Increasingly I find myself in conversations with folks about assigned reading in higher ed classrooms–and mainly about why students won’t/don’t do it. Instructors say, “I can’t get them to read the text.” And theories abound–They’re not interested. They can’t focus. They live in a culture that skims everything, so they don’t value depth. Their eyes might fall across the page, but they don’t engage with the text as active readers. (Lots of ‘theys” in there, it seems to me.)
If we talk long enough we get around to discussing the characteristics of the texts themselves. Back in the mid-eighties, Bonnie Armbruster and Richard Anderson (1984) introduced the notion of Considerate Texts (or Inconsiderate Texts, as the case may be). Considerate texts are written in ways that actually support the reader’s navigation of the message: clear structure, headings, signals, simple-to-understand graphical aids, etc. Inconsiderate texts, as you might guess, do not bear these qualities.
Sometimes, the conversations eventually even turn toward the instructor: What’s the purpose of the reading? What are you hoping is accomplished by having students engage in the reading? These are interesting questions, because sometimes it’s apparent that reading is the best pedagogical approach; other times it’s not.
Then today, I came across a blog post on Mary Ellen Weimer’s Faculty Focus. She talks about a new instrument–the Textbook Assessment and Usage Scale (TAUS). The point of the instrument and the series of studies where it was used was to have students weigh in about their perceptions of the text, to determine whether text characteristics were related to text reading, and to see if text characteristics are somehow linked to test performance.
You can read the study, which was conducted in Psychology courses, to get the full gist, but here’s the short story–Students often don’t read the text. Right. One predictor of how much they’ll read, however, is their perception of text quality. Characteristics important to students: quality of research examples, quality of visual elements, pedagogical aids, and instructor involvement in incorporating and advocating the text. Elements that predicted exam scores: Quality of writing and of pedagogical aids.
It would be an interesting exercise to administer the TAUS to students, especially before deciding whether to require a text again, whether to supplement it with other sources, or whether to get rid of it altogether. It’s easy to place the blame on “them” for not reading, but it’s also important to consider the factors that influence their reading and make changes where ever we’re able.