4 Ways to Get Your Students to Do the Assigned Reading

Tips for Assigned Readings
Student Engagement, Teaching Hacks, Teaching Methods
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dr. Jenny Billings is a faculty member at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.


Students do not always complete assigned readings. This is true for chapters, novels, articles, or even single poems. Being an English instructor, I take this personally. I laugh while writing this, but it’s true! When I craft my course, I am constantly considering which format will give my students everything they need to be successful. I tell my babies, “I have given you the world. Together, we can decide how best to navigate it.” I have always been the kind of instructor to select the assigned chapters first, then build the rest of the course around them. These chapters are presented in a certain order to help dictate the rest of the “world” I build for my students: the corresponding notes, what I lecture on, the videos I embed, the assignments they complete, and the discussion questions they consider. With the chapters bearing so much weight, what if my students opt out of reading? Here are four ways I get my students to read what I assign. Hopefully, they’ll help you, too.

1. Start Small: Change Your Approach

I used to get so frustrated when a student would ask me a question that was addressed in the reading I had just assigned. I’d often ask or write back, “Did you read Chapter X in your eTextbook?” The student would respond one of two ways: 1) “No (but I will)” or 2) “Yes, I read it (but don’t understand what it said).” The question I asked prompted these responses only; I wasn’t allowing for anything else.

I’ve changed the way I approach this. Instead of putting the sole responsibility back on the student—”Have you read the chapter?”—I create an opportunity for us to navigate the reading together. Instead, I’ll ask, “What section, page, or concept tripped you up?” From there, we narrow it down, discuss it together, and the student walks away with a better understanding. Even if it was only that portion, and even if they didn’t really read the chapter to begin with, they now grasp that concept or section. That’s still a win in my book. You know what else is a win? The fact that they are more likely to read in the future because I didn’t turn them away.

2. Less Assigned Reading is More. Seriously.

Our students are drowning in information daily. Social media, the news, their home life, their work life, their families, their kids… these things combined lead to information overload. Our students are coming to us for an education, sure, but they are also coming to us for change.

I’m not saying that you must remove important information from your class. I’m saying that you need to evaluate how much reading you’re assigning. You and I both know that there are concepts, pages, and even chapters that can be omitted and replaced with a video or live lecture. When I started teaching high school, I taught the same way I was taught. I assigned reading outside of class and then once back in class, I went over what students were supposed to read outside of class. See the redundancy? If I’m going to go over it anyway, why would the students need to read it beforehand? Rather than go over it, the in-class session should be an expansion of what they read. They should apply what they read to class, the assignment, etc. in a way that requires them to read to do well. For them to recall everything that they’ve read, especially on the spot, you need to assign less reading. Like Theresa MacPhail says, “My students are getting the information—but in the formats with which they are most comfortable.”

3. Assigned Reading Should Be Relevant

I’m guilty of assigning reading because I felt it was “easier” for students to get the information that way. If students aren’t reading, they aren’t getting the information. If the reading you assigned isn’t relevant to the assignment they’re focused on in that moment, you’ve lost them.

The reading can’t be relevant just to the course—or just to the final exam. Assign reading quizzes consistently. Use your LMS or digital platform dashboard to gauge reading and student engagement. Set the expectation that all students will participate in class discussions—and stick to it! The assigned reading must be understood and utilized immediately to establish relevancy, and thus, importance in the minds of students. Don’t believe me? I asked my babies how they defined relevant reading and reading they were more likely to complete. Here are some direct quotes:

“If I know that the chapter assigned will show me how to do the current assignment, I’m much more likely to read it. Well, skim it efficiently.”

“When you tell us the pages that will help us the most with our assignment, I always read and use those.”

“Relevant reading assignments are those that provide insight on how I can be successful on the essay you just assigned. Almost like they are telling me a secret that I would have missed otherwise.”

See what I mean? Students know what they need to read. They’ll also tell you, honestly, how to entice them to read. So, ask.

4. Don’t Assign Reading Just for Reading’s Sake

According to Linda B. Nilson, students “only spend about 37% of their reading time on college reading assignments, which they describe as ‘tedious’ and ‘time-consuming.’ In fact, they often skip the assigned readings unless their grades depend on it.” If you’re assigning reading as an assignment, ensure there’s a grade associated with it. The days of assigning reading so students “can apply concepts later” are gone. It’s not difficult to make sure that graded work is directly related to what students were supposed to read and assigned in a timely manner.

I would also encourage you to give your students assignments that serve as chapter maps. Give them in advance so students know what to focus on and what to read specifically. Then ask them to apply those concepts critically to the assignment. Students are more likely to read what you assign if you tell them: 1) exactly what to read, 2) where that information will be used (i.e., on what assignment), 3) how the reading applies to their current assignment or work, and 4) what they’re risking by not completing the reading. Students are grade-driven; success should be reading-driven.

We know there are plenty of barriers to reading. Students are not exactly pining to read academic text, especially if it’s extensive and dry. Getting students to read starts with selecting the right texts. I have worked at this for almost 10 years. In the current remote setting I find myself in, getting students to embrace all I provide them is even more important to their success. The worry that students are reading less has grown every year and will continue to do so. Instead of worrying that students are reading less, perhaps we can focus on assigning less and seeing more success.


Looking to do more reading yourself? Check out our brand new Anti-Racist Reading List, where we compiled recommendations from your peers!