More About Reading

There is a LOT of reading you can do about reading. Two key aspects that we would like to highlight are Deep Reading and Reading Compliance.

Deep Reading

Many instructors ask students to read, but we don’t all mean the same thing by this seemingly simple verb. For some it may mean ‘read this section of text and memorize key points and vocabulary’, while for others it may mean ‘think deeply about this image and what it means’, or ‘understand the particular angst that generated this poem’. Often what it means is ‘come to grips with the significant discourses in this sub-sub-topic, synthesis the arguments, connect them to the wider discourses in the discipline, and provide compelling evidence and rationale for your interpretation’; in other words, write a research paper.

Reading that supports the production of successful research projects is often characterized as deep reading, understanding the meaning behind the words, the connections these words make to other texts, and the impact of the context in which these words were produced. Marton and Saljo’s early work on phenomenography and reading (see Bibliography) demonstrated that students might use surface and deep approaches to reading. In the surface approach, students focused on the words in the text, while students who had a deeper approach to reading focused on the meaning of the text.

They note:

The main difference we found in the process of learning concerned whether the students focused on the text in itself or on what the text was about; the author’s intention, the main point, the conclusion to be drawn. Their focal point of attention was on the pages in the first case and beyond them in the second. The first way of setting about the learning task was characterised by a blind, spasmodic effort to memorise the text; these learners seemed, metaphorically speaking, to see themselves as empty vessels, more or less, to be filled with the words on the pages. In the second case, the students tried to understand the message by looking for relations within the text or by looking for relations between the text and phenomena of the real world, or by looking for relations between the text and its underlying structure. These learners seemed to have seen themselves as creators of knowledge who have to use their capabilities to make critical judgements, logical conclusions and come up with their own ideas.

This conception of deep reading is clearly connected to the kinds of reading we expect students to do in completing research.

Marton, Ference and Roger Saljo.  (2005). “Approaches to Learning.” In: Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. pp. 39-58.

Reading Compliance

Psychologists (and other scholars) have done a great deal of work investigating reading compliance or why students do or don’t do their reading and how instructors can encourage them to do it.

When I started reading these articles, I got so excited I started telling everyone about them.  One of my friends, an English professor, told me to pick one to share with her.  So, if you’re only going to read one of these articles and you’d like one that also includes some “best practices” for increasing compliance, I’d recommend: Getting Students to Read: Fourteen Tips by Eric H. Hobson.

Researchers have noted a decline in the completion of assigned reading, even by graduate students, over the years.  Burchfield and Sappington (2000) document a decline in the completion of required reading, such as textbooks and articles, among psychology graduate students over a 16 year period from 1981 -1997. Clump et al. (2004) describe how undergraduate students only read about 27% of their assigned readings before class and approximately 70% before an exam. Failure to complete reading assignments has been stated as one of the primary reasons students don’t participate or sometimes fail to attend classes.

In their 2010 literature review of this topic, Lei et al. list a number of reasons why students fail to complete their assigned reading: problems with reading comprehension, lack of confidence in their abilities as readers, procrastination, lack of interest in the subject matter, and underestimating the importance of completing the assigned reading. (If you’re only going to read two articles, read this one after Hobson, and you might be hooked.)

Some of these behaviors may be reinforced by instructors’ reluctance to hold students accountable for the assigned reading  for a number of reasons including fear of getting poor student evaluations, recognition of students’ poor reading abilities, and instructors’ beliefs that college students are responsible for their own learning (Lei et al. 2010).

Instructional strategies that include paraphrasing reading materials in the lecture so all students can participate in a classroom activity, or policies in which students only need to show mastery over lecture materials in order to pass a test or course further encourage non-compliance.  Students interviewed in the 2013 study conducted by Sharma et al. stated that they didn’t complete the assigned reading in specific classes as those instructors lectured over the reading material.  One student stated, “The chapter could be really long, meanwhile the professor goes over it in 5 minutes and you just spent 2 hours reading that lecture,” (p. 111).

Most of these researchers say if you want to get students to complete the required readings you have to test them on the readings and to do it often.  Eric Hobson has a different approach.  He recommends thinking carefully about your students’ needs and abilities when selecting and assigning reading materials.  Some of his more interesting suggestions include not requiring every reading but identifying high priority and low priority reading assignments on the syllabus, allowing 15 minutes of class time to begin high priority reading, assigning less reading, and making sure to choose reading materials that can be understood by the “marginally-skilled” students in your class.

You can find citations for all of these articles on our Bibliography page under Background Reading on Reading.


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