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Reading Assignments

Many instructors have experienced some version of this situation. Let's say that you assign students to read Descartes's Meditation IV.  When the students come to class, it is obvious that some of them didn't do the reading at all and others read some of the material but didn't really understand it. Since the students don't really understand the passage, you lay the arguments out in class; the students understand the point and have a terrific discussion.  You then give yourself well-deserved congratulations on a great class. 


But even a reasonably good student might come away from your class with this lesson: "It is a waste of time to do the reading assignment before the class, since I probably won't understand it anyway. The prof explains it much more clearly in class.  I'll read the assignment later on, when I have to write a paper, or before the test, or, if I am busy, I'll just study my notes and read Sparknotes."  In other words, you taught some of the concepts, but you didn't help your students learn to read difficult texts on their own. Neil Thomason describes the process this way: "professors often must substitute their strong reading skills for the students' inadequate ones. This produces a vicious cycle: inadequate student preparation, commendable professorial clarification, even less student preparation" (16). 


The fact that students don't do the reading is hardly surprising given what happens to them in high school. Studies show that high school teachers "often do not assign textbook or primary source material," both because they prefer oral instruction, and because they believe their students won't do the readings anyway. High school students agree that they do not do reading assignments, which they find difficult and confusing (Wade and Moje).  


Is there a solution to this dilemma?  The good news is that you can motivate your students to do the assignment before class, but there are some tradeoffs. First,  you'll have to work hard and spend some time; it won't be enough just to say, "read these pages for tomorrow." Secondly, unless you teach them how, the students won't be able to read very many pages (forget about expecting them to read a whole book of the Republic for a class). TΦ101 believes that there are three principles - accessibility, accountability, and applicability -  to making effective reading assignments:


  • Accessibility.  You must give reading assignments that a busy, only relatively motivated student can reasonably be expected to complete and understand. Philosophy primary source texts are hard.  Face it, even we struggled with them as intro students (this is one reason why TΦ101 recommends Bennett's versions of the early modern texts). So you need to choose fairly short assignments and give extensive notes and study guides. Students are more likely to read effectively if they are also doing something, such as writing something that must be e-mailed in before class, or preparing specific questions for a quiz.  They also need guidance on how to read difficult texts (see Concepción article below) in terms of a study guide, or some questions for them to think about while they are reading the assignment. Of course, preparing those study guides is going to be time-consuming for you, but at least it is a one-time task; once you have used the materials you can easily modify them for next semester. j Some instructors have had luck with encouraging students to read more by, in effect, tricking students (in a good way) into thinking that doing the actual assignment is a shortcut to doing a longer assignment.  In other words, suppose you want students to read pages 5-10. You might say to them, "for tomorrow, read pages 5-20, but if you don't have time for the full assignment, read pages 5-10."  Michael Cholbi has a brilliant post about this in the now sadly defunct blog, In Socrates' Wake.


  • Accountability. Even if your assignment is one that a student can reasonably expected to do, there is no guarantee that your students will actually do the reading.  Jacqueline Miraglia, a senior Honors student at Villanova, described the process this way.  "If I am a typical student, and I look at an assignment, the question I ask myself is: 'Do I need to do that assignment now?'  If there is no compelling reason for me to do the assignment right now, I won't do it, since I have a dozen other things I should be doing right now instead.  However, if I might have a quiz on the assignment, or if the teacher might call on me in class discussion, or if I have to post a comment about the assignment on WebCT, then I'll probably do it, but otherwise I'll put it off until it becomes more urgent."  So if you expect students to do your assignment the day it is due, and if you are teaching typical introductory students, you need to provide an answer to that question. Remember, you are competing for your students' time with four other professors, part-time work, and Facebook, and community service, and a party. So if you expect students to read actively, you are going to have to have some means of accountability, so that you know (and they know you know) if they did the reading. This might be a quiz in class, or a surprise quiz, or an e-mail that they are expected to send to you before class. Whatever it is, you are going to have to look at it and it will take time.  And this is going to be especially problematic in a large class or if you are a graduate assistant. Some faculty members provide accountability with surprise quizzes.  Fernald has a brilliant approach for how to do this. 


  • Applicability.  If you work hard enough at it yourself, you can probably make your students slog through a few pages of Aristotle's stirring treatise on the names of the winds, but realistically you should create assignments that students feel are rewarding, and this is best done by choosing assignments and study questions that help the student see that the material has some application to their own lives and thoughts. You also want to adopt what educator Dee Fink calls "transparent alignment." Your goals, pedagogical activities, and methods of assessment should align with one another and this alignment should be transparent to the students.


Note: Barbara Gross Davis in Tools for Teaching discusses a fascinating strategy for motivating students to do their reading on time. At the beginning of each class, students are allowed to submit to the professor a card with notes from the readings for that class.  The professor returns the cards to the students during the exam, and the students may use them as to help them when they write the midterm.  (If they didn't hand in a card on the day of the assignment, they can't use notes during the test).  This motivates a lot of the students to do the reading, but takes no extra time from the teacher (p. 283).


Robert Boyd Skipper takes more of a "tough love" approach, arguing that students must read substantial portions of difficult primary source texts, and rejects anything that smacks of "dumbing down" the material.  Instead he offers some active learning formats that force students to confront texts themselves, and he finds that students respond to the challenge.  He offers two techniques: one involving a complicated debate format and the other based on using student journal entries.


David Concepción argues that we should not assume that students know how to read difficult primary source texts, and he has created a detailed manual for students on strategies and methods for how to read these works in "Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition." He discusses some of this material in an article for The Philosopher's Magazine.


The University of New Mexico teaching center has a helpful website on obstacles to student reading and means to overcome them.

Concepción, David W.  Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and MetacognitionTeaching Philosophy.  27.4 (2004): 351-368. 

Davis, Barbara Gross, Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Skipper, Robert Boyd. Aliteracy in the Philosophy Classroom. Teaching Philosophy.  28.3 (2005): 261-276. 

Thomason, Neil. Philosophy Discussions With Less B.S. Teaching Philosophy. 18.1 (1995): 15-30.

Wade, Suzanne E., and Elizabeth Birr Moje, “The Role of Text in Classroom Learning: Beginning an Online Dialogue,”14 April 2008


Author: John Immerwahr
Update: 15 November 2015 (E. Tarver) and November 2019 (E. Esch).


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