Motivating Students to Prepare for Class

Professional Development
Online LearningStudent Success
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer of professional writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also an author at BizCommBuzz.


Have you ever gotten a glazed-eyed stare from students when referring to a reading you’ve assigned? How about the shame-faced lowering of eyes to avoid catching your attention? Sigh. Why won’t they read?

A lot has been said about whether the carrot or the stick is the best way to encourage students to prepare for class. I’ve tried both and I’ll lay out some of the strategies you can try to see what works best with your unique crop of learners.

Positive Approaches (The Carrot)

Sell It.

Explain why you have assigned the reading, homework, etc. The more students can see how the task brings value to their learning experience, the more likely they are to do it. Selling the reading essentially answers what’s in it for me?

Tantalize Them.

Give students a taste or a preview of the reading that stokes their interest. Tell them how interesting you find the information and that you’re looking forward to hearing their reactions to it.

Tie to Real Life.

If possible, link the reading or other class preparation task to “real life.” So much of what we teach has applications to today’s world, but sometimes students need to be made aware of that link.

Make the Task Part of Their Grade.

Have students show they have done the reading by completing worksheets, study questions, journal entries or group reports that focus on main takeaways. Give a modest amount of credit for pass or fail assignments—emphasizing the importance of these assignments when creating your syllabus.

Provide Guided Questions to Readings.

Opinions are powerful motivators for engagement. By giving students the opportunity to voice their opinions through guided questions, you can help students tie key themes from the reading materials to their personal experiences.

Use Readings as Part of In-Class Activities.

Link a particular reading to role-play, debate, brainstorming or small group work in class. Traditional discussions on reading materials are for the most part, a passive experience. The instructor poses questions, the students respond. Tying reading into other activities creates an active experience for your students.

Firm Approaches (The Stick)

Connect Educational Costs to Readings.

Recently, I’ve been explaining how perplexed I am that students would waste their costly education by not doing their homework or reading. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to break down how much each class session costs—and more importantly—how much they’d take away from the session had they done the reading.

Consider Quizzes.

Students see grades as a measure of whether or not they are succeeding in college. The results of a quiz can show students where they stand. If you teach large classes, there are several different quizzing methods you can take advantage of to help students succeed without adding to their exam stress.

Make Participation Mandatory.

Assign a portion of the overall course grade to participation. By calling on each student—and noting their participation across a semester—you’re encouraging students to engage. Mandatory participation also helps students avoid the embarrassment of showing their lack of preparedness in front of their peers.

Respond to Non-Participation.

When you notice students are not participating in class, assignments, readings, etc., address the problem head-on. You can react by promising an exam question tied to key themes or reading and inform students they will have to absorb the information without the benefit of talking about it in class.

If some students have done the reading but others have not, continue the discussion but excuse the non-readers and send them to the library to read. You can also assign the reading again with some written assignment attached to it that you accept but not grade.

I hope using the carrot or the stick helps you bolster participation in class and engage your students. Good luck!

Want more peer tips to motivate students to prepare for class?

Check out the recorded sessions and resources from our Empowered Educators Event.