Pedagogy Matters – Set Readings

This is the first in what I hope will become a regular series about teaching. I currently work as an undergraduate seminar tutor across three of the University of Edinburgh’s departments: History of Art, Architectural History, and Celtic and Scottish Studies. I also contribute to the University of Ohio’s yearly historical linguistics and cultural history summer school, and this year I’ll be teaching as part of the Sutton Trust’s widening participation project for the first time. As such, I consider myself to be a fairly experienced and adaptable teacher. Nevertheless, I’m consistently coming across areas that I’d like to improve upon, or problems that need solutions. It is these that I’m hoping to think about in this series.

On Monday of this week, a fellow History of Art 2 tutor posted John Warner’s blog post ‘When Students Won’t Do the Reading’ to our tutor’s group facebook page. It is, as the author states, a common and complex problem, and one not easily solved. Whilst I enjoyed Warner’s post as an exploration of the topic, I felt that it lacked practical advice on solutions to the issue.

Accordingly, I shared the post on twitter and asked the following question:

I received a relatively large number of responses, many of which reaffirmed the importance of the issue, and many more of which offered advice on how to deal with it. Some suggested emphasising to students the importance of reading as a task, and stressing that attendance is about more than simply showing up. Some also shared their own experiences of what works in class, including the following tasks, some of which I myself have used in the past:

  • dividing students into small groups and giving them a source/piece of writing to respond to
  • having students actively lead seminar groups
  • having students set and ask questions
  • allocating secondary readings to pairs of students, which they present on the following week
  • multiple choice tests
  • using social media
  • giving students a list of questions to discuss as first activity

A few thoughts:

Firstly, I’m not sure that this list necessarily solves the problem of how to ensure the reading is done prior to the seminar itself. Instead, I think that the list offers a number of practical and creative solutions for tutors running classes in which you have a number of students who have yet to do the reading. Certain tasks, such as dividing students into groups and asking them to respond to sections of text, provide time to read and respond to reading not yet complete, saving both you and your class from agonising minutes of silence because, for example, your seminar fell on the day that the essays were due.

Perhaps more significantly though, the list also suggests that the not-reading isn’t really that much of an issue. As such, it provokes a question: is the primacy of the ‘set-reading’ waning? Humanities courses are well known for having heavy reading loads for both lectures and seminars. Yet, practical demands on students’ time (such as the sheer amount of reading and competing ‘hard deadlines’) often mean that they cannot complete reading, even if they’d like to. Whilst I’m sure no one is suggesting that students shouldn’t read deeply and widely into their subject, it seems that perhaps weekly seminars are not the time to ensure that they do. Far more important seem to be ways of getting students to meaningfully participate within the class itself, where discussion can operate alongside, or even independently from, the reading. Here, I refer you to Dr. Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ excellent discussion on ‘Notes on Seminar Participation’ over on her blog, another response to our twitter discussion.

Just as I noted regarding Warner’s original post, I’m not sure I’ve offered any real solutions here. Instead, writing this post has encouraged me to reflect on the idea that whilst talking about a set-reading is a traditional format for a seminar, it shouldn’t be the only one. Digital technologies, group work, and student-led tasks all offer valid and important additions and alternatives to discussing the reading, and I look forward to exploring them further in my own tutorials.


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