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This will likely depend on the class, of course. But I've asked calculus students in the past if (a) they regularly read the textbook and (b) whether this is helpful for them and (c) whether they like the book. The responses have been mixed for (a) and (b), and (c) is usually negative. Currently, I'm teaching an intro to proofs course for potential math majors, and I'm assigning daily (for a TuTh class) readings and giving a quiz each class about the reading.

What I'm wondering is whether there is significant evidence that assigning specific readings will help students, whether or not they are assessed on this. And furthermore, are these potential effects at all helped/harmed by followup assessment about reading, and if so, what are the best ways to do this (if at all)?

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    $\begingroup$ What's a TuTh class? $\endgroup$ – Roland Mar 15 '14 at 8:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Roland: A class hold on Tuesday and Thursday. $\endgroup$ – Markus Klein Mar 15 '14 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Roland: That exact question of yours was answered in the other thread about MWF vs TuTh classes! $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Mar 15 '14 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ @brendansullivan07 Yeah, I just realized that; in contrast to your comments here, the answer there didn't include my name to ping me. My bad. $\endgroup$ – Roland Mar 15 '14 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ Ah interesting. I think MTuWThF are standard abbrevs in the US (tho I've seen MTWRF as well). $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Mar 15 '14 at 8:30
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I have tried using "pre-class quizzes." In my opinion, it was not a success.

The idea of the preclass quiz is to assign reading for every class period, then set up one easy question from the section that must be completed online. The question must be answered less than 24 hours before the start of the class.

The goal was to make sure students had to interact with the textbook before each class period, in the hopes that they would gain something from it while it was open.

However, every policy is an incentive system, so students did exactly what they were incentivized to do -- they opened the textbook the night before class, skimmed it until they found the answer, and then closed the textbook.

Attempts to make the questions more difficult in order to force the students to actually read instead of skim were ineffective -- the way this policy shift sounded to the student was "you have to learn this material on your own before each class." This alienated the students.

I look forward to hearing answers that include success stories, but negative results can also be useful.

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    $\begingroup$ After re-reading, I'm worried that my answer here is a "here is my personal anecdote" despite the fact that the question was "I am seeking evidence." I think this is a larger-scale problem for answers on this site, and I appreciate any criticism or suggestions other users might have. $\endgroup$ – Chris Cunningham Mar 15 '14 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ The sum of personal experiences is evidence... $\endgroup$ – vonbrand Mar 16 '14 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ Then the question becomes "how do I incentivise reading and understanding the text, not just skimming"... and if I had an answer to that, I'd retire to my own island. ;-) $\endgroup$ – vonbrand Mar 16 '14 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking of trying this technique after I read about it. I am interested if this did or did not work for others also. I assisted for a professor that did this, and it was not successful for the same reason you noticed, they can just pick out the answers. I was reading that asking more subjective questions can help, but coming up with subjective questions about a math text seems difficult. $\endgroup$ – Felix Y. Mar 21 '14 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ In my physics classes I give a 5-minute multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of class that requires some basic knowledge from the reading. A similar example for calculus would be: The fundamental theorem of calculus states that (a) integration and differentiation are inverse operations, (b) integrals always have a constant of integration, (c) ... $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Mar 29 '14 at 21:59
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Yes, required reading of the text is effective. I know because my students say so.

What's that, you say? Your students not only do the reading, but also say that they like doing it?

Yes. And here's how I make them do it: 10% of their grade is ``examples.'' They are required to bring to class, 10 times through the semester, a handwritten copy of the examples in the part of the book that we are covering that day. (you can obviously change these numbers). I skim them to ensure they're actually what I ask for, then return them, so it's not a lot of extra work for me.

Hand-copying the examples is essentially impossible without at least trying to learn, and for most students it's the first time they've EVER tried reading a math book, which they don't realize means doing out the examples. So I just demand the latter, and it turns out that in this process, they (normally) do the former.

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  • $\begingroup$ interesting approach $\endgroup$ – PurpleVermont Jul 22 '14 at 2:50
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Mathematics textbooks are notoriously difficult to read. I've become convinced that mathematics is at least in part a language, usually a foreign language, and mathematical notation is an ideographic writing system. For students unfamiliar with the language, most mathematical textbooks might as well be written in Chinese. It is usually not sufficient to read a textbook: one must translate it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Agreed. But I don't think it has to be this way. When I write, I try to mitigate this phenomenon and do some translations on the way. I also remind students to read actively, taking notes and pausing, and make sure they understand it's not meant to be read straight through like a novel. $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Mar 15 '14 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ Mathematics is absolutely a language that has to be learned. This doesn't really argue against assigning readings, but it argues that we also need to teach students how to read mathematics. That could be a whole other question in itself. $\endgroup$ – Mike Shulman Mar 15 '14 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ I remember a text which cautioned that the reader should schedule an hour for each page, give or take. It wasn't a simple text, mind you; but the general idea stands. $\endgroup$ – vonbrand Mar 16 '14 at 0:45
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This is really two questions...

  1. Is reading the textbook effective? It depends a lot on the text. Besides, students have different ways of understanding, the explanation one sees as crystal clear can be total greek to the next one, and viceversa; or (even worse) bore them to tears. So perhaps it is more important to have a selection of sources available. Perhaps have a "lead" text, with a variety of "support material" suggested. Here Wikipedia or the SE sites are wonderful. Suggest some starting searches.
  2. How to assess reading the text? What do you really want to know? If they read the text, or if they understood the subject matter (in however shallow manner)? Ask them to solve a problem based on the section read (if they just follow the steps outlined there, at least they did it once), or to criticize the text (think of alternative ways of doing what they explain, explain why the text uses a particular technique, ...). Can be a mini-homework, to be handed in at class start.

Yes, those suggestions are bound to stir up a mutiny among your students ;-).

Perhaps grade on a scale 0-2 (0: did nothing but show up/copied the editorial from the newspaper; 1: said something sensible, but incomplete/wrong; 2: right solution/shows insight; 3: shows ingenuity/creativity beyond what is expected). Not too hard to grade, fast feedback.

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With regards to your question, I can only offer some personal reflection. I think that a carrot/whip for reading some given text is a bad idea, unless your objective really only is to make them read the text. Those who feel they benefit from reading already do it. Those who don't feel they benefit will either not read, or not get much out of it, and thus get the whip every time.

Now, for the real reason I'm posting this: Your question raises some counter-questions. I don't mean to sound like I'm picking a fight, and perhaps there are cultural differences here, but some parts of your question seem strange to me. (I'm not familiar with the school system in which you're teaching, and I don't know at what level you teach, so bear with me.)

1) Why do you keep using a book that most students do not like? They'll be more likely to read it if they like it...

2) Is class time spent mostly on you giving lectures? If so, from the students' point of view, I'd expect you to cover at the very least everything needed to pass the course. I might turn to the book to clarify, or to help me remember what you said, or to prime me before your lecture, but I would not expect the book to be the only source of anything essential.

3) How old are these kids? If they're somewhat grown up (say 18 yrs old or so), assignments and quizes every time you meet seems like a lot of interference in their learning. People learn in different ways, and the sooner they get to figure out how they learn effectively, the better. Offering a lecture plan, so that those who want to can read ahead and prepare themselves is helpful. Trying to force students to learn in one particular way is probably not very effective.

So, yeah.. I do apologize for not answering your question properly, and once again, I don't mean to sound like I'm picking a fight, so try not to take it that way. I'm just surprised by the picture I get when I read your question, but perhaps I'm interpreting things incorrectly due to some cultural bias or something.

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  • $\begingroup$ 1) I wrote the book. Many, many students like it, based on past and current experience. 2) I want to devote class time to examples and problem-solving, so I assign the reading so that they have seen the important definitions ahead of time. I go over them again, but I presume some familiarity. 3) Undergraduates. Potential math majors. I started giving quizzes after the first few weeks because it was clear to me that some were just not reading, or doing so only cursorily. $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Apr 2 '14 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see this as a fight-picking, by the way! I think that, ultimately, my motivation is really only to make them read the text but, more importantly, to read it in a timely manner that matches up with class time. I trust many of them to learn in their own way and at their pace, but it simply makes class time ineffective if I walk in to do examples about equivalence relations and no one has ever even heard the phrase before. Now, I can at least assume they have a passing idea of what it means, and solidify that knowledge with examples in class. $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Apr 2 '14 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ @brendansullivan07 Hmmmm... I'm very much just guessing here, but maybe they don't have enough experience to understand the difference between being able to solve a problem and understanding the problem. I imagine they might think that seeing you solve problems will teach them everything they need. And if you spend the majority of class time on problem-solving, it's easy to get the impression that that is the main skill being taught. $\endgroup$ – gibson Apr 3 '14 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ @brendansullivan07 I think there's a lot to gain in using a book that the students like. But if you really want to have them read before class, instead of using class time to introduce concepts, I think you'll have to resort to something like a 5 minute, closed-book, quiz at the start of every class, and have that quiz affect the grades in a significant manner. I wouldn't like that sort of system, but if you're not willing to lecture and your students don't want to invest 30 min before class to make class more effective, perhaps it's the only way. $\endgroup$ – gibson Apr 3 '14 at 12:16

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