Preparing for lectures – or not.

I often hear colleagues say that students will not read the book before the class so there is no point in asking them to. The result is that there is then the assumption that they will not read and so the lecture is structured with this assumption. The problem is that those who have done the reading are bored by the lecture because they have already done the work, whilst those who didn’t do the reading have their assumption (that there wasn’t any point in doing it) confirmed to them. It is then difficult for an academic who might only be delivering a couple of lectures in the middle of the semester to impose a different level of expectation. S/he then has to conform to the Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group (COWDUNG) to maintain the status quo and avoid the wrath of the students when it comes to evaluation time.

I have observed this situation first hand in numerous academic departments – particularly in the sciences. In the Humanities, the situation often appears to be very different. Within an English Literature class (for example) there is the assumption and the expectation that the students will have read the book (or relevant chapters) ready for discussion and analysis in class. It would be inconceivable that a literature teacher would sit and read Shakespeare while the students took notes. The expectation is clear – you read at home and we analyse in class.  It is as if Bloom’s Taxonomy works differently in the different disciplines (see my earlier Blog post on the flipped classroom).

So can we get the students to prepare for lectures by reading relevant materials, and avoid coming to the content ‘cold’? Heiner et al (2014) investigated ways of encouraging students to prepare for class by increasing their reading. They looked at the effects of giving a graded quiz on the reading in class or shortly before class using an online platform. They stress two specific features:

  • ensuring the reading is very specific and closely linked to the content of the class
  • using quiz questions that explicitly refer to specific pages and figures in the textbook.

Their method resulted in over 95% of students reporting that they increased the use of the textbook, with 80% reading the textbook on a regular basis. They also found that students began to recognise more the benefits of reading to their learning, and the use of productive reading strategies.

The direction of reading activity is a well-known issue. Telling students to ‘read around’ does not provide enough focus for them. The link between reading and other class activities has to be explicit and immediate in order to establish a pattern of learning.

It is possible. But it takes some preparation.


Heiner, C.E., Banet, A.I., and Wieman, C. (2014) Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class. American Journal of Physics, 82(10): 989 – 996


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