Our books

Become a Fan

« Doing conference commentaries in grad school? | Main | Tips for being forward-looking on the market? »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


I found online quizzes to be fairly successful for getting students to read for Intro to Philosophy. The LMS we use is Moodle. I would often make the quizzes due Tuesday at 11:59 PM. This would get the students to do the reading earlier in the week so that it would be fresher in their minds for the lectures. I would drop some of their lowest scores as well. It does add administrative work in terms of extending deadlines for illness and dealing with students who had technical difficulties. However, I never felt this to be too burdensome. These questions pull randomly from question banks I have set up that also feed into the exams, so reviewing these quizzes also gives the students a way to prepare for the exams as some of the same questions appear on the exams.


I've used Perusall to great effect - 20% of their grade for the semester comes from Perusall comments, so they tend to do it. And even better, they tend to like it, because they say it lets them ask questions and try out ideas in a lower stakes environment, since they only have 5-6 other students in their group. I think how you frame it really matters though. A few people in the first semester I used it complained that it felt infantilizing to be graded on taking notes. Since then I've frame it this way: Each one of the readings is rich and complex, and there is so much more worth talking about than we can talk about in 75 minutes - so this is your chance to focus the discussion on exactly the areas *you* are most interested in.

(There is also apparently a pretty good non-profit version available, but I don't think it pairs automatically with Canvas/Blackboard/etc, which might make it tougher from a grading perspective for folks with bigger classes.)

Erik Nelson

I've also had a lot of success with online quizzes. I set it up so the quizzes are available all week, so they can start them whenever they want, but once they start them they have an hour to complete them. The quiz is short, so they really should be able to complete it in a few minutes, but giving them a bunch of time takes some of the pressure off. I've had colleagues give even more time (24 hours once started), thinking that if the extra time allows the students to do the readings while taking the quiz, then mission accomplished. I like Casey's idea above of having them due earlier in the week or I could also see having a reading quiz due before the first class of the week working too. I'm also trying to incentivize class attendance (without giving out a mark for just showing up for class), so I would worry that that strategy might lower the motivation to attend lectures.

I think the most important thing with online quizzes is to make them easy for students who have done the readings and attended lecture. So if a student has done the readings/come to class, they should be able to very easily get 100% on the quiz. I think that some instructors take the wrong route when they think of quizzes as evaluative exercises instead of motivational ones. I have other ways to test their comprehension (writing assignments, etc.), so I don't need the quizzes to do that work for me.

As for student complaints, I've had students complain about there not being any quizzes or tests when I've taught courses that are entirely writing or essay based. So, I think that some students are going to think that you are the bad guy no matter what.


I mostly teach lower-level, required classes. For these classes, I proceed as follows in relation to readings.

When students write papers for me, they have to engage with the texts that are relevant to the topic they write about. This is part of the grade for each paper they write. So reading (i.e., textual engagement) enters into their overall grade in that way. They have to write three papers in total for me, with each being four pages. Also, I make students post on the discussion board on Canvas for every other class. These are just completion grades, and students write their posts after class (not before it). So students often are able to do their posts without actually having read the relevant text for the day: students often simply rely on the class discussion that we had when they write their posts out. For some students' posts, I can tell that they are reading: they make this clear in their discussion posts. For other students, well, they aren't reading on those days: they are mostly just winging it in their discussion posts, based on what they heard in class earlier that day. (That said, at least these students are being forced to think through what was said in class that day.)

So, in sum, I'm pretty lenient about the issue of class readings, at least on a class to class basis. I used to be stricter, and I do sometimes feel like I should be tougher on them. But I've settled into this pattern over the years because my students are working on average 30 hours per week at jobs outside of school and taking full loads at school, with many of their courses being taken from professors who require tons of work (often in their majors). It's not that my class is super easy. It's not. But, at least in terms of the amount of time students have to spend on my class, it's not that hard for them. On course evaluations, students overwhelmingly check the box that says that my course involved an average amount of work on their parts.

I have some amazing students that go way above and beyond what I require and who, frankly, should probably be attending a better school than mine (we are a non-elite small liberal arts college). But most of my students are just trying to get through college, and my knowledge of this fact has led to my leniency about readings on a class by class basis.

Last point: When I was in grad school, I was at an R1 with sharp undergrads who mostly were not working jobs outside of school. I was tougher about readings then, and if I were at a school like that now, I would be tougher about readings now too.


In my mind, philosophy is all about getting students themselves to engage in the readings and trying to make sense of them. My students have what I call 'Active Reading Assignments' due before every class session in the LMS. These consist of four questions, with some of the meant to be challenging (e.g., put the arguement on page 22 in premise conclusion form; explain X's objection concerning y's argument; do Z and W actually hold a similar position? Explain your answer; What does T mean by the term 'n'? Use the text to support your answer)

As I said these are due before almost every class, so there are 25-26 active reading assignments each semester. However, I drop 8 scores and do not allow any make ups/late works because of the drops. I do not give much feed back, just a score of 0-4 as we talk about the assignments in class. I am more looking for a solid effort than 'right' answers.

Although this generates a lot of grading, classes become so much better. In every class session 70-80% of the students have done the reading. We have very good conversations and we cover the works much more in depth. It also allows for more group work. Students actually say that they like the ARAs because it forces them to try and read and understand the material; it also helps them figure out what to look for when reading and prepares them for exams.

I also teach at a CC. I have found if you challenge students a bit, many will rise to the challenge.


I have experimented with in class quizzes (usually 10 multiple choice questions) at the beginning of each new unit. These are designed to be hard enough that if you haven't done the readings you probably won't do much better than guessing but easy enough that if you have done the readings you'll get most of them right. After students take the individual quizzes, they break into small groups (about 3-4) and take the very same quiz again. So students get a grade on their individual quiz and then a "group grade" score on the very same quiz. This gets the students talking about the material in a standard "think pair share" kind of way.
We then go over the quiz answers immediately after the group quiz - which provides the beginning of the lecture material for that unit (if I've designed the quiz questions well).

Its a fair bit of work to come up with good questions (but easy to grade them).

I agree with Marcus and others that the in class quiz strategy doesn't always work - it does get more students to do the readings (and is particularly useful for courses where you have a large block of time and don't want to lecture too much); however, some students see them as punitive. On the other hand, the "group part" of the quizzes does mitigate the sense that they're punitive (to some extent) because students almost always do better on the group quizzes.

It does have the advantage of giving you immediate feedback at the beginning of the unit so you have a sense of what they know and what they're confused about.

Having them on line ahead of time is probably better, but it is harder to do the group-aspect and use it to lead into discussion, etc.


Some highlighting tips:


What I do is pick three colors: yellow, orange, and pink. I use yellow to highlight claims and assertions. These are often short sentences. Then I highlight justification/reasons/evidence in orange. Using more than one highlight color can help you visualize the structure of the argument better than just using one color or a pen. It trains your mind to get used to detecting and differentiating claims from justifications. In fact, I noticed that once I do this, I can easily detect whether the author has provided adequate justification or not. For general background descriptions I use pink as to not confuse that with the author’s argument even though it’s still important info.

Using three colors has made me review and study things quicker and more efficient since I’ll know where certain claims or arguments are located. If I need to review some claims I’ll look at the yellow highlight; if I need to review the justification or reasons, then I’ll look at the orange highlight; if I need to review the background info I review the pink section. This method saves me so much time re-reading.


I use pre-class, short writing assignments (<100 words, submitted and graded online) that require students to at least read a couple of pages of the assigned reading before class. I grade them pass/fail, and I do actually use the fail option if it's clear that the student hasn't put much thought into their response or that they haven't done the reading. [Warning: it's very cumbersome to grade upwards of 100 of these every week. You really need to stay on top of it, too, if you want students to take anything away from it. However, even just a couple of sentences of comments on each of these assignments has caused students to express their appreciation to me and continue to put some work into them so it's probably worth it.]

I have recorded a couple of video lectures with slides (using Panopto, if yall have that) in which I slowly go through a page or two of philosophical text to actually demonstrate how to read it as a philosopher would. (J. L. Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence" is good for this type of thing. Plato, too, if you think your students can get a handle on the dialogue format and question-and-answer style.) I also do this in class sometimes. Some (most?) intro-level students just don't know how to read philosophy, so it might help to have a model.

I am afraid that no matter what system you come up with, many students will find a way to not do the reading. I didn't do reading in college until I actually started to enjoy philosophy, literature, and history in their own right. In-class interactions and conversations with my professors is what led me to that point. (I went to a crappy high school with bad teachers, so I didn't understand Mill's higher pleasures of learning before college.) So focusing instead on improving students' outlook toward philosophy to begin with, rather than on incentivizing something that students naturally dislike through negative reinforcement techniques (i.e. quizzes), might paradoxically be the way to get more students to read. In any case, unless it's a smaller class in which non-participants' ignorance about the text will become embarrassing for them or decrease dramatically from their grade, at least half of your students will find whatever way possible to do the minimum amount of reading. I have learned to just accept this. (Also, there are some good YouTube videos out there to use in place of readings!)

[Background: I have taught a bunch of intro classes at a bunch of US state universities.]

Asst prof

I have had a lot of success with pop quizzes. I have found, across many classes, they do not harm rapport if they are very short (3 multiple choice questions) and extremely easy for anyone who did the reading. And then beyond that, I teach in a way that presupposes that students have done the reading, so that doing it in advance doesn't feel pointless for them. I frequently have them do group work based on the reading without me first summarizing anything for them. (I do direct them to specific passages so that someone who didn't read can still participate, but it would be much harder to do the activity if you didn't read in advance.) I typically have a few students even thank me for the quizzes in their evaluations, saying they were grateful for the accountability. I also frame the quizzes as a mechanism for giving them credit toward their grade for merely doing the reading, which seems to help. It does give diligent students who may struggle on a paper a nice bump.

Daniel Weltman

Here are five main things I do (among others):

1) I have reading quizzes which are not in class, nor time limited. They are open book, due the night before class, and available from the first day of class. The quizzes are designed to guide students through the reading by helping them focus on important points, explaining things that the readings don't explain, etc. I encourage the students to have the quiz open when they do the readings. The questions are supposed to be relatively easy to answer if you read carefully, but not very easy otherwise (e.g. you can't do well on the quiz if you're just skimming the reading). I have one quiz per reading and I drop a bunch of the lowest scores.

2) I use Perusall. I used this for the first time this past year and I love it and I'm probably going to keep using it (or some equivalent) forever. The due date is the same time as the quiz - the night before class.

3) Class sessions are usually focused entirely on the readings. This incentivizes students to do the reading, because otherwise they're pretty lost in class.

4) I try to make the readings short enough for students to devote sufficient time to the text. I try for 15-20 pages per reading, and for one reading each class session, and we have 2 classes per week. So that's 30-40 pages per week. For lower level classes I sometimes aim for even fewer pages.

5) Most of the assignments in the course are short papers (500 words) due relatively often (every 2 weeks or so). The papers are focused entirely on the readings. This means that it's hard to fall too behind on too many readings. You have to read at least some stuff to write the papers.

I do not do in-class quizzes because I don't care if the students can memorize things from the reading. (If I had had in-class quizzes in undergrad I would have done badly. I need the text in front of me to recall things.) I do not do time-limited quizzes because I emphasize to my students the importance of taking one's time on philosophy and I don't think it's ever helpful to rush someone when this can be avoided. I don't do substantive short reading response questions because that is a lot to grade and I find it hard to judge from those sorts of things whether the student has read carefully or just skimmed the reading, and I don't want to incentivize skimming the reading any more than I want to incentivize skipping the reading.

Marcus Arvan

There's a pretty good discussion here as well: https://dailynous.com/2015/10/28/why-students-arent-reading-ought-experiment/

Paul Hamilton

One of the things I have done is adapt a technique from Justin McBrayer (Fort Lewis College). I randomly collect reading notes and grade them on the basis of competition. To receive credit, the notes must meet three conditions. First, the first line of submitted notes must include "THESIS:" and what the student takes the author's thesis to be. (Many students struggle with this, but that allows an opportunity to teach what a thesis statement is and isn't.) Second, unless stated otherwise, notes must be at least one page in length. Finally, notes must reflect that students completed the assigned reading. (They are not permitted to write a page of notes on the first few pages of the reading and quit.)

The randomness element is that at the start of class, I flip a coin to determine whether notes on the day's reading will be collected. It's interesting to hear both sighs of relief and frustration no matter what the result is. (When notes aren't collected, those who didn't do the assignment are relieved, and those who did want credit for their work.)

It's a fairly simple assignment that ensures students are reading, and since I require students to attend class to submit their notes, it also helps with attendance. Notes are also collected frequently enough that missing a submission or two has little effect on the overall grade, and therefore, I can have a no excuses policy for failing to submit notes. It also ensures that students have notes to study for the exam.

There are problems of low effort submissions, notes that are just short of the length requirement, and I've even had plagiarism issues. But, it's an assignment that works for me.


For the person that uses Perusall: does that mean that students all bring their computers/tablets to class? Do you think it's feasible to have students use Perusall, but then have them print out the reading? I have a "no computers etc" policy for my classes, which I would rather not get rid of.

Josh Turkewitz

What is the purpose of the randomization? Why not just always collect the notes?


Seconding (thirding?) the suggestion of Perusall. And it doesn't require tech in class. I've used printouts of selected conversations in class to focus on specific discussions. I've also just relied on the fact that they've answered the prompts to have them do groupwork or individual writing on a single session.

Perusall can encourage students to engage in active reading, so that they start annotating their own copies of the material. (Teaching students how to read philosophy is something that's hard to do, and this helps.) I start the semester in my intro level classes talking about what annotation and active reading are, and how marking up books/articles can be helpful. Typically I'll post only excerpts for them to annotate on Perusall. I ask them to first annotate in their reading and then transfer the annotation to Perusall.

You can do quite a lot of prompts this way to prepare for in-class work: identifying claims and their evidence, formulating objections, further support, coming up with their own examples, making connections across texts, etc.

Also, if you make use of the "@" function, you can use the Perusall as a kind of virtual office hours. If you're teaching remotely, or even want to just answer some questions online, students can highlight sections and ask questions directly to you which you can then answer once, for everyone.


Thanks Malcolm. So, if I want the students bring the reading for the day to class, would they mark it up on Perusall and then print out the annotated version? Or is the idea that they mark up their own copy but then *also* add annotations to the copy on Perusall? Sorry to be thick. Just trying to envision how it would work if I want them to show up with a paper copy of the article for the session, but also annotate on Perusall.


Just wanted to say that I've been following this and find it very helpful.


I heard a good idea the other day on a podcast:

Require students to submit a question, quote, or comment about the reading right before class, then use a small bit of class time to cover a few of them to help clarify the reading.

I've had good results from reading quizzes. But I do not make them timed. I advise students to open the quiz and read a few of the questions and then start the reading as though they are searching for the answers to those questions. The onus is on me then to write questions that highlight important stuff. I also make them due a minute before class.



"So, if I want the students bring the reading for the day to class, would they mark it up on Perusall and then print out the annotated version? Or is the idea that they mark up their own copy but then *also* add annotations to the copy on Perusall?"

To bring the reading, they would mark & print their own copy and then also add annotations to Perusall. They can print the PDF from Perusall or a file you send them. There's not an easy way to print the fully annotated version that I know of, except by making screen shots. Help guide: https://support.perusall.com/hc/en-us/articles/360034533753-Can-I-print-from-a-document-or-a-reading-assignment-

If a good size class annotates and responds to each other, it would be a lot to bring all the annotations, anyway. In my experience, they remember the conversations.

Paul Carron

I am also interested in this conversation in general and in perusall in particular. I have posed a general question about perusall on the pandemic pedagogy facebook group and have already received some good feedback.

In my experience you have to incentivize reading. You can't just push the "intrinsic value" argument or "you won't be successful in this class" argument. I have usually used discussion boards and in-class quizzes, but the pandemic forced a change and I went with packback and online (canvas) MC quizzes that were timed (10 questions, 20 minutes) but open for 24 hours before class. They were open book, open note. I really like the outside the class approach to quizzes because as another person said, I don't want to penalize them for a. not memorizing the reading or b. not understanding difficult concepts before class. So I try to make the quizzes things that they can't easily google but also will know or be able to find in the text if they read. I really like this method and plan to keep it.

I like packback, but it can feel like mindless busywork to the students, and they way it is designed to work is not meant to force students to read, but rather to engage with any material from class and keep a discussion going outside the classroom. For that purpose I like it, but I am considering swapping it for packback...


I think it’s important to teach students how-to read philosophy. When I was in undergrad, only a few professors have given me advice about how-to read philosophy or texts in general. The common advice? Read slowly and carefully. While I don’t disagree with this advice (it’s important), it’s barely sufficient. The advice is just the tip of the iceberg of reading skills and procedures.

Nowadays I ask myself these questions when reading: What is the author’s thesis? What is the author trying to tell me or defend? Is the author primarily being descriptive or normative? If the former, how accurate or correct is it? If the latter, how convincing is it? What things does the author assume or take for granted? Did the author provide reasons and rationales for their claims? Do I agree or disagree with their arguments? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s argument? Is the author impartial? Is the author consistent? Is the author being hyperbolic? Is the author providing data or anecdotal evidence? Etc.

The art of persuasion does not require one to be self-critical since its main aim is to get the reader(s) to accept the claims easily. For example, I can use mainly anecdotal evidence without reminding or telling the reader(s) that actual data is probably stronger if I want to conclude something about a large number of people and make my reader easily and quickly accept it. Nor does persuasion require me to tell the reader that more research is needed on something. Persuasion does not require complete honesty.

It’s important to teach students to detect and distinguish between the persuasion and truth. The latter necessarily requires impartiality, complete honesty, humility, and transparency while the former does not. After all, successful persuasion needs the reader(s) to be ignorant about a lot of things and hence unskilled at critical thinking. Truth does not necessarily have to be persuasive. In fact, the truth can hurt and indeed it often does as Lizzo sung.

Matthew Slater

This has been a super useful thread! I definitely want to try perusall. I’ve used short reading quizzes (like 3 question, easy if you’ve read somewhat carefully) in my intro classes with two features I don’t think have been mentioned yet (and that I’ve found worked pretty well). First, I allow them to be open note (though not open book, obvs), thus incentivizing keeping reading notes. Second, I offer what I call the “no bullshit bonus”: having established that I can detect bullshit answers pretty easily, I offer to award half credit for answers that simply say “no B.S.” (or I invite them to write a haiku or draw a cartoon). Bullshit (or simply wrong) answers receive no credit. The grading advantages are obvious. But so is the benefit of knowing ahead of our discussion approximately how many folks at least read *something* (or are feeling lucky/confident in their bullshittery).

Alex Feldman

Students need (1) the skills to read difficult philosophical texts, (2) an assignment type that encourages them to keep up with the readings, and (3) an assignment type that rewards having developed close reading skills.

My approach, after a great deal of trial and error (including quizzes, which I find ineffective), now is roughly this:

1. I create a "Course Guide" document that contains information on specific reading strategies as well as some background information on each reading and reading questions for each reading.

2. Students must keep a typed "Reading Journal." The trick here is to be precise about what you are looking for. I sometimes ask students to answer three of the reading questions from (1) in 3-4 sentences. At other times, I've asked students to identify the thesis of the reading in their own words, identify a passage they found problematic or confusing, and answer a single reading question from the Course Guide. I tell students that I expect them to complete each entry before coming to class, but at present I only collect them every four classes (in an upper-level class, I might collect them less frequently). I grade for effort and completeness. To keep the grading manageable, you can skim quickly to see that the assignment was completed and then randomly select a single entry to comment on. I also encourage students to bring their journals to class and refer to them in class conversation.

3. The final step is to give them a more rigorously-graded assignment that rewards close reading ability. There are many ways to do this, but one that I favor is a short argument analysis paper. I supply students with several short quotations from different readings in the unit; they select one, reconstruct the argument in their own words, and then offer a serious objection. The trick is to keep these papers very short and to have several of them throughout the semester. I usually set the word limit at somewhere between 300 and 500 words (the stronger the students, the lower the word limit should be). Students should perceive the low word limit as a challenge (this requires some careful marketing on your part) that the Reading Journal has prepared them for.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Subscribe to the Cocoon

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory


Subscribe to the Cocoon