Now, That Is a Very Good Question

A good friend of mine who teaches at a university in Texas wrote to me a few days ago and posed the following question. My guess is that all college teachers have felt this same way at times over the years. It is very difficult to get students to leap tall buildings with a single bound if you can’t get them to prepare for class.

“For the past two semesters I have become so totally frustrated with the students in my classes. They do NOT come to class prepared AT ALL. They don't read the book. Some of them don't even get the book until the 3rd or 4th week of the semester.

“Do you have a secret for getting students to read their textbook, especially in Intermediate? Do you threaten them with hanging at dawn? Do you give them a quiz every class?

“I really want my fall Intermediate students to develop some better habits, so I'm looking for a way to facilitate that.”

Okay, I think the first way to approach this quandary is to consider where most of the students are coming from in your class. They rarely pop into a college class without some well-formed habits.

Many college students have spent the previous 13-16 years in school. Over that time, they have had many teachers. They have had a lot of training at being students. My guess is that all of those previous teachers have asked the students to read chapters in their textbook before class. Unfortunately, it is likely that this work has not proven to be useful to the student. If it had been useful in the past, they would still be doing it.

If the rat rings a bell and gets cheese, the rat will continue to ring the bell.
If the rat rings a bell and does not get cheese, the rat has little reason to keep ringing the bell.

Before they got to you, your students learned that ringing the bell (reading the textbook) did not get them any cheese. Trust me, they are much smarter than the rats; they stopped reading their textbooks long before they got to you.

And, when you tell them, “you need to read the textbook,” they say (in the back of their minds) “yeah, right, I’ve heard that for years; what good is that going to do me?”

When I was a sophomore in college, my Economics professor said “Read chapter one” and I read chapter one. As far as I could tell, his lectures basically told me what I needed to know in chapter one. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what good having read the chapter in advance did me. Then, he said “Read chapter two” and I read chapter two. And, again, in class I couldn’t see that he did anything other than tell me what I needed to know in that chapter. About the time he said “Read chapter three,” I tossed the textbook in the back of my closet and spent my time doing something where the reward mechanism was more obvious.

The problem is especially acute in a course like intermediate accounting where the material is so complex that most normal college students will get lost after only a few pages. More than one student has asked me over the years “what good does it do me to read something that I don’t understand?”

Fair question.

I probably sound like your students. Should I have been the subject of a hanging at dawn for my work in Economics? Well, maybe, but I doubt it. I did well enough in that class by just listening to what he had to say and never understood why I had paid my money to buy that book.

I didn’t get any cheese by ringing that particular bell.  So, I stopped ringing it.

So, here is what I do in my own classes.

--I only give assignments one class ahead. I want the students to know that this specific assignment has an immediate purpose. That purpose is not for some vague point in time down the road. That assignment is for the upcoming class.   We have about 41 classes -- we have about 41 assignment sheets.

--When I give reading assignments, I try to cut it down to what we are going to cover in the following class. “Read page 310 and 311 and the first 3 paragraphs of 313 and the last paragraph on page 315.” I want the students to understand that the readings have been selected to connect directly to the next class. I want them to read so they are ready for that class.

--I give them specific questions in advance based on those sections of the reading: “Read pages 310 and 311 and then be willing to discuss the following three questions.”

--I try to make sure the readings give the student a fighting chance to answer the question that I have presented.    There's no reason to read pages 310 and 311 if they don't help work the assigned problems.

--I then call on them in class to answer those assigned questions. I want there to be a very clear connection between the textbook assignment and their comfort level in class. If they get the question correct, I let them know right away “Good job, you did a good job coming to understand that principle.” If they don’t answer the question correctly but they’ve clearly tried, I work with them to get to a correct answer.   In the end, I just want them to learn as quickly and deeply as possible.

--Finally, I try very hard to make sure that the tests are more likely to reward those students who prepared well for class. I had a student recently describe my class in a way that I loved: “Success in class each day leads to success on the tests.” Okay, for most students, there’s the real cheese. If you can get students to believe in that connection between preparation, class, and tests, they can amaze you with what they can accomplish.

And, of course, then the question is: what do you do if you call on a student who has not prepared as you have asked?

---Well, the first time, probably nothing.   Everyone has a day off now and then.
---The second time, I am more likely to show my displeasure: “I expect better from you. You can do this but you have to try.”
---The third time, I call the student into my office and ask them straight out why they are in my class if they are not willing to do the work. I want them to realize that learning requires work.   I try to make a clear point that preparation is required and I’m not wasting my time trying to teach students who care so little that they are unwilling to prepare.

Does it work? Do my students prepare for class? Not always but most of the time it does. If I fuss at a student in class or in my office, they often stare at me with a puzzled look on their face: “Oh, you are not like previous teachers. You really do expect me to prepare. Well, okay, if you make it worth my while, I will.”

The rat has to have a reason to ring that bell. So, consider the question:   How can you bring some cheese into their preparation?

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