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Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 43: Getting students to do their assigned reading

Welcome to the forty-third issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education. This January, our topic is "Getting students to do their assigned reading."

This issue is based on the document Getting students to do their reading [pdf]. Please download the full document for more information and complete work cited section.

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

Best Practices

The failure of students to complete their assigned readings before class is an unfortunately common occurrence at every level of higher education and in every discipline.  

In order to motivate students to do their assigned readings, it is important to understand the reasons why the compliance rate is so low. 

Reasons students don’t do their reading

girls reading in bunk beds

A review of the literature on this subject reveals a set of common reasons why students fail to complete their assigned readings. These reasons can be grouped into four main categories:

Lack of pay-off: Busy university students are very adept at running cost-benefit analyses when it comes to their schoolwork. With many students juggling full course loads alongside jobs, long commutes, and other commitments, any work that is seen to have no impact on their grades will quickly be put aside.  

Misunderstanding student motivation: Faculty members often make the mistake of seeing their students as being younger versions of themselves – exceptionally motivated and committed to both the material and to succeeding at a high level. Instead, instructors need to start seeing any given cohort as containing students with a wide range of ability, commitment, and interest in learning (Hobson, 2004).

Poor reading or study skills: Many students, especially those in their first year of study, lack the necessary skills to make sense of their assigned readings. They don’t see reading as an interactive or constructive process in which they are “developing understanding through a dialogue with the text” (Sandvig, 2007). They lack the skills and vocabulary to work with the discipline-specific texts that they have been assigned, and this frustration often leads students to give up on their readings.

Problems with assigned readings: This category includes both problems with the way readings have been inserted into a given course, as well as problems with the readings themselves.

Course structure can actually have a big impact on student compliance with reading assignments. Boyd found, through student surveys, “that the linkage of reading to what happens in class is the greatest motivator for student reading” (Boyd, 2003, as cited in OSET, 2009). The main ways in which course design can impede student motivation to read are as follows:

  • No justification for the readings in the syllabus (Hobson, 2004).
  • Vague assignments without guidance as to what students should “get” from the readings.
  • Lectures cover the reading content during class time.
  • Slides or lecture notes cover the reading content (OSET, 2009).


The selection of the reading material also has a major impact on student compliance. The main ways in which reading selection can impede student motivation to read are as follows:

  • No differentiation made between readings required for success and merely suggested readings.
  • Mismatch between the difficulty level of an assigned text and students’ reading abilities.
  • Readings being used for purposes that they were never intended, or “not appropriate to the context in which they are used” (Hobson, 2004).

How to motivate students to do their reading

Bean believes that instructors “need to assume responsibility for getting students to ‘read for the course.’ This includes making certain that the assigned reading is course-related, as well as teaching students the discipline-specific values and strategies that facilitate disciplinary learning” (Bean, 1996, as cited in Hobson, 2004).

To get students to ‘read for the course,’ Hobson suggests that the best solutions are multi-dimensional, examining and modifying “attitudes and activities on both sides of the teaching-learning coin” (2004). These solutions attack the problem from three angles:

  1. “Help students understand course design choices, and related performance expectations;
  2. shape the in-class experience to encourage reading as a learning tool;
  3. develop needed course-relevant reading skills and attitudes” (Hobson, 2004).

Course design

The process of selecting and assigning readings is inextricably tied to the course design process through the process of alignment, in which learning objectives are linked with teaching and learning activities and assessment methods. Therefore, when approaching the creation of your reading assignments, keep in mind your course’s intended learning outcomes – these outcomes “provide one criterion for determining course-related texts, reading load, and pragmatic reading compliance expectations” (Hobson, 2004).

The following areas of effective course design can be leveraged to increase reading compliance:

  • The syllabus: An effectively prepared syllabus will not simply list the readings for the course, it will provide students with background on the material, show students how each reading relates to the course content and activities, and indicate how the assignments will contribute to their learning (Hobson, 2004).
  • Continue to explain the relevance of reading assignments through the term: Review the relevance of each assignment in the syllabus, and then continuously throughout the term. These explanations are important to unskilled readers “because they are not adept at making inferential connections between items that are seemingly dissimilar or only loosely related.” By reinforcing the intended learning outcomes for the assignments as they occur, instructors can increase student buy-in (Hobson, 2004). 
  • Scheduling assignments: A mixture of reading assignments should be distributed throughout the term, with each assigned text appearing in conjunction with a corresponding section of the course. Hobson even recommends only distributing specific reading assignments close to their use date, rather than ahead of time. He believes that “when these assignments are made close to the ‘use date’—the class session during which the information contained in that reading appears—students are more likely to read the assignments” (Hobson, 2004).
  • Designing assessments: When designing assessments for your course, make sure that the readings play a part. Exams should include questions that can only be answered by having completed the readings. Research or reflection papers should require the use of the readings. Weir suggests including the following instruction on writing assignments: “Your paper must draw upon assigned readings (specify which ones) in a substantial manner that demonstrates your mastery of them and your ability to synthesize these with outside sources. Papers that fail to reference these works will be marked down accordingly” (2009).

Selecting the Best Readings

woman reading newspaper in florida

The perception of an overwhelming workload, combined with the perception that they can get by without completing the readings, leads to low compliance with the assigned readings. The following suggestions can help prevent this from happening:

  1. Amount: Hobson suggests performing a “triage” on your reading list. Review all the materials you have considered assigning and rate each one “according to its relevance to success in the course (e.g. ‘absolutely essential,’ ‘good supporting material,’ ‘exotic,’ ‘appealing to experts,’ ‘idiosyncratic choice’).” Only the readings that fall into the category “absolutely essential” should be assigned as “required reading.” Each of these texts should be mentioned in class, be included in projects and assignments, or appear on examinations (Hobson, 2004).
  2. Level: Required readings should be aimed at “marginally-skilled” students. Selecting readings that are beyond the reading level of the majority of students is unfair, and leads to an “unequal learning environment tilted in favor of highly-skilled readers.” After slogging through a few “unreadable” readings, students will give up, rather than suffer through another one (Lowman, 1995, as cited in Hobson, 2004).
  3. Purpose: Remember – if students think they can get by just by attending lectures, they won’t bother with the readings. Therefore the course readings must be “an explicit learning device that is separate from, but complementary to, what you do in class” (OSET, 2009).

Assignment design

When assigning readings, there are specific ways to structure the assignments that can increase student motivation. These methods can also help ensure that reading assignments “align with in-class learning opportunities that then combine to motivate mastery of learning outcomes” (OSET, 2009). When designing an assignment:

  • Provide a purpose for reading, giving students a sense of what they should focus on and what they should learn from the reading. Make reading assignments explicit, with specific instructions and additional resources that can guide students through challenging areas (OSET, 2009).
  • Use scaffolding to organize the development of new skills. Tasks should move from “relatively inauthentic, simple, and highly structured tasks” to “complex, authentic, [and] open-ended.” These assignments should be discipline-specific, requiring students to complete tasks that are realistic to their area of study, and should require content mastery to complete (Concepción, 2009).
  • Include language that deemphasizes the role of the instructor as a formal authority, and instead focuses on students’ intrinsic motives and “suggests they will find the assignments intellectually satisfying” (Sandvig, 2007).
  • Create assignments that students feel are rewarding, providing them with material that they not only need to know, but is also engaging and “has some application to their own lives and thoughts” (Immerwahr, 2013). When possible, “feed them small doses of the stuff they’re used to seeing, such as Web sites, blogs, and graphic novels” (Weir, 2009).


Dealing with reading comprehension problems

As discussed in the first section, poor reading and study skills are major factors in non-compliance with assigned readings. Students, especially those in their first-year of study, may have never learned how to be “deep readers,” focusing on meaning, as opposed to “surface readers,” focusing on facts and information (Bean, 2011). Instructors must be willing to demonstrate strategies for effective reading and comprehension in their particular discipline, or risk facing a sea of unprepared faces at their next class meeting (OSET, 2009). Proactive methods for dealing with reading comprehension problems include:

  1. Make the reading central to the course: On the first day of class, include the readings in your description of what’s to come. Include graphics or photos from some of the readings in your slides or carry the books with you to class. Demonstrate the positive value of the readings to students. (OSET, 2009).  
  2. Previewing the material: Prepare students for the upcoming reading by spending some time in class explaining what “is to be achieved from reading” and “how the text will set up students for the necessary learning outcomes and upcoming in-class activities” (OSET, 2009). For example, “when lecturing with PowerPoint, include textbook page numbers in your slides in order to relate key concepts to where the student can learn from reading in the text” (OSET, 2009). This can also be done through a short, un-graded pretest that “provides students an introduction of what is to come” and shows them “where their knowledge gaps exist” (OSET, 2009).
  3. Guide student reading: Though it can be a time consuming process to develop additional material, providing students with study guides or notes to supplement their reading can help center their reading process around key questions, or give students guidance on how to make sense of a difficult text.  Students may also benefit from being forced to take an active involvement in their reading, “such as writing something that must be e-mailed in before class, or preparing specific questions for a quiz” (Immerwahr, 2013).
  4. Teach reading strategies: Students who are new to university or new to a discipline may need your assistance in learning effective strategies for reading. Rather than allowing them to color their pages indiscriminately with highlighter, you can provide them with models for effective text annotation and note taking. For instance, you can distribute a sample page from the course text that has been marked up. Hobson suggests providing an additional annotation of the marking that explains the strategy behind it and discussing it during class (Hobson, 2004).

More information on this topic, including ideas for in-class activities that can engage students with their readings, is included in the document "Getting Students to do their Assigned Readings" [pdf]


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"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate at The Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.

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Photo credit: Unidentified woman in Sarasota reading about winter storms up North and Young women reading aboard the shantyboat Lazy Bones, State Library and Archives of Florida