Explore potential strategies.
Students might not see the relevance of readings to other course material or to their own lives.
Motivational theories predict, and research confirms, that students allocate their time and efforts to those tasks that maximize the expected value of the task. One of the factors that increases the perceived value is relevance. If students can clearly see the benefit of the material to their future careers, or if the material connects to material from other courses they are interested in, it will be more relevant to them and they will put more effort into it. This will also be true if reading material connects to students’ lives and interests. Conversely, students may avoid readings if they don’t perceive a connection to their own lives, for example, if they do not perceive that the readings fairly represent the contributions of people from their race, ethnicity, or gender.
In extreme cases, students may be actively put off by the readings, and may stop reading if they find the material painful or uncomfortable (for example, readings on rape or incest) or if they find the readings objectionable (for example, because they represent racist or homophobic attitudes or political or religious positions that they strenuously disagree with.)
What is important here is both the relevance of reading material and student perceptions of its relevance. Sometimes the connections that are clear to us (for example, why we chose a particular reading to illustrate a concept) are not clear to students, possibly because of how students are organizing knowledge in their own minds.
Review the readings every year to see if they still meet the objectives of the course. Are they relevant and interesting? Do they reflect emerging issues in the discipline? Are they timely or dated? Do they marginalize or tokenize certain groups? After reviewing your readings, you might choose to add or subtract readings to increase their salience to students and to reflect the frontier of the field.
Make sure students understand why the readings have been selected by highlighting their relevance to the course, the discipline, the students’ future professional life, current events, or issues that the students care about. You might even ask the students to draw these connections themselves in short assignments or discussions. If you anticipate the readings will prompt emotional reactions, explain their value to student learning and acknowledge possible reactions.
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