In all the teaching orientations and training manuals I’ve encountered, they all advise instructors not to be afraid of silence. The average student, they say, takes up to 8 seconds to mentally prepare an answer to an analytical query. But what happens when the silence isn’t because students are choosing which of their brilliant thoughts to share with the class but because most of them failed to do the reading? I suspect every college teacher has had a class session in which most questions were met with complete silence. What can we, as the instructors, do in such situations? And how can we better incentivize students to take their assigned reading seriously?
Let me begin with the latter question. I struggled with the issue of incentivization leading up to this semester. So I decided to institute a 150 to 250-word weekly reading response requirement. In fact, they’re more like reading “tasks,” since I design them to target a specific reading skill. So far, these have included such tasks as comparing and contrasting the different approach in two biographical essays by the same author, reading a primary source from the perspective of a contemporary reader, and identifying an author’s source base and how they are using it. One of my goals for each section is to help students further develop their academic skills. And so, each week when I give them the task, I make a point of explaining why I have assigned this task and what the specific skill is that the task requires.
Initially, I hoped that assigning these tasks would prove useful in two ways. First, I hoped it would incentivize students to do the reading by adding an objective aspect to their participation grade. Second, I expected their responses to the tasks could serve as either a jumping-off point for discussion or something to fall back on if discussion is not flowing. So far, they seem to have achieved both goals to some degree. Engagement has been good overall and the responses have allowed me to not only kickstart discussion but also to direct them a little better when necessary. As a side benefit, it has allowed me to praise in class a few quiet students who submit a high-quality response, thereby giving them the confidence to participate in the discussion, i.e., “‘So-and-so made an excellent point in their response. Can you tell us a bit more about that?” Now, I know that sounds like “manual-speak,” but it has actually worked for more than one student so far.
However, all has not been (and, of course, cannot be) smooth sailing. I have had moments where engagement was not especially forthcoming. Preparation in weeks when papers or other assignments are due will almost necessarily take a hit when it comes to student preparation, and that is understandable, to a degree. On the few occasions when discussing the finer points of an argument in the readings is simply not possible, my first tendency was to fall back into lecture mode, even though the pedagogical literature warns against it AND I knew I was doing it. My alternative approach now has become to pull back and engage the students in a macro discussion (still related to the reading in some way) for which the reading they have done previously in the course has already prepared them. That may, for example, turn into a discussion about comparing methodologies or positing very big questions about the course topic as a whole.
Of course, I am rather new at all this and, despite the fragments of teaching manuals swirling around my head while engaged in the actual process, I am very much flying by the seat of my pants, especially in those types of moments. So I ask our readers: What are your strategies for when lack of preparation derails your planned discussion? And what strategies have you tried or would you consider trying to better incentivize students in terms of weekly readings?