TEACHING NOTES: How do I get students to read for class?

Students turning up for class unprepared tends to drive us to distraction. You have planned your class, vigilantly scaffolded your learning activities and tried hard to make the content relevant and interesting. Yet time and again students do not do the readings or other preparatory work, causing all your carefully laid plans to go to waste.

So, what do you do? Summarise the readings that weren’t done (thereby not actually finishing the planned learning activities) or continue on regardless (with considerably less participation than you probably hoped for)? Over the next couple of months we will look at some different strategies for encouraging your students to come to class prepared so that students are able to get the most out of the learning opportunities you create for them.

It’s estimated that on any given day, anywhere from 20 to 70% of students are not prepared for class (Hobson, 2004; Hoeft, 2012). There are so many reasons why but they tend to include variations on the following:

  • too much to read
  • too busy to read
  • no pay-off
  • don’t understand why they should
  • problem with the readings (too hard, lack of access).

Understanding why students don’t do your readings is a good place to start in thinking of solutions. You could ask them why (maybe via the Feedback tool in FLO) if it’s already a problem or if you’re hearing grumbling in class about the readings. However, the reasons above are valid. Many students do juggle full study loads with jobs, long commutes to university and their other commitments, and are too busy to do a lot of reading. They don’t understand the importance of the readings as preparation for class and see little relationship between the readings and their overall grade for the topic. For many, they may lack the reading or study skills needed to be able to read efficiently and with purpose. Finally, if you end up summarising the readings for them in class, they have no motivation to do it for themselves!

Here are some tips to get you started.

Regularly review your topic readings

This should be part of your annual topic review process. Readings are linked to learning activities and these are aligned with topic learning outcomes. Are all your readings really necessary? Separate them into ‘essential’ and ‘would be nice’ (or extension readings for those students who want to explore further). Be pragmatic! The students are unlikely to do all the readings, so what is the absolute minimum level of reading you need to have them arrive prepared?

Link them logically to class activities and assignments (yes, I know this seems obvious but little is guaranteed to have students stop doing their reading than you not alluding to a required reading in class).

Reinforce expectations

Articulate your expectations around preparedness early on – this might form part of developing group norms. Where a fair contribution by everyone is important, it becomes awkward for those students who do come unprepared, especially in small group work. Also, highlighting the planning and amount of work you have put into designing the learning activities and overall curriculum can motivate some students to come prepared out of respect for you.

Explore reading comprehension

Some students have poor reading resilience – they haven’t yet developed the capacity to absorb and discuss the interpretive work required by many of our readings (Kennedy, Douglas, Poletti, Seaboyer, & Barnett, 2013). Spend a little time and develop some resources to put on FLO to help students to understand what effective reading and comprehension means in the context of your topic.

Preview the readings in the previous session and let the students know what they will get from the readings and how it will relate to the class activities (and maybe, how it will disadvantage them if they don’t).

Consider developing a short (<2 pages) reading guide that points students towards the most important parts of the reading. This can help to avoid them simply ‘googling’ a web summary as a substitute and also serves to support them in developing reading resilience. This might include ‘framing’ questions to guide the students about what to look for in the reading.

Use the readings in (or before) class

Students need to be held accountable for their reading (or lack thereof). Consider pre-class quizzes on the reading, discussion forums and/or in-class activities directly using the readings. These might include:

  • asking students to list three key points from the reading
  • using a think-pair-share activity based on a section/s of the reading
  • having students submit a card with their summary notes from the reading during class. Hand this back to them on exam day and allow them to use it during the assessment. No card, no notes to access during the exam
  • using group assignments or other opportunities to evaluate the responsibility taken by group members in their preparedness and contribution.

Finally, remember your enthusiasm is important! Students frequently cite the passion and enthusiasm of their teacher as one of the most important aspects of experiencing good teaching. Expressing your enthusiasm for the learning activities the readings are based on will also help motivate students to come prepared.

More resources

Getting students to do their assigned readings

Motivating students to come to class prepared

The Reading Resilience Toolkit



Hobson, E. H. (2004). Getting students to read: Fourteen tips. Idea Paper No. 40. The Idea Center.

Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don’t read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(2). https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2012.060212

Kennedy, R., Douglas, K., Poletti, A., Seaboyer, J., & Barnett, T. (2013). The reading resilience toolkit. Retrieved from http://chelt.anu.edu.au/readingresilience/


Written by Cassandra Hood
Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

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