Getting Our Students to Read 

I can't even begin to count how often I have heard this statement or said it myself, "Students don't read." Yet we all know reading is essential for learning and to stay up-to-date medically. The growing concern of students not reading isn't new. Faculty have been noticing this trend for quite some time. 

A study by Burchfield and Sappington (2000) found that only 20% of students did the assigned readings in 1997. This percentage was down from 80% in 1981. A well-cited study by Hoeft (2012) found that 56 – 68% of first-year college students reported not doing the required readings before class. 

Declining reading skills 

The decline in reading skills overall as students move through the K-12 system is resulting in college-aged students being unable to read and comprehend effectively, which means they don't understand what they are reading (McMurtrie, 2024). In addition, any of you who have been in education for at least ten or more years have probably noticed that many students cannot synthesize, integrate, and summarize information from multiple lectures or across courses so they can put together the bigger picture. In 2023, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reported that two-thirds of U.S. children cannot read proficiently, and 40% are considered nonreaders (Blank, 2023). 

Some research cites the pandemic as having a significant impact, but the changes were happening long before COVID-19. However, it does appear the effect of that event made things worse. Other contributing factors cited include smartphones, social media, and the digital age, which have influenced how people read and write, leaning toward abbreviated formats and short text content (Johnson, 2019; McMurtrie, 2024). Students disengage if it takes more than a minute or even 30 seconds to read. And there is a mismatch between students' true ability related to reading and comprehending and their perception. Most students believe they are ready and prepared for college-level work (Heubeck, 2024). But that hasn't been the case. In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics found that only 31% of college graduates were considered proficient readers, down from 40% in 1992 (NCES, 1992, 2003). Only fifty-one percent of high school graduates tested ready for college-level reading in 2005 on the American College Testing (ACT) exams, and student readiness for college-level reading was at its lowest point in more than a decade (College Readiness, 2006). In 2022, ACT saw the lowest scores in 30 years for student readiness for college (Heubeck, 2024). This decline in reading skills and comprehension also impacts students' note-taking ability. They commonly need guidance with what to write down and how (McMurtrie, 2024). 

Ways to help

If you feel a little frustrated at the thought of finding ways to encourage and support students to read, you are not alone. We are not trained to be reading teachers or teach comprehension skills (Johnson, 2024). However, there are some things we can do to encourage and facilitate students' reading habits. 

Tie reading to a grade

I know some of you are probably wincing at this. I know I am. I am not a fan of giving grades for non-assessment activities like reading because it is a required role and responsibility of being a student. Unfortunately, while many of us may believe this, the truth is that our students don't share this belief. The most common reason students gave for not reading is they felt the amount of assigned reading was too much (Hoeft, 2012). Therefore, what research has shown is that tying reading to a grade, like quizzes on required reading material or assignments that require students to read, resulted in significant increases in reading compliance in students (Burchfield & Sappington, 2000; Clump et al., 2004; Conner-Green, 2000; Hoeft, 2012; Johnson, 2024; McMurtrie, 2024; Ruscio 2001).

The percentage of how much these quizzes and reading assignments count toward the final grade needs to be enough to matter to students. If they are only worth 5%, some students will just take the 5% hit on their grade. So, usually, the 20% range will impact their grade enough to hopefully impress upon them that reading is integral to the course and their learning. 

Don't summarize everything for them

It is important not to summarize everything in the reading during class. Students will quickly learn that they don't need to do the reading, and they won't read or do any out-of-class assignment if they don't see it as integral to the course (Johnson, 2024). I have seen all too often where course exams are based only on PowerPoint presentations, and students use them solely to study, never reading the textbook. A frequent conversation I have with faculty is about including questions on their exams that come straight from the reading and have not been covered in class. The students are told this will happen, which encourages why it is essential that they read. Consider this: as faculty, if you are doing more work than your students – something is wrong. 

Connect out-of-class work with in-class learning

Out-of-class work needs to have purpose and value and contribute to student learning. Just giving assignments for the sake of assignments is problematic. If you assign something, then it needs to be reviewed or graded, and feedback must be provided so the students know you looked at it. Too often, I have seen students submit assignments that go unevaluated by faculty. Once students know you are not checking or evaluating what they did outside of class, they will stop or put no effort into the activity. Therefore, when you create an out-of-class assignment, be sure to plan how you will revisit that material during class. 

Define the pages to be read

One thing I started doing to try and encourage students to read the assigned material in the textbook was to provide the specific pages in a print book or the sections, subsections, or paragraphs in a digital textbook that they needed to read. For a 30-hour course in emergency medicine, we can't expect students to read entire chapters in Tintinelli's when they only need to read particular areas. Leaving it to them to decide how to navigate a 180-page chapter doesn't work, even though they have their course instructional objectives as a guide. We know from the research that students don't know how to effectively read if they read at all. Yes, it takes a bit of extra time on our part to define the pages or sections, but at least it is a start. Sharing with the students that you recognize they don't have time to read entire chapters for every course and that you have defined what pages or sections they must read helps. When assigning readings, remember your students have to read for multiple courses, not just yours. 

Use Reading Guides

This suggestion comes from Dr. Justin Shaffer, professor and associate dean of undergraduate studies at the Colorado School of Mines, and his colleagues. In their research on using preclass reading guides, they focused on whether they would help students actively engage and complete the required preclass reading and if it had any impact on exam performance. With over 400 students surveyed, the results revealed that 80% of students indicated they had completed the reading guides before class, and there was a significantly positive correlation with those who completed the preclass reading and improved exam scores by 1-2% (Lieu et al., 2017). 

The role and purpose of the preclass reading guides were explained during the first class, and that explanation was included in the course syllabus. The preclass reading guides were made for each lesson and posted at least a week ahead of the lecture. Completing them was not required, and they were not collected or graded. Students were simply encouraged and urged periodically to complete them. The guides defined the specific pages or sections that must be read and those to skip. They asked students to answer questions or complete tasks in order to encourage reading the textbook. Tasks could include defining terms, explaining concepts, or making tables and drawing from the reading material. Students could ask questions about the reading either in class, individually, or via a discussion board. However, the answers to the guide were never posted. 

While on the surface, this may look like the professor is doing the bulk of the work, Shaffer contends the activity is a form of active learning. The professor creates the questions, but the students must go to the textbook or assigned readings and answer the questions. Providing students with guiding questions, which should be aligned with the course instructional objectives, helps them hone in on where they need to focus and read and how to discern what is important and what isn't. 

For us, doing this for every lecture may not be feasible, but I believe there is merit to this concept and ways to incorporate it. If you are using the flipped classroom format, this would fit nicely. It may be possible to use more of these preclass reading guides during the student's first semester in the program to help them learn how to read more effectively and be more discerning about what is important, and then their use could slowly diminish over the next semester. This process could dovetail nicely with using quizzes, connecting outside class work with in-class work, not summarizing and presenting all the material in the readings in lectures or class, and supporting students to read more. If you would like to see a preclass reading  guide template or read more about it, please use the links below: 

              Template of Dr. Shaffer's preclass reading guide Click Here

              Dr. Shaffer's webpage

 Getting students the help they need

It seems undeniable that many students come to us with subpar reading and comprehension skills. While it is not our role to teach them these skills per se, we can at least notice if they are struggling with the skill of reading and comprehending and get them referred to student or academic institutional support systems. 


Getting students to read is a challenge. Yet, there are things we can do to try and encourage that skill. In the article by Johnson (2024), one professor said it this way. "A lot of faculty members, myself included, are saying, If they're not doing the reading, we can get unhappy, we can get angry, or we can do something about it." Hopefully, some of the suggestions offered here have provided some ideas. 


Blank, M. (2023, September 26). Two-thirds of American kids can't read fluently. Scientific America.,and%20the%20District %20of%20Columbia

Burchfield, C. M., & Sappington, J. (2000). Compliance with required reading assignments. Teaching of Psychology, 27(1), 58–60. 

Clump, M.A., Bauer, H., & Bradley, C. (2004). The extent to which psychology students read textbooks: A multiple class analysis of reading across the psychology curriculum. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 31 (3), 227-232. 

College Readiness. (2006). Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading. 

Connor-Greene, P.A. (2000). Assessing and promoting student learning: Blurring the line between teaching and testing. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 84-88.

Heubeck, E. (2024, February 21). High school students think they are ready for college. But they aren't. Education Week. 

Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don't read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 6(2). Article 12. 

Johnson, S. (2019, April 21). The fall, and rise, of reading. Students often don't complete assigned reading. Professors are finding ways to solve that puzzle. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Kotsko, A. (2024, February 11). The loss of things I took for granted. Slate. 

Lieu, R., Wong, A., Asefirad, A., & Shaffer, J. F. (2017). Improving exam performance in introductory biology through the use of preclass reading guides. CBE- Life Sciences Education, 16(3). 

McMurtrie, B. (2024, May 9). Is this the end of reading? Students are coming to college less able and less willing to read. Professors are stymied. The Chronicle of Higher Education. date_20240606&cid=te&source=ams&sourceid=&sra=true

 National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. (1992). 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

National Center for Education Statistics[NCES]. (2003) 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

Ruscio, J. (2001). Administering quizzes at random to increase students' reading. Teaching of Psychology, 28, 204-206.


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