Getting Students to Do the Reading

Getting students to do their assigned reading is a struggle. Most teachers don’t need anyone to tell them what the research pretty consistently reports. On any given day, only 20 to 30 percent of the students arrive at class having done the reading. Faculty are using a variety of approaches to up that percentage: quizzes (announced, unannounced, online), assignments that require some sort of written response to the reading, reading journals, a variety of optional reading support materials, and calling on students to answer questions about the reading. Which of these approaches work best?

As Hattenberg and Steffy (reference below) note, there is surprisingly little research that addresses that question. And there are some issues with the existing research. For example, according to Hattenberg and Steffy, most studies compare a reading compliance strategy with doing nothing. “It is hardly surprising to find that a particular technique is more effective than doing nothing at all.” (p. 348) Furthermore, a lot of studies of these approaches involve small sample sizes—maybe just one class.

These researchers aspired to see whether they could find out what approaches worked best and do so in a way that remedied the research deficiencies. They surveyed students in eight sections of an introductory sociology course—a course with the enrolled students majoring in a variety of fields. The 423 students in their sample were asked whether they had experienced one of seven reading compliance techniques: (1) announced quizzes on the reading, (2) unannounced quizzes on the reading, (3) required writing assignments on the reading, (4) required journals in which they recorded their reactions to the reading, (5) required completion of questions on the reading, (6) optional reading guides or questions, and (7) being called on randomly in class to answer questions about the reading. If students had experienced the technique, they were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how effective it was at getting them to do the reading.

The required techniques (quizzes, answers to questions about the reading, and short writing assignments) were the most effective, with mean evaluation scores of 7.85 or higher. Anything optional, including being called on in class, was rated with means below 6.11. The researchers looked at groups within their sample—males and females and students with higher and lower self-reported GPAs—and although the means for those groups were not the same, the techniques that most effectively got students doing the reading were.

The question unanswered by this research is whether students learn the value of reading when what motivates them is a requirement. Do they ever discover that textbooks are great resources? Are they aware of how much their thinking can be stretched and changed by a well-written, provocative essay? Does requiring students to read cultivate the love of reading and learning by reading? Those research results would be interesting, but I suspect that most teachers would not be terribly optimistic about the results. Most students are terribly dependent on extrinsic motivators. If what students are asked to do isn’t required or if there aren’t some points involved, they don’t do even essential tasks that would aid their learning.

The extrinsic methods analyzed in this study do work. Most teachers who use them would agree with the findings. But is there a price that comes when learning is powered by extrinsic motivators? On the other hand, are there any other alternatives?


Hattenberg, S. J., and Steffy, K. (2013). Increasing reading compliance of undergraduates: An evaluation of compliance methods. Teaching Sociology, 41 (4), 346–352.

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