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Suzanne McCormack

Please Read

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Sep 20, 2017

Trying to break the ice on the first day of classes I ask enthusiastically, “Read any good books over the summer?” Silence. After some prodding they admit the truth: the majority of students in my introductory-level US history class did not read a single book during summer break. I’m not sure why but I initially found this revelation startling. Getting undergraduates to complete weekly reading during the semester is an often frustrating undertaking. Perhaps in my academic fantasy world those same students who ignore the assigned course readings are secretly pouring through tattered copies of Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby during their summer vacations. Who am I kidding? I would have been happy if they told me they had read comic books or Danielle Steele’s entire catalog during summer break.


Reading is one of those areas in which faculty are the worst possible judges of students’ habits. We chose to be teachers and researchers in part because we love to read. It’s difficult for us to imagine a life without books constantly stimulating new ideas. Many, if not most, of our students do not share that passion.


Researchers have long argued that reading for pleasure has a significant impact on school performance in grades K-12. (See, for example, “Independent Reading and School Achievement”) It stands to reason that the same theory would apply to college students. By the time students arrive at college, however, incentivizing reading is no longer a viable option. Instead we need the students to see for themselves how exercising their brains through reading can translate into academic success (ie, better grades). How, then, do we persuade them that so-called “pleasure” reading will help them be more successful in their college courses?


         Think of it this way, I suggested to my students: a friend tells you that although he is committed to playing for the college soccer team in the fall he has decided not to workout during the summer. Would you think this was a good idea? Would you expect him to have a successful soccer season? While some students laughed at my analogy, a few light bulbs turned on as well.


So how do we convince our college students that they need to prepare for success in the classroom by exercising their brains during summer break? While writing this blog I googled the phrase “preparing for college success.” Search results were overwhelmingly related to choosing rigorous high school courses and prepping for dorm life. US News & World Report’s “15 Good Things to Do the Summer Before College” tucked in “Improve Your Mind” at #5 (between “Get Some Furnishings” and “Brush Up on a Language”).


The answer to my question, I’ve concluded, is that I probably cannot do much of anything to get students to better prepare ahead of time for their four short months with me. It may be that all we can do as history faculty is challenge our students during the semester with assignments that sharpen their reading and critical thinking skills while encouraging them to leave our classrooms with an enhanced desire to explore on their own.


Have you had any success preparing students before they started a course with you? Summer reading? Summer research? Please share!

Recently while an audience member at a professional conference I found myself morphing into one of my students. I was supposed to be paying attention but in a moment of boredom or disinterest I had noticed a colleague on the other side of the auditorium with her phone on the desk in front of her. I couldn’t resist the urge to send her a text.


I’d like to say that I was ashamed to have resorted to the behavior of an indifferent student. More than that, however, I was struck by how easily distracted I am. Why couldn’t I pay attention when I knew the information being conveyed was important? Is there something in this experience that can inform my own teaching and help me prevent students from tuning me out in the same way I tuned out the conference speaker?


When I think about that presentation now I cannot recall any of the key components even though it was in my field and relevant to the work that I do as community college faculty. The sad truth is that the speaker did a poor job of communicating his message and my smart-phone was an easy distraction. The relevance for me as a history professor who often talks incessantly at the front of the classroom is profound: with every lecture I write or presentation I prepare, I need to continuously ask myself what do I want the students to know and, perhaps even more importantly, are my methods delivering that information to my audience?


As I’ve prepared for the start of the semester over the last few weeks I’ve come face to face with a reality: I need to do a better job conveying information to students in a way that is succinct, clear and meaningful. I’m not saying that my presentations need to be more flashy or incorporate more technology or “entertain” the students, but they could undoubtedly be better organized. I need to ensure that the students can see relevance in what I am lecturing about and how it connects to the larger themes of the course. Like most faculty, I imagine, I rarely evaluate my lectures and presentations immediately after they are delivered. I certainly notice bored and distracted students in the moment, but as I'm grumbling in the aftermath I seldom consider what I could be doing to better connect those students to the lecture itself.


The challenge, of course, is how to accomplish this task. What can we as teachers do (short of quizzing and testing) to gauge our students’ understanding of what we are presenting? My experience as a delinquent conference attendee has led me to think more critically about my own presentation style and what I may be doing to foster lethargy and boredom among my audience. So what’s going on in your classroom? Are you using a classroom response system (“clicker”)? Are you showing short film clips or using music to invigorate your lectures? Have you developed some instrument of self-reflection or evaluation? What is working and not working with your lectures?