You can get a horse to… a library… wait, that’s not it…

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it,” so the old saying goes. So too, can you assign plenty of reading to a student’s syllabus or schedule, but you can’t make them read it, much less synthesize any useful meaning from those assignments. Reading is as the core of our educational system, the primary means by which we disseminate information, stimulate learning, and provide topics and contexts for students to base their own writing in turn. But how can you get a student to read?

Even I admit to having some trouble with this from time to time, years after beginning my post-secondary education (and hell, even during my primary and secondary). Even as a recreational reader, I wasn’t that interested in some of the abstruse, abstract, absurd material teachers handed us (and I’m sure that the other students who didn’t read for pleasure were even less interested). I enjoyed my own reading, as well as reading ahead through our class texts, finding pieces which drew me to them, not just those which were joylessly slogged through after being assigned. (as an aside, I remember being chastised, and once even *penalized* for reading ahead. How dare I?)

People (and students) are motivated by the things that interest them. Students choose courses, majors, and paths of study because of what they want, not because of some outside source telling them what to do (well, aside from the structure of necessary majoring programs, or oppressive parents saying they can be anything they want as long as it’s a doctor). Students become most effective when they are allowed a degree of freedom, and allowed to express themselves and their interests and their points of view on subject matter when they are given choices (heck, just take a look at how this assignment in particular has shaped that concept).

To that end, I’ll be looking further into this phenomenon (although I might be altering my own reading list from time to time of course), seeing how self-motivation, choice, etc. help to improve students’ reading and thus, their efficacy in learning as well. I’ve already done some preliminary reading, and a few links below (though some are a little dated, so it’ll certainly not hurt to find more).

Effects of a Voluntary Summer Reading Intervention on Reading Achievement: Results from a Randomized Field Trial

Self-Directed Reading Materials

The Role of Choice and Interest in Reader Engagement

Self-Directed Student Groups and College Learning

Influencing Postsecondary Students’ Motivation to Learn in the Classroom

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2 responses to “You can get a horse to… a library… wait, that’s not it…

  1. Sounds like an interesting investigation, Ian. Just as a sneak peak, what do you think you will find?

    I think we touched on this topic at various times throughout the semester. Specifically, I remember asking the class a question about maintaining (or creating) reading motivation: if we want to keep students involved in reading and possibly even enjoying reading, should we choose material that is more modern? I think Dr. Wormuth’s response was that this is not necessarily the solution: we can still teach older material if it is presented in the right way. Personally, I see both sides of the argument. I mean, we can’t teach teen romance and pop fiction because a lot of that lacks the depth and the kind of artistry that canonical (and typically older) books have in spades. On the flip side, I feel like, “Good luck trying to get anyone to read The Scarlet Letter.”

    In my case, I didn’t love a lot of the books I had to read in high school. Hesse’s Siddhartha was one such book that proved to be a joyless slog. However, I revisited Siddhartha in college, and strangely enough, I became enthralled with the story and went on to eat up almost everything else Hesse has written. So, perhaps another issue we need to consider is timing. When is the right time to give students certain books? And what are the themes that resonate the most with teen readers?

  2. Well, you can lead a horse to water, and if he’s thirsty enough — he will drink. Great topic, Ian — I think that’s one of the holy grails of research in teaching — finding that one approach, one technique, that will cause students’ motivation to blossom. It looks as if you have a good start on the articles — don’t hesitate to ask for my input along the way.

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