Why Don't Students Read?

Photo by Brooke Cagley.

I once dismissed a class because no one had done the reading. I was teaching a lower-division course called “Peoples and Cultures of Africa,” and for two weeks we had been discussing gender and health as students (supposedly) read Kris Halloway’s Monique and the Mango Rains. During each class, I reminded students that they should finish reading the book by the following Friday, because we would be talking in depth about how it related to the concepts we’d been exploring. Friday arrived, and not a single student had read enough of the book to participate in class. Most hadn’t even started it. I packed up my materials, told my students to go home and come back when they were serious, and then walked out.

I am not proud of that moment. Although most students did come to the next session having completed the reading, leaving class was both a poor way to express my frustration and an unproductive way to handle a very common problem.

Surveys of undergraduates confirm what many of us suspect from our classroom experiences: most students do not complete assigned readings before class (Burchfield and Sappington 2000; Hoeft 2012). Yet we must resist the common assumption that they are simply lazy, uninterested, or not serious about their learning. As I emphasized in a previous post, it is important to understand our students’ lives and the many factors that affect their coursework.

When anthropology professor Cathy Small—writing under the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan (2005)—enrolled as a freshman at her own university, she, too, found herself skipping assigned readings and finding ways to limit her workload. Students, she argues, do not ignore assignments lightly. Rather, as they try to balance multiple course requirements, organizational meetings, paid employment, and social and familial responsibilities, they make quick decisions about what to prioritize. Readings that will not clearly be used in class are often at the bottom of the list.

Giving up and walking out, although perhaps tempting at times, is ultimately not a useful way to support students or to help them develop the skills we want them to learn. In this post, I share some of the strategies I’ve developed in the years since this incident to encourage students to both complete and engage with assigned readings.

Assign Appropriate Material

The first step in encouraging students to read is to assign material that is appropriate for the specific course and students you are teaching.

  • Consider your audience: Who are your students, and how does this course fit in to the curriculum? Is this an introductory course or are there prerequisites? Are most of your students at the beginning of their college career or are they anthropology majors who are preparing to graduate? What prior knowledge, skills, and interests do you assume students have when you select particular readings?
  • Make sure materials are accessible: Are there any barriers to accessing the readings? How much does the textbook cost? Are there less expensive options? If you are assigning online materials, do most students have access to the internet off campus?
  • Tie readings to learning objectives: Did you select these readings because they are canonical or because they are the best way for students to achieve the course learning outcomes? Academic journal articles and monographs are not the only sources of anthropological insights and, frankly, they are not always well written. Can your goals be achieved by assigning news stories, op-ed pieces, memoirs, fiction, or poetry? What about multimedia resources (podcasts, videos, Storify stories, etc.)?
  • Don’t assign too much: How long will it take students to complete the reading you’ve assigned? The Course Workload Estimator from Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence can help you figure out if you’re asking students to do more than you thought. For example, you can expect students to deeply engage with a monograph at a rate of nine pages an hour; when doing a more general survey of the same text, they may be able to read at a rate of thirty-five pages an hour.

Make It Count

Unsurprisingly, students report that they are most motivated to read when the readings are linked to mandatory quizzes, reading guides, or writing assignments (Hatteberg and Steffy 2013). I am not as concerned as some other instructors that these extrinsic motivations exacerbate disengagement by preventing students from valuing the learning that comes from reading. Most of the students I meet do want to learn. But in addition to time pressures, many students struggle to read effectively; it is often difficult for them to identify central facts and arguments, to evaluate evidence, or to critically engage with the material.

Graded assignments are not only about forcing compliance. They should also support learning goals, help students become stronger readers, and encourage them to take charge of their learning. Here are some assignments to consider:

  • Reading quizzes: Reading quizzes tend to work best for simple comprehension and recall. I use open-book, multiple-choice quizzes in introductory classes where textbook readings introduce students to a lot of new vocabulary. These quizzes are not designed to be punitive; they are offered online and students may take each quiz as many times as they want before the deadline, when their highest score is recorded. My goal in assigning these quizzes is to have students arrive in class with a basic understanding of the terms and examples used in the textbook, so that we can spend class time discussing specific case studies or exploring areas of confusion.
  • Reading responses, critical reflections, and commentaries: I have assigned short, open-ended reading responses in upper-division classes as a way to encourage deeper reading and reflection (see an example here). My intention is for students to arrive having read closely and, because they have posted their responses on the class discussion forum, for our group conversation to already be underway. In my experience, though, students struggle to summarize the readings, many are unable to engage in critical reflection without more explicit direction, and they rarely read or respond to anyone else’s comments on the discussion board. While assignments like this may be successful in other classes or with clearer instructions, I have generally shifted my approach toward more guided responses.
  • Guided reading responses: These assignments can take several forms. In a small seminar, I used modified versions of this critical analysis worksheet, which allows me to identify where students are having trouble understanding an article and to address these challenges in class. Joe Dumit uses Google forms to have students respond to questions adapted from Kim Fortun’s memo assignment “Questioning a Text.” Dumit requires students to complete the form for each assigned reading, and responses appear in a spreadsheet that is easy to review and grade, even in large classes. I’ve drawn on this approach to encourage students to identify central arguments in book-length texts (see my Google forms for Robert Murphy’s The Body Silent or Lesley Sharp’s Strange Harvest).
  • Electronic annotations: Finally, reading does not have to be only an individual activity. Collaborative annotations are an excellent way to encourage close reading and critical dialogue. In his upper-level “History of Anthropological Thought” class, Brian Watkins instructed students to make three annotations on each reading using the Hypothes.is platform. After several weeks, students started using their annotations to debate finer points among themselves. Watkins found that in-class discussions were more focused and students performed much better on exams than previous classes. I haven’t used this approach myself yet, but it appears to be a powerful way not only to make sure students actually do the reading, but also to help them become stronger and more thoughtful readers in the process.


Burchfield, Colin M., and John Sappington. 2000. “Compliance with Required Reading Assignments.Teaching of Psychology 27, no. 1: 58–60.

Hatteberg, Sarah J., and Kody Steffy. 2013. “Increasing Reading Compliance of Undergraduates: An Evaluation of Compliance Methods.” Teaching Sociology 41, no. 4: 346–52.

Hoeft, Mary 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, no. 2.

Nathan, Rebekah. 2005. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.