February 11, 2017 8:51 pm

Norman Eng

I don’t know any professor who hasn’t complained about students not reading. Intrigued, I started to go through my syllabus readings for my child development course. Here’s what it looked like:

Week 1: Read Jean Piaget handout

Week 2: Read Erik Erikson handout

Week 3: Read Lev Vygotsky handout

Week 4: Read The Talking Cure article

Week 5: Read Early Theories: Preformationism, Locke & Rousseau handout

Wow, I thought. That’s one heck of a boring list. Then I started to think of the marketer’s mindset—i.e., what’s my audience’s perspective? How do I make the readings relevant to them?

My new syllabus looks like this:

Week 1: How do we help children think more critically? (Read Piaget handout)

Week 2: How do we help children develop confidence and initiative? (Read Erikson handout)

Week 3: Why is interaction important to learning? How can you foster it? (Read Vygotsky handout)

Week 4: How do you help kids become better readers? (Read The Talking Cure article)

Week 5: What kind of environment helps students learn and achieve? (Read Locke/Rousseau article)

Yes, it’s longer. But these questions intrigue. Context helps students focus. I know this because I asked. And they tell me questions make them want to find out more.

They act as “anticipation guides,” a term borrowed from the K-12 world. When you reframe your topics as questions (whether in your syllabus, on the board, online, or in a handout), students read purposefully.

Here’s an example of a short, two-question anticipation guide for students reading a handout on Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget:

How do children learn best, according to Piaget?

How can you help children think beyond themselves (i.e., egocentrism)?

Another option is to preview the next reading at the end of each class, as I do in my math methodology course: “For next week’s reading, ask yourself, what were your experiences learning math when you were young? The article, Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, will change the way you look at math. I guarantee it!”

Think of how great movie trailers leave you wanting more. Or effective advertising get you to check out the company’s website. There are ways to “sell” your course readings without being sleazy.

Two final things to consider:

1. Check if assigned readings are too advanced, too dense, or too boring

Textbooks are often all three, because publishers/authors want as many customers as possible so they cater to everyone.

For example, when I updated the textbook Curriculum: Foundations, Principles, and Issues (7th edition), Pearson asked me who this book was targeted to. My answer:

This book is geared for undergraduate and graduate level introductory education courses. However, the latter half of the book (Chapters 6-10), which covers the principles of curriculum—design, development, etc.—is mainly for graduate and doctoral level students specializing in curriculum, supervision and administration, and educational leadership.

Good lord. How is a freshman—with so little background in education—going to absorb this stuff compared with a doctoral candidate? So, stop for a second and review your reading list. Students often don’t see the relevance of the readings we select. Maybe it’s time we find something more appropriate.

2. Students are busy people, so they logically prioritize their workload

A quiz for another course will take priority over your chapter reading. As students read, they’re thinking, Will I be required to talk about this in class? What are the chances the professor will call on me? If the answer is no, then they won’t likely read.

So it’s not as simple as merely selecting the right articles or using focusing questions. Understanding students’ psychology—their mindset—outside of school helps. That’s a topic for another day. For now, let’s actually give them something worth reading. Then “sell” it.

  • This is great! Thanks for sharing this. It makes sense that thinking from a marketing standpoint and considering the needs and desires of our students are two mindsets that can make a big difference in teaching. These things are fairly easy to do, often overlooked, and could produce great effects.

  • My students have a required reading list that I can’t alter. Hoping your technique of selling the readings and holding them accountable with in-class discussion will promote reading.

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