Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to Make Students Do the Readings

I'm teaching two sections of a Literature Survey course this semester. It is crucial for the success of this course that students read the assigned texts before coming to class. Unless everybody has done the readings, there will be no class discussions, which, of course, will render the entire course utterly useless. 

I have discovered a way to make sure that everybody does the readings. It's very simple. I assign written homework which consists of answering very specific questions about the readings for each day of class. This means that I have 42 homeworks to grade twice a week, which is a huge pain in the neck. However, not a single time this semester have I had to deal with a group of students that hasn't read the text and can't participate in a discussion. 

We can complain that the students don't work as hard as we'd like until the cows come home. (This post at College Misery is an example of such useless whining.) The truth, however, is that often the professors themselves are resistant to doing anything to ensure that the students do their homework. Especially, if it implies more work for the professor.


Spanish prof said...

I do the same, and it actually counts (all together) for 30% of the grade. That still doesn't assure that they will participate in the class discussion, but it's a start. I also ask them to bring the reading questions typed, to make sure they don't do it a second before class.

Clarissa said...

Great idea about getting them to print the assignments. It's such a struggle to read the handwritings, especially as many people love writing with a pencil. I'll do it next time I teach this course.

In order to make them participate, it also helps to post the following announcements on Blackboard on a regular basis: "I want to remind you that participation in our class accounts for 20% of the final grade. Failing this part of the course is equal to getting a grade of zero for the final exam AND one of the mini-quizzes."

That really works.

Spanish prof said...

That's a good one. On the other hand, I was one of the introverts, so I have a hard time forcing students to participate when I know I used to be among the silent ones.

Clarissa said...

I always recognize the true introverts and the Aspies from the regular lazybones kids and give them a chance to participate in writing or by coming to my office to discuss the readings one-on-one.

fairykarma said...

This ties in to your previous post about communities. You've noticed, like I have, the alluring power of people to belong to groups. People will have the silliest reasons just to form a group.

I think teachers can use this to their advantage, by making the class less of a class and more of a community where every student is made to have some emotional investment. I'm just brainstorming, but I'm sure some teachers have pioneered this; I'd hate to think I'm the only person who's thought of exploiting group dynamics of a class to get them all to pass or participate. In theory, social psychology professors should have the best performing students. In theory.....

Some ideas.
1. The use of metaphors should be very extensive. Much of the material in classes is relatively irrelevant to students unless made so. So, have the students consciously relate all they material they read to their daily lives or modern life. I think the problem with participation is people don't know how to participate or make the material tangible within their own minds.

2. If the passing grade is 75. Tell them that the student to gets closest score above 75 gets 5 extra points.
Student A: 75.1
Student B: 75.01
Student C: 75.2

Student B gets 5 extra points added to their grade.
My reasoning here is it'll make the students work so hard for that 75, they'll end up getting much higher.

3. Participation is extra credit, but the top 10% who participate the most. If they have less than 80%, they get 5 points.

4. Each week, make one student co-leader of the class or some other role other than student drone, a role they play quite well already; they need other roles to play. Give them "special" missions, be they extra though relevant assignments to the topic at hand.

This is supposed to make the whole process more fun, more competitive. But knowing the cultural landscape of this country, it wouldn't get very far.

Clarissa said...

There is a lot of groupwork in all of my classes. I try to put them in groups in a way that will make it impossible for one bright, active one to bully the other group members into submissions. They really resist being shuffled around, though. Even if a group that formed at the beginning has a very unhealthy dynamics, they still seem to prefer the certainty of an existing balance of power to breaking up the group.

Competitions always work, though. It's always enough to add 'Whoever does this first/finds the right answer wins' to boost enthusiasm and participation.

fairykarma said...

"impossible for one bright, active one to bully the other group members into submissions."

Thank you doing this! I can't tell you how much grief these little dictators can cause to a group.

Clarissa said...

I am one of those dictators and even I'm annoyed by me on a regular basis. So I know what giref we can cause. :-)

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that even when profs give questions, people only bother to read and answer if they actually get graded for it (brownie points aren't enough, apparently).

I had one history prof who had us write our own discussion questions and hand them in after the discussion. She defined them as "stuff you can't find on wikipedia", so we had to read everything really well and compare sources. I believe the written questions counted for 10-15% of the grade and the discussion for another 10-15%.

Her classes always had the best participation, though that might just be because there were only ever, like, 10 to 20 or so students (yay for teeny liberal arts colleges).

Also, hi! I decided to stop creeping on your blog and actually comment. *waves*


Clarissa said...

Great to have you here, Alana!

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of shuffling groups. One of my professors created groups by having us count off, rather than group with people nearby. In theory, it was a good idea because it would mix up the dominant/most interested/eager students that always sit in the front with the rocks in the back, but it was very frustrating for me to always have to nudge and pry and goad and encourage the others in my group to participate. I feel like I missed out on some fascinating discussions because I was busy trying to force the slackers to just talk so my participation grade wouldn't suffer for their laziness.

I always got stuck sitting in the back, too, with my bad eyesight and straining to hear the professor.

Kira said...

Dear Clarissa, do You admit the possibility that students will write off from each other in such a system?

Clarissa said...

Is that who I think it is? :-)


Plagiarism hasn't happened once this semester. If it did, I would punish it immediately and they wouldn't want to do it again.

Kira said...

Yes, I am Kira from Russian forum, who would like to develop English. Excuse me for mistakes.