Getting students to prepare for class

The “flipped classroom” model depends on students coming to class prepared – usually having watched an online lecture, but perhaps using other materials to get the equivalent of a lecture. In-class time can then be used for more interactive, “brains-on” and hands-on activities. Even in a more traditional model, students who have done the reading ahead of time will be better able to follow the lecture and participate in class. But getting students motivated to read is hard! The textbook is long, heavy and boring, and you’re going to cover the material in class anyway (maybe) – so why bother? One possibility is to get students to use other materials – videos or podcasts – to prepare – but the issue of motivating students to actually do the preparation exists no matter what media you use.

Cynthia Heiner, Amanda Banet and Carl Wieman published a paper discussing the use of pre-reading assignments and online quizzes in physics and biology classes. Students typically consider reading the textbook to be a relatively low-priority activity because they don’t think it will help their grade; one method to encourage reading is to administer a quiz that is directly related to the reading. An online quiz can be given with a deadline shortly before class starts; results of this quiz can help the instructor to figure out what concepts students find difficult, so that he or she can focus more on these concepts in class. However, even with a graded quiz, previous studies have found that the majority of students don’t read the textbook. Heiner et al. (2014) aimed to help students to see the value of doing the reading by creating a more targeted reading and quiz, rather than just asking students to read whole chapters of the textbook. This practice involves making sure that the reading is very closely linked to the material to be discussed in class, and that the quiz refers to specific page numbers and figures in the textbook – drawing students’ attention to the most important parts of the reading. At the end of the study, students reported that they found the pre-reading assignments helpful for their learning, and there was a correlation between how many of the assignments they completed and their performance on the final exam.

Heiner et al. (2014) suggest some best practices for pre-reading assignments:

  1. Keep the reading focused on what you plan to discuss in class
  2. Explain the purpose of pre-readings and how these benefit students
  3. Provide questions that students should think about while reading
  4. Omit unnecessary material
  5. Give a graded online quiz that is due before class; the quiz should be easy for students who have done the reading, and hard for students who have not.
  6. In class, refer to concepts from the pre-reading but do not re-teach them, or students will learn that they don’t really need to do the pre-reading.

I give a pre-reading quiz every class (in person, although I am increasingly tempted to move it online) and also find that it isn’t sufficient to motivate most students to actually do the reading. I normally assign the whole chapter, or large sections of it, so this article has motivated me to go through and select specific sections that are useful. I think that the biggest challenge for me will be to not re-teach concepts from the pre-reading, but I will try it out next term in my Biology 12 class and see how it goes.

Heiner, C.E., Banet, A.I., & 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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