They Didn’t READ! What to do with unprepared students (besides just kicking them out and canceling class)

Even though “They” are currently forecasting between 1-3 inches of the White Stuff for our area between now and tomorrow morning, spring actually is on its way and with it, the attendant reaction of most adult and semi-adult people to more inviting temperatures and beautiful, sunny skies. Among experienced educators, there is an understanding that spring is the worst season for keeping students focused and motivated in classes, mainly because their minds are on other things (spring break…. summer vacation…. cute boy… cute girl…. beach….) If they were originally so inclined, the freshmen have gained enough experience to feel justified now in slacking off from their hyper-vigilant efforts to be great students during their first term in high school/ college, the seniors are already looking ahead to jobs/college/graduate school, and in general, everyone has given a good six months or so of sustained efforts in the classroom and is fatigued, burned out, and just ready for shorts and sandals, already.

The other side of things, of course, is that in addition to the traditional onset of spring ennui, more and more often our students are working under truly difficult conditions. They may have families of their own, or may have to go home every night to take care of elderly parents or grandparents. They may be dealing with debilitating illnesses or treatments for illnesses that eat away at their time and leave them exhausted. More often than not, they are working either part-time or full-time jobs, and taking too many classes in an effort to graduate earlier and save money on tuition. And so, inevitably, students show up to class unprepared at some point. Sometimes, this unpreparedness is a one-off from a normally brilliant student going through a temporary rough patch; sometimes it is a chronic behavior from a student just squeaking by. The traditional, time-honored response on the part of teachers has been “kick them out and teach them a lesson about not coming to class prepared.” This can and often has resulted in entire classes being dismissed abruptly: “If you cannot be bothered to work for your education, why should I?” Demands the indignant professor, before sending them off to think about their mistake.

mottoOn occasion, this might be an effective wake-up call for a particularly lackluster group of students. On occasion, this might be a necessary action on the part of the professor, especially in instances when the students who are unprepared will only serve as liabilities for those who have come ready for the day–as, for instance, in moments when they are peer-reviewing papers during class and some students come with no paper to discuss and therefore no impetus to really participate actively in helping their peers improve their work. But do it too often, or for the wrong reasons (out of anger or frustration in the moment, rather than as a carefully-considered choice you have implemented and warned them of ahead of time) and your credibility as an instructor will be deeply undermined. Worse, you will end up alienating your students and rendering the class far less effective than you want it to be. If your goal is to “teach them a lesson” and you are using being unprepared for class as a metaphor for what happens when they are unprepared for a job or some other future endeavor, then you had better have made it explicitly clear that this is the case from the beginning, preferably as a clause in your syllabus to which you return each time you need to invoke it; if you assume they will understand that that is what you are doing, then you are setting yourself up for a frustrating term and some scathing evaluations–and really, deservedly so.

You are the instructor. It is your job to be prepared for all contingencies. (And yes, they are the students and it is their job to be prepared for class, but they are students, and you are the adult, and you know they might come to class unprepared, and so. As a professional educator, you must be prepared for this eventuality.) A spur-of-the-moment, “get out of here and come back when you are ready to be a student” hurled at an entire class with no advance warning–albeit certainly understandable on occasion–is the teacher’s version of a temper-tantrum, not an effective pedagogical approach to motivating your students to improve their performance. But, especially if you are a less-experienced teacher–what do you do for forty, fifty, a hundred and twenty minutes, when they’re sitting there staring at you with absolutely nothing to contribute?

I would like to offer up for thought a new philosophy concerning the unprepared student. Many long-time teachers, and a fair share of bystanders, will argue that “we should hold the students accountable. When they are not prepared, we shouldn’t coddle them or make it easier on them.” I fully agree with this sentiment. In my opinion, as a veteran teacher, this approach which I am advocating–that is to say, making them stay in class and do the work even when they are not prepared for it–is not only the single-best deterrent to their showing up unprepared (because you have made it clear that they will not be let off the hook for it) but also absolutely holds them accountable–much more so than does kicking them out of class. This way, whether they have read or not, you are still making them responsible for their learning. They still have to do the work, and now that is harder than it would have been if they came to class prepared. If that happens often enough, they will almost always, however reluctantly, make the work for your class a priority, because it is uncomfortable for them if they don’t. Doing the work becomes easier than not doing the work (which is not something you can say when you kick them out of class and thus, however unwittingly, absolve them of the responsibility of that day’s work.) Further, by holding them to high standards of performance and supporting them as they negotiate this difficult situation, you let them know that you believe the class is important, that the student’s work in your class matters to you, and that you have no intention of letting them slip through the cracks. In short, this approach builds trust. When students trust you, when they believe you are working with and for them, they will work for you. It is that simple.

In this post, I would like to offer up some alternatives to kicking students out of class when they haven’t done the assigned reading, because I don’t think students necessarily want to come to class unprepared, and no one wants to be embarrassed by being called out or sent home like a bad puppy to its crate. Given the myriad reasons behind “non-reading for class” on the part of students, I have decided over the years (and after my fair share of “just leave. Just go. Come back when you want to be students” moments) that I would rather they stay and get what they can out of class, than have them dismissed summarily and miss everything we are doing. These suggestions may not be practical for all classes–certainly, in an upper-division or graduate-level course, the students really must do the reading and it is probably a good idea to have a serious chat with them during office hours if they aren’t–but for introductory and intermediate courses, they are simple and effective solutions to the problem of “they didn’t READ“!

Choose a quote. As a homework assignment prior to the next class session, or as a preparatory activity at the very beginning of the class session, have each student choose a quote from the reading that she or he feels is especially important, and be prepared to explain why the quote is important. if they are choosing the quote during class, encourage them to use their books (to avoid someone sitting there because s/he doesn’t have the book.) Make it clear that you will be calling on them randomly to share their quote and reason with the class. If you call on a student for a quote and she or he says, “I don’t have one,” make it clear s/he has x-amount of time before you come back to get the answer. Then, keep coming back to the student. If the student says “I left my book/ handout at home,” ask the students sitting nearest him or her if they would be so kind as to let the student borrow theirs so s/he can participate in class. Make it clear that you are acting not out of spite or to embarrass the student, but to help him or her out of a tough spot. Make it clear that the student is not getting off the hook not as a punishment, but because you are genuinely interested in what passage she or he thinks is interesting. Make it clear that not reading is not an alternative because the student’s reading matters to you.

Give a summary and/or direct them to the passage you want to discuss. If you are relatively certain the students will have a hard time with a text, or that a number of them are not reading, give a brief summary of it at the very beginning of class. This doesn’t have to be elaborate; you are just giving them enough to get a foothold if they need it. Ideally, you will make it sound so irresistible that they will genuinely be sorry they didn’t read it. For instance, as a medievalist, I get to teach the Arthurian legend regularly. When I summarize Malory’s Morte Darthur for a class that has clearly not read, I don’t beat around the bush, I hand the shocking bits right to them: “So, the Morte Darthur, you guys. Incest, baby-murdering, adultery. Did you ever think of KING ARTHUR as a baby-murdering type? No? Oh, I see your faces, now you are really, REALLY sorry you didn’t read, aren’t you? Yeah, you’re all going to be wildly paging through looking for it now, right? [usually, some real, genuine laughter here] Am I right? [usually, lots of head nodding and some folks already paging through to find it by this point] Actually–hey, why don’t you go ahead and look for that moment now. The babies on the boat. Go.” Generally there is someone there who can find the passage with relative ease; if not, I give then a hint or just suggest they look on page-whatever. Then, I have someone read the passage aloud, we go into the biblical connotations and it is off to the races. You can do this with literally any passage in any text–it just requires you to have thought through what you want to cover and why so you can direct them to it.

Pose a question. At the beginning of class, throw a question or two about the reading on the board for them to think about and freewrite on a little. Tell them it is completely fine to use their books to find the answers, but it is not completely fine to not work on the questions. If someone’s not working on the questions, go over to the student and ask why. If s/he says “I didn’t read” tell him or her that’s why you said they could use their books right now. If s/he says “I don’t have my book” have him / her ask classmates to borrow one “just this once.” If  no one in the class has the text with him or her, use the elmo or Internet to project part of the reading that will help them find the answer and insist they do this work because it matters. Make it clear that not doing it is just not an option, by making it clear that you are going to do whatver it takes to help hem do it. Eventually, all but the most tubborn will be worn down and give in and do it.

Make them pose a question. At the beginning of class, have them write one question they had about the text on a piece of paper. Encourage them to use their books/handouts to come up with the question. Shuffle the questions, divide the students into groups, and hand a set of questions to each group. They should read through the questions and choose the two they think are best. Then use those questions chosen as the basis for your class discussion. Alternately, you can have each group answer the questions assigned to them and then report back on one thing they learned that was especially important/relevant.

Think-pair-share. Pose a question or textual problem you want them to consider, and have them work in groups of two with their text to answer it. Then, have them share their responses with the class. You can do this with a single question posed to the whole class, or different questions posed to each group. You can also have slightly larger groups, although more than three usually becomes chat-time rather than working time. Insist they work together, not “one person does the work and the other sits there.” If a group seems to have that dynamic, go over and prompt the non-participating student to contribute something, anything. Alternately, have the non-participating student responsible for telling their answer to the class. Make it clear that participation is crucial and mandatory and you won’t let them slide on it.

Ask them what they think. At the beginning of class, throw this prompt up on the board: “Last night’s reading was……..” and tell them their answer should be between one word and one sentence in length.  Use their answers as an entry point into discussion. If someone wrote, “weird” ask them to clarify why they thought it was weird; if they can’t tell them they can look at the text to refresh their memory as to why they thought it was weird; then while they are doing so ask the class, “did anyone else say it was “weird”? Why did you think so? To keep the discussion going. When an answer hits on a point about the text that you wanted to cover, you can pause in going through their answers to elaborate on that before continuing to the next answer.

Ask them to tell you what they want to know. Throw this prompt up on the board: “After the reading, I think …….., I wonder …….., and I want to know more about……” Encourage them to consult the text in formulating their answers and give them about ten minutes or so. You can use this to generate small group or whole class discussions.

Read to them. Old-fashioned? Yes. A waste of time? That depends on your perspective. But if you genuinely believe they need to have read a text to succeed in class, and they have not done so, then you can either kick them out (which of course I do not encourage), have them read it silently during class–which means those who don’t have the book will likely not bother–or, you can read the most pertinent section(s) aloud to them and punctuate your reading with questions to keep them engaged. When I resort to this, I always end the class period with a world-weary sigh: “Oh, my gosh, you GUYS, I am SO SICK of the sound of my own voice. Is anyone else in here sick of the sound of my voice? PLEASE say yes, and let’s all come in next time having read so I don’t have to read it to you, yes?” Never underestimate the power of humor to elicit the desired response.

There is nothing less fun than being in a classroom with unprepared students, but the reality is that it is going to happen. When you are prepared for this possibility, you have the means to avoid unpleasant confrontations with students, and the ability to make sure your class can still be successful in meeting the goals you have set for it. There are many, many pedagogical approaches to this problem, but from my perspective the least effective and potentially most damaging one is to dismiss the student and/or class summarily for not having read, which not only discredits you as an instructor but also undermines the importance of your class in the eyes of the student. In this post I have sought to articulate some ways in which you can work through the issue rather than allowing it to negatively impact your course, and I hope these suggestions prove helpful, especially to those newer to the profession. Rather than dismissing our students, I believe it is imperative to support them and yes, to hold them accountable for their learning, by requiring them to participate in it as best they can. Maybe you cannot always salvage the unprepared class; but you can almost always respond to it from a positive pedagogical standpoint that maintains your integrity as the instructor.

What about you? Do you have any good tricks or tips for working with an unprepared student or class?

About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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2 Responses to They Didn’t READ! What to do with unprepared students (besides just kicking them out and canceling class)

  1. It’s possible to think of two types of homework/lesson relationships – the lesson can be based on the homework, or the homework can be based on the lesson. Basing the lesson on the homework is fundamentally the more risky strategy – it’s something I do if and only if I know a particular group of students is very reliable. In all other situations, I base the homework on the lesson. (Oh boy, did I learn this the hard way. Thank goodness my first year of teaching is a long time in the past.)

    I primarily teach science – I don’t know how I’d teach literature if I couldn’t rely on students to do the reading. Maybe I’d emphasize short works (short stories, poems, essays, etc.) that could be read in class if necessary?

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