, which she contributed to last year’s Conversations in Celebration of Teaching, utilizes several strategies that actually get students reading, strategies that can certainly work in other disciplines as well.
Professor Samantha Lawrie had trouble getting students to read in a history of graphic design course. When she asked students to write about the readings in a shared blog space—in effect creating an online discussion—she was able to model for students the kind of reflective thinking she wanted them to do, hold them accountable for the reading by making what they wrote in response to the reading material visible to the entire class, and create an immediate reason for students to complete the assigned reading. In fact, the kind of reflection Professor Lawrie is asking her students to do has been linked not only to deeper understanding of content, but improved motivation and completion of college degrees, especially for minority and first-generation students.
Both of these professors discovered that it isn’t that most of our students can’t read, but rather that they need a good reason to spend their time reading instead of doing the hundreds of other things that might fill their day. These approaches also make use of reinforcement as a strategy for helping students remember new information or concepts. Once we encounter information three times, it’s much more likely to move from our short term into our long term memory. Working with information to apply it or connect it to personal experience also moves students from simple remembering to higher levels of thinking. And, because these approaches create a community of learners and use different kinds of reinforcement, they are good examples of how universal design for learning can accommodate all students, even those who may have documented learning differences when it comes to reading.