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Students looks at daunting pile of books to be read

Up to 80% of uni students don’t read their assigned readings. Here are 6 helpful tips for teachers

University course readings are pivotal to advance student knowledge and prepare them for class discussions. Despite this, only 20-30% of students read the assigned materials. Drawing on research findings that help explain this alarmingly low rate, this article offers some strategies to help students engage with their required readings.

Over the past two decades educators have raised concerns about changing patterns of student motivation, engagement and comprehension of academic reading. The power of technology, media and apps have affected student reading patterns.

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Studies indicate that students are reading more slowly and comprehending less. They often struggle to read anything beyond an excerpt.

The challenging statistics on reading show a steep decline in student reading compliance. These trends are emerging not just at primary and secondary education level, but increasingly at a university level.

Students often underestimate the centrality of course readings. They rarely regard textbooks and academic papers as their primary source of information.

This often results in a lack of class participation, rich conversations and, at times, assessment quality.

In our increasingly technological world, new online and application solutions have assisted students with motivation and supported their learning preferences. Digital technology has made access to academic texts more flexible. However, some researchers argue screen-based reading may compromise the quality of the readers’ engagement.

Why are readings so often left unread?

A comprehensive study identifies four main reasons university students don’t engage with course readings:

  1. unpreparedness due to language deficits
  2. time constraints
  3. lack of motivation
  4. underestimating the importance of the readings.

“Unpreparedness” is an alarming finding, as it highlights deficits in language understanding and use. Some students have limited knowledge of technical terms used in courses, which explains why they struggle to understand assigned course literature.

Social and cultural dimensions also influence student engagement (or disengagement) with readings. For example, students’ previous experiences, year in university, and native versus non-native (English) speakers can all play an important role in their perception of, and attitudes to, readings.

Students naturally approach the assigned content with their own unique expectations and strategies. Some may review the reading, take notes and google summaries, while others may translate each unknown word or difficult concept.

Female student sitting at table with laptop takes notes as she reads in a library.
Students vary greatly in how they manage assigned reading material. Shutterstock

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Don’t just blame the problem on students

The engagement with readings is often seen as an exclusively student-centred problem. I urge a move away from this view. Instead, I invite educators, learning designers and educational developers to reconsider the methods we use to integrate assigned academic literature in the course design.

Research indicates that educators struggle to clearly communicate the rationale for why students need to read and how these texts contribute to their learning. We need to recognise different student personalities and anxieties, and to develop flexible ways for students to interact with academic literature.

But don’t students know that reading matters? Isn’t that what being at uni is about? Maybe, but here’s the problem.

Teachers regularly engage with complex papers, books and reports. Over the years they develop effective approaches to tackling the academic content.

Most students, on the other hand, have limited, if any, exposure to such texts. Many have low reading confidence. This results in situations where students face a black box (of readings) and are simply expected to know what to do with it, how to do it and, importantly, why. First-year and international students are particularly familiar with this scenario.

Male student reads a book with a pile of other books next to hhim
Getting through all their required reading can be hard work for students. Shutterstock

How can educators improve engagement with readings?

Educators often use questions and reflections to determine whether students have learned or missed anything in the readings. While it is a good starting point, quite often these sessions are done to test students rather than foster their learning. So, what else can we do?

With the development of blended (in person and online) and technology-rich learning environments, educators can use mixed approaches to engage students with assigned readings. We can divide these into pre-class and in-class strategies.

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Ideas for pre-class strategies:

  • Students participate in pre-class activities online. Learning management systems and collaborative tools – such as quizzes, polls and collaborative apps – offer multiple interactive options. Invite students to practise different approaches, including unfamiliar reading strategies.

  • Offer clear expectations and strategies on what, how and why to read. For example, should I skim, review the text or look for best practice? Sometimes a discussion early on is enough.

  • Gradually introduce technical terms and cognitive load. Don’t assume students know all specific terms from the start.

Ideas for in-class strategies:

Various techniques are effective in different contexts. What strategies have you found to meaningfully engage students with readings?

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