Why Students Won’t Read—and What to Do about It

Photo by cottonbro at Pexels
Photo by cottonbro at Pexels

One of the most frustrating things that can happen in higher education is that we assign students a reading that is really interesting and important for an upcoming class discussion. We then go on to design the day’s activities around the reading so that students can come prepared to tackle complex issues and have in-depth conversations about a topic that will move their learning forward.

Then, when class arrives, it becomes all too clear to us (and the other students) that most members of the class have not read the material assigned to them. Now, there are a number of reasons for this, and in my classes, I have asked students to tell me why they sometimes chose not to read. Here are a few potential reasons:

  1. The reading looked like it would take too much time.
  2. Students did not see relevance in the reading.
  3. In previous courses, students were asked to read. When they did, they quickly realized that whether they read didn’t always matter that much to what happened in class.

What can we do?

Most of us agree that students really need to engage in reading in the discipline because it helps frame out things that they cannot always do in class. And given that most of us are frequent readers, at least of our disciplines, we assume others will be able to do so as well.

1. The reading looked like it would take too much time. Students approach reading any kind of material in the same way they have in the past. And if you really dig into the past academic experience of your students, you’ll find that they have spent most of their time reading narrative texts (stories). With that background, they often will then approach their text (journal articles, scholarly books) the same way and try to read it as if it were a novel. When they do that, they find quickly that it doesn’t read like a story and thus will take far too long to read effectively or even to determine effective strategies.

One of the most important lessons we can learn from our students is that context matters. Students need to understand that reading a textbook is not at all like reading a story. They need to approach it differently, they need to have different goals in mind when they read, and they need to be much more actively engaged in building up their understanding of the text than they would be normally when leisure reading. A way to do that is to help students begin to understand that reading requires them to have requisite background knowledge to fully comprehend text. Thus, they should use questions to review the material, preview the material, or do some other more intentional strategy to approach reading (Willingham, 2017). This approach sets the tone for students to learn to approach reading in a way that makes it seem like work- and work leading to a goal. One approach is to engage students in a strategy called inter-teaching, where they approach reading with questions and then bring answers to those questions to class to discuss (Sayville et al., 2005). This strategy gives students some approach to the material that helps them understand what is valuable in the reading and what is not (for purposes of the class—this is not a value judgment of the reading itself).

2. Students did not see relevance in the reading. If students take time to actually start the reading, they often don’t see how it relates to things that are important to them. They see the text as stilted and the material as completely unfamiliar or unimportant.

Besides context, students need relevance. That is, they need a preview of what they are going to read so they can begin to see the purpose of reading the work. Students act like all humans do: if there is a clear and desirable outcome associated with behavior, it increases the likelihood that the student will engage or avoid that behavior depending on if the outcome is positive or negative. To that end, if the student sees the outcome and understands the material within the context of what they already know, they are more likely to engage in the material. Students work hard to develop knowledge structures of what they are trying to learn. If they see the relevance of the reading for their knowledge, they are more likely to read. Students can tap into prior knowledge and use that as a lens to see the new material. One way to help with that is a process called interleaving. In interleaving, students learn something, move onto something else, and then learn more about that topic. With regard to reading, a faculty member could teach students a topic, move on to something else, and then have them read about the first topic. The students will now have information on the first topic and then see the refresher in light of what they learned in between. The effort to reactivate the previously learned information will increase the likelihood of integration of information.

3. In previous classes, students were asked to read. When they did, they quickly realized that whether they read didn’t always matter to what happened in class. Students, if they do read, often do not see the connections between what they read and what happens in class. They see the reading as homework and not as a learning experience to build upon.

The fact is, students have been burned by faculty. They have been asked to read, have done so, and have not seen that material in any format again. Be transparent with your students. Have an open dialogue with them about why they read, how they read, and what you expect them to get out of the reading. Work with them to ensure that they have the opportunity to not only learn from class but build knowledge from class and reading. To do that, you need to guide them so they begin to see value and approach reading in a manner that will lead to more success.

In this article, I’ve covered a few potential strategies. I encourage you to have an open conversation with your students to really try to determine how to best help your students learn. Ultimately, that is always the goal.


Overson, C. A., Hakala, C. M., Kordonowy, L., & Benassi, V. A. (forthcoming). In their own words: What scholars want you to know about why and how to apply the science of learning in your academic setting. STP Books

Saville, B. K., Zinn, T. E., & Elliott, M. P. (2005). Interteaching versus traditional methods of instruction: A preliminary analysis. Teaching of Psychology, 32(3), 161–163. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top3203_6

Willingham, D.T. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. Jossey-Bass.

Chris Hakala, PhD, is the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship at Springfield College. He also serves as professor of psychology. His work is on teaching and learning and how we can create the most effective learning environments for all students.

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