Monday, April 28, 2014

Teaching without textbooks (& requiring reading anyway)

Recently, a panel of distinguished historians and authors discussed how they create American History textbooks.  General agreement?  Students don't read them anyway.

This assertion - that students do not read and you cannot get them to read no matter what you try - struck me as most strange.  If those who write textbooks don't think students read them, why keep writing them?

I do not assign a traditional textbook, yet I require a regular diet of reading to pass the course. In lieu of an assigned survey text, I suggest students buy a $5 out-of-print version.  Yes, those older versions still contain the much maligned XYZ affair and may be thin on social history.  That is okay.  A cheap textbook gives the basic benefits of an expensive one without the financial drag.

The getting them to read part is far simpler than the rhetoric surrounding it.  Quiz reading.  Quiz it weekly.  Make quizzes an enormous part of the grade.

Multiple pieces of scholarship* conducted in Psychology classrooms have made this exact (and rather elementary) point.  Regularly quizzed classes saw reading compliance for nearly 80% of students and as much as tripled the likelihood of student reading.  For the past 3 years, written surveys in my own courses indicated over 80% agreement with the question "I read significantly more in this class because of the quizzes."  Nearly as many said they "read more for this course than for my other courses."  This was no accident.  The portion of final grades that comes from quizzes has risen steadily in that time from 25%, to 50%, and this semester (gulp) 75%.

So what are we reading for so much of the grade?  Primary sources.  Lots and lots of primary sources.  In a typical week students read between 15-50 primary sources.  These are typically short.  Excerpts from major works, letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles work well.  Selections can come from a good reader or be collected piecemeal and put online.

In essence, this creates a peculiar historical variant of the flipped classroom.  It inverts the standard operating procedure in which reading is low stakes and lectures (and the exams they spawn) are high stakes.  Instead of assigning readings students won't engage and then asking that lectures form their historical awareness for tests, high stakes readings shape that awareness and class time is spent hashing out in a low stakes environment what those readings meant in time & place.

Making reading non-negotiable is not about un-coverage or the death of the lecture.  When students have read a wealth of material from the past, most any delivery system works better.  Students enter the room with questions.  Sometimes the worst questions are the best, especially "Why did we have to read this?"  Lecture, discussion, group work - there are many ways to explain to a bedeviled business major why Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments was worth his time.  He read her.  You can work with that.

So- here is to assigning different readings, more of them, and requiring students to read the past.  Who knows, but we might one day create enough historical curiosity that they consult those textbooks after all.

*see the section "Quizzes" & the reference notes.


  1. Redirecting how students read sounds good. But, I think that students must learn to read. Reading is crucial t everything that one does in life.
    Dorothy Jones

  2. I love these suggestions! and I agree with Dorothy - students need reading skills in general. Every semester I'm frustrated that students never read - which is reflected in their writing skills. I finished grading their term papers last week and I came to the conclusion that students can't write (grammar, spelling, thesis, structure) because they don't read.