Students scanned but didn’t read

Often I share ideas on this blog because they’re what worked for me. Well, here’s something that hasn’t been working: guiding questions.

Since my second semester as a teacher, I’ve used guiding questions as ‘check points’ to make sure that my students are reading. Last year I had a hunch that once we went to digital textbooks and books this wouldn’t be effective. Why? Because Kindle has a search option and students know keyboard shortcuts that help them look for key words and phrases.

Thanks to Google Classroom and Docs I’ve been able to get a sense of how long it takes some students to go from their first answered question to their last. Sometimes, it’s way too fast! Even when the time between the first and last questions doesn’t seem odd, this doesn’t mean students didn’t scan for the answers. It means they were multitasking while scanning.

But this isn’t my evidence that they scanned. I surveyed my students about homework which included asking them this question:

As you can see, 80% admitted they scan rather than read through (of 71 students). For context, I had them reading sections from Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine’s The Meaning of the Bible. It’s a perfectly good book. For the most part, students appreciated the content but one student summarized how they read: usually, the main point could be made in about a third of the space. While this is likely true of all books, I think it’s a problem exasperated by my method of having them find ‘answers’ to questions.

Another problem with guided questions is that there’s a single answer to be found. This makes it tempting for a student who is running short on time to contact a friend to get their answers. Google Classroom allows you to see if a document has been shared, so they won’t do that, but they can send screenshots. All the receiving student has to do is reword things a bit and since guided questions point to a ‘right’ answer, similarly worded answers are expected.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure yet but I have a couple of ideas:

  1. At AAR/SBL, Nicholas A. Elder of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary shared an activity he called a ‘Top Five’ assignment. Students have to create a list of their personal top five observations based on their readings. They start from #5 (least important) and work down to #1 (most important). This encourages them to think deeply about what they’ve read. There are a few other guidelines but the basic goal is to get students (1) thinking about what they’ve read; (2) restating it in their own words; and (3) providing an opportunity to their to be more than ‘one answer’ which should motivate the slackers to do their own reading. This exercise should work especially well with shorter Bible Odyssey articles since five observations means basically an observation per paragraph much of the time.
  2. Since I’ll be asking my New Testament students to read a couple of chapters from Anthony Le Donne’s Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide, I’m opting to ask for two-to-three short sentences providing their key observation from each section of a chapter. I’ll use the book’s headers to guide them. In this book, a header appears every couple pages, so at the very least (1) they have to decide for themselves what was important about that section and (2) articulate their own insights rather than just answering a question.

In general, I give about an hour’s worth of homework per week…often less, rarely more. I think by keeping the readings shorter, and by centering the homework around their own subjective understanding of the book’s main insights rather than having them find mine, I can make sure that I’m not doing homework for homework’s sake while also continuing to teach my students how to read efficiently yet deeply. We’ll see!


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