In this post, I’ll talk about the problem of student reading, some reasons why students don’t read well, and then I’ll present some solutions that you can implement in your courses right now.

As you read, I want you to think about the following questions:

  • What percentage of my students finish their weekly reading assignments? How do you know?
  • How much is success in my course dependent on completing the weekly reading assignments?
  • How can I make my course reading reinforce my course outcomes?

The Problem: Students are not reading what they are assigned to read.

This seems to be an uncontroversial statement. Almost any online instructor has experienced the frustrations of choosing specific chapters and finding articles, giving all those resources to students and having them ignored.

In fact, as many as 70 percent of students are not completing the assigned reading for any particular week or assignment (Hobson, 2004). Rates vary depending on several factors, including the timeline of the course (more reading is done earlier in the course), the length of reading (longer readings are read less), and the difficulty of readings.

It shows through on the assignments and assessments. We’ve all seen the papers returned with half-digested rhetoric gleaned largely from the assignment instructions, word count padding, and other types of literary obfuscation.

It would be a lot easier, for you, for them, for everyone, if students would just read the assigned material. Why don’t they?

I’ll talk about two of the most common reasons I see in online course development, and some ways we can encourage better reading, better retention, and ultimately, better habits from students.

This can be a complicated issue and there are plenty of research articles that go into more depth than I’ll attempt here. You can skip to the bottom of the article for citations if you’re interested in further reading on the subject.

Reason One: Some students aren’t equipped for reading dense texts.

It’s a sad fact that many college students are not great readers. This does not mean that students are incapable of understanding the concepts we want them to learn, but it means that they have a difficult time approaching dense texts favored by some instructors.

During elementary and secondary school, it is a given that we will have students at different stages of development and at different skill levels reading in the same class. It’s just a fact of life—no two people are in the same place at the same time.


Students in your university classes are at many different places in regards to their ability to read, with differences in their ability to understand nuance, interpret texts, and to complete any amount of reading in a relevant amount of time. Even in a cadre of PhD. candidates, some students will be better or worse at reading, though you might expect the top end and the bottom end of the scale to be closer than normal for the average college course.

Keep in mind that many students also have a reading related disability that would be all but invisible to the naked eye, like dyslexia. Students with dyslexia and other types of learning disabilities may have to read assignments or selections multiple times in order to comprehend it, which can take a substantial amount of time.

Solution: Give more support for these students (it helps everyone).

With this understanding, instructors should work to scaffold reading for students, helping those students who are less skilled make up the difference through instruction and by giving students explicit instruction about HOW to attempt to read. For college and university level students, I encourage you to take the same approach—give students handholds for tougher reading, and teach students how to read harder materials.

This is not a call for you to “dumb down” your readings (although some research implies that this approach is useful), and this should not be a time for you to reminisce about how much better college students used to be about reading. This is about using the tools of pedagogy to improve practice, and to reach students who would otherwise struggle to meaningfully participate in your courses.

To create supports for your readings, you can use a variety of strategies:

  • Write introductions for your readings: previewing the text is helpful for increasing student comprehension because it gives them goals for reading and gives them an idea about what they should be getting out of their reading.
  • Ask comprehension questions: You can just tell students what lessons or understanding they should be getting from the readings, but if you literally just do that, it could replace your reading for students. Instead, you can ask them questions that the students should be able to answer after reading your assignment. These questions need not be on any quiz or other assessment, but their mere existence is a way for you to engage with students and their reading.
  • Use graded reading quizzes: This is among the most useful tools for encouraging students to read and is a relatively easy way to test reading comprehension among students. In the online environment, you should be able to automate this process to a reasonable degree, and include it as a small element in the student’s overall grade.

Reason Two: Educators don’t explain why reading important.

Students, especially adult students, are protective of their time. They have tremendous commitments, to family, to jobs, and to school. They can recognize when the reading assignments don’t seem to help with completing the assignment. In fact, it’s a strategy they’re taught in elementary and secondary school: check the questions and assignment to make sure you spend your time reading what’s important.

Some students will look at your assignments carefully, and then perhaps skim a few pages, to make sure that the reading is worth their time. Oftentimes, students will determine, sometimes even correctly, that the reading is NOT worth their time, and will attempt to complete the assignments without having first done the reading, and will then use the readings as a sort of reference to answer their questions as they go.

In some instances, this is not a harmful strategy, but if you’ve ever administered a discussion forum in which students are giving canned, repetitious answers without having done nor understood the reading, you’ll know that this can be a frustrating problem to experience.

Solution: Demonstrate why the reading is important—and follow through.

Think: When was the last time you told students why and how a reading would be used in the class? In fact, could you positively tie each of the required readings in your course to an assignment or deliverable that affects a student’s grade?

There is a burden on instructors to be honest with themselves about what is completely necessary and what can be considered additional or extension reading. If a student could finish your assignment and get a reasonable grade without having read the material, you should think carefully about whether it’s the reading or the assignment that needs to change.

If we include readings, it helps to explain what students should be looking for in the readings—a cue to help students use their time efficiently and really pay attention to what matters. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this:

  • Include a brief introduction to each reading for students: Including just one or two sentences that tells students what to look for can be very valuable in orienting them to the lesson.
  • Include a question or two before each reading that students should be able to answer by the time they’ve understood the reading.


As educators, we need to be aware of what our students know, what they’re capable of, and how we can help all of our students achieve their goals. In some instances, that means that we will be responsible for scaffolding reading assignments. It’s important for us to put ourselves in our student’s position and making sure that student readings are relevant (to the topic and to our assessments) and that they are matched to the proximate level of our students, and that we have given our students the time they need to finish their reading.

Do you have any tips that have helped make readings more relevant to your students? What have you done to adapt to the online environment re: reading requirements? Have questions? Feel free to reach out! I’d love to hear from you.


Hobson, E. H. (2004). Getting Students to Read: Fourteen Tips. IDEA Paper No. 44, Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development.