Please Read

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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!

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.