Encouraging students to do the readings (and other preparation work)

19 April 2023

Why don’t students do the readings? Why don’t they come to class? Or even if they do come to class, why aren’t they prepared to participate?

The answer to these questions is multifaceted and complex. Societal and economic factors outside of our control certainly contribute – e.g., increasing rates of students with jobs, or declining mental health of our students. But there are still things we, as lecturers, can control. Specifically, the concept of constructive alignment ties all these issues of “why don’t students do X” together with the simple explanation of: Because they know they don’t have to.

A common example is if your assigned readings and lectures cover the same material. Students are perceptive and will quickly realise doing both – reading the textbook and coming to class – is unnecessary.

Perhaps you’re thinking that example doesn't apply to you, that your class time does indeed cover different material than the textbook or other assigned readings. In this case, the phrase value add comes to mind. Even if your lectures and readings cover different material, one or both might not be adding enough value for your students to make time for them.

If students can do well enough on the assessments without doing the readings or coming to class, most will use that time to do something else.

So, how can we encourage students to do the readings and come to class? We must ensure our course outcomes, assessments, and learning material are aligned. Watch this video by Dr. Phillip Dawson, an expert in the field of teaching and learning, as he covers the topic constructive alignment and tackles the question of “why don’t students do the readings?”

By determining alignment, or lack thereof, we will likely also reveal content or activities that do not add value and only serve to increase student workload. Have a look at our teaching tip on student workload, which provides recommendations and examples, and have a play with workload calculators, like this one from Wake Forest University.

A final tip on encouraging students to do the readings and come to class: constantly explain to them why it matters. This topic relates to X; this fits into the larger picture because Y; this activity assesses our learning outcome by Z. Connections and relevance may seem obvious to you because you are an expert in your field; your students are novices and cannot see connections the way you can. Understanding the why can help students see the value of what you want them to do.

For more teaching tips, book your place at an upcoming workshop or reach out to us at [email protected].