“But no one is doing the reading!”: exploring journal articles as lecture prep

In my earlier post I explored how to read and use academic articles, with some clear ways in for students. This time I wanted to slightly switch tactic – and put some questions for lecturers to think about in addressing why they are setting reading in the first place. Then there are some strategies for how we might find new directions instead of simply setting one or two articles a week.

(As ever, I’ve anonymised examples of student experience here I have encountered as a lecturer, but they are all based on true things I’ve experienced as a lecturer over the last decade)

How many students do you think are doing the reading before sessions?

On a scale of ‘probably not many’ to ‘maybe not all of them’, to ‘every single one of my students can dedicate massive amounts of time to my modules’… what would you answer?

But before you do – the first thing I’d ask you to decouple is the idea that time to prepare for your sessions necessarily equals ‘committed to one’s own education.’ So if your answer is ‘not all students do my reading’, or ‘not as many’ or ‘I don’t know’, then if you’re expecting a ‘students don’t work as hard as they used to’ article, that’s not what you’re going to get here.

As educators we have to face the fact that unless we have very recent experience of studying, or had complex circumstances of your own (and in which case, hats off to you) – it is entirely possible your version of being at university bears absolutely no similarity to your current students’ experience.

One way to understand this is in the parallel ‘why are so many students late?’ complaint. Because however tempting it might be to complain about students being late to lectures, the actual reasons for lateness might include things you have no personal experience of, or things you wouldn’t expect students to be encountering – (the distribution-warehouse-bus back from industrial estate in the middle of nowhere does not always leave on time, so you can’t get to your lecture on time; the handover at the care home took a bit longer and now you’re late).

The bigger takeaway here is that students lives are complicated and when you ask them to spend untold hours prepping for sessions, it simply might not be possible.

Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

So back to the reading – how many students do you think are doing the readings that you are setting?

I’m not sure actually asking students to find out the real number is fair – they know they are supposed to, and they might even want to. But if you worked till 3am in a questionable nightclub, would you really want to get up early enough to ‘properly prepare’? Speaking for myself, I’d sleep in and chance the session. Your students might be carers, in difficult home settings, or in precarious living situations (e.g. couch surfing).

And it’s not only these kinds of problems. How many of your students are actively navigating visual learning needs like dyslexia and other disabilities and neurodiversity? How many more are doing this without diagnosis or precious DSA support?

You might be convinced all your students are already doing all the reading, but respectfully and gently, I would say they almost certainly are not.

So what are the options here?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

May I present a multiple choice adventure of possible responses

1) “La-la-la I don’t want to hear it” continue the charade of setting reading, pretending everyone is doing it, and ignore the problem.

2) “I hear it but I want to complain about it” continue the charade of setting reading, and continuing to complain that no one is doing it.

3) “Let’s do something about it” and really asking meaningfully, why am I setting this reading? If the answers are anything like this:
– because I had to do a lot of reading before sessions
– because if they read these things they will understand the problem well enough to talk about it
– because it makes students better writers
– because it’s just part of university…

… then I would gently suggest there might be another way forward.

Moving forward: a task

‌Pick one piece of reading you have asked students to read for a module:

Task one: Why? What about this piece of writing is important? What is the benefit of reading this? What do you want them to achieve by reading it?

Now – imagine you’re a student doing this module – how and are the students finding that key information out? Where is that thing you’ve just established written down or otherwise communicated to the students?

If you are setting multiple pieces of reading before a session – is one more important than another? Do you meaningfully spend time with the article in the session?

Task two Decide what you want to do about this gap – if you make no other change, could you tell the students why this reading is important? What could you cut out of ‘required reading’ and represent in a way that students might actually access it. If something is a super piece of writing that you think could help improve their writing styles – could you tell the students that?

Bigger dreams

If we are going to make education really inclusive, then maybe something much bigger has to give here. Below are some of the strategies I’ve used – perhaps they will be helpful for you too:

  • Not set reading when I didn’t need to, and offered extension reading after the session for students who want to learn more.
  • Spent longer than one week on one piece of reading – use class time to read and discuss sections of that reading over say, a three week period.
  • Create videos that recap short key information that can be watched by students more accessibly; or videos that show students how to read a particular article. Show exactly what techniques you would recommend.
  • Use software like Hypothesis to work together on an article – mark up what’s important together, perhaps in a session.
  • Never throw new reading before a session without a long lead in time to do it – if you don’t have lots of extra time, students don’t either.
  • Offer pathways after and during sessions to explore different routes through the material – and in fact, that’s going to be my next post in this series so more on that to come!

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