On Required Reading
I was scrolling through twitter this evening and came across these two tweets from @Jessifer:
My anecdotal experience: the less reading I "require," the more reading students do.— Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) July 18, 2016
How can we create spaces where "doing the reading" feels intrinsically valuable? https://t.co/JXzbyc23hk— Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) July 18, 2016
I've come to the same realization myself, based on a few observations.
The Early Days
Early on in my teaching career, I noticed that students didn't seem to do the reading before class. Or, if they did, they weren't retaining what they'd read. Physiology books are not known for their readability, and they tend to be dense with long chapters so I couldn't really blame the students.
I tried the "reading quiz" technique to ensure that students read before class. Soon enough, I started to question this strategy. Why should I "force" students to read? If the reading was serving them in some way, then they'd be doing it. If not, then why was I requiring it? What is the specific value in having them read before class? (At the time I was spending most class time lecturing, and I'm not sure that reading ahead did have value for the majority of them.)
Lately, I've been experimenting with a different reading philosophy. Rather than requiring the reading, I provide a list of learning goals for each week of the class. I ask the students to focus on those learning goals, telling them that they can use the textbook, videos I post (this is for online courses), or other resources to get comfortable with the topics. I give them a suggested page range in the textbook and access to a range of video lectures by me and others. They choose if/how to use the resources provided - or others - to meet the learning goals.
Some students choose to read every word on every suggested page of the textbook. Others use the book as a reference tool, skimming or looking through the index as needed to answer homework questions or to participate in the weekly activities.
It makes no difference, I've found, whether they do or don't read every page of the book.
Some of them already know pieces of the material. Some prefer to get the information from lectures. Some prefer to look it up elsewhere or to skip certain pieces. All of these are okay. I haven't found that the grades or the learning happening in the course have changed significantly.
Even More Freedom
In a new class I'm running this trimester, I'm experimenting with an even more "out there" approach.
In this course, I gave students several textbook options. One was a super-basic physiology text designed for the layperson. Another was the OpenStax A&P textbook (free online text). I also said that they could use any physiology book that they already owned or wished to obtain. In the syllabus, I explained why they might choose the books above and also gave a short pros/cons list for some other popular physiology texts.
In this course, the assignments are much more open. (Perhaps I'll do a write-up about that soon!) In any case, giving students a choice in textbook selection hasn't proven to be a problem.
There is a greater range in the depth of assignments submitted. Some students are going above and beyond what I might expect in my more standard courses, while others are submitting work at a less advanced level.
I appreciate this, because the students are going to their personal learning edges. The ones with little background are struggling to put together the basics, while the ones with more experience are taking on the more challenging work. Either way, I believe they're learning. I think (hope?) that this kind of learning will be more meaningful and will stick with them longer than learning with more strict boundaries.
Required Reading and Power or Control
In some ways, I get the sense that demanding that students read at all, or that they read specific pages/pieces can be a bit of a power play.
Insisting that students read x,y,z at or by a specific point in time OR ELSE reminds me of an argument with a toddler, when both parties dig in their heels and fight over whether to wear the red dress or the blue pants. Neither person stands to benefit all that much from winning the argument. Having an adversary shores up the confrontation and diverts attention from the big picture: are we leaving the house in clothing that's going to keep us comfortable?
Spending time "making" the students read - at least in my courses - doesn't necessarily move them closer to the end goals: becoming excited about and interested in physiology, and learning more about how the body works.
When I stopped enforcing reading and let go of the reins a bit, I felt a great sense of relief and freedom. The course feels more student-centered, and I think the students sense this as well. I'm asking them to engage and to actively choose which readings, videos, lectures, or resources are helpful. I'm trusting their decisions and moving myself from the "policewoman" role into the "information desk lady" role. I also don't feel as beholden to specific textbooks. It's easier to change my courses as the need arises (easier said than done for many online courses!).
After so much evolution in the way I think about required readings, I'm excited to see what happens next & where my thinking will be after eight more years.