Using Book Tests to Get Students to Read

Casey Harrison, November 2008

It will come as no surprise to college teachers that many students resist reading. This is the case even in history, where an ethic (not to say the practical necessity) of reading has long been part of the discipline. At a time when young people come to the classroom from an environment flooded with visual stimuli, reading—and the pleasure of reading—does not always come naturally. Moreover, at the medium-sized public university where I teach, most of my students are occupied with so many noncurricular activities that the commitment of time it takes to be a well-read history major seems a lot to expect. This problem is not confined just to history; but for those history teachers who assign several books per class the resistance to reading is troubling.

To ensure that students read substantively and critically, I require “book tests” for every course I teach. Book Tests are 30-minute, in-class assessments of required texts. The test questions are drawn from “reading guides” distributed in advance. At the first meeting each semester, I spend time talking about the book tests. My introductory spiel goes something like this:

Book Tests are a critical part of this course. They are not an arbitrary assignment, but rather are the best tool I have found to get students to do a good, close reading of the books. I do not expect you to remember everything you read. But I do expect you to read for content and to develop critical abilities as you read. I include Book Tests in every class I teach because I think the ability to read books closely and critically—even those you may not be that fond of—is the most important skill you will take away from college.

To reinforce the point, I make each test worth a full letter grade. I also set aside an entire class to administer the test and follow that with discussion. My experience is that book tests do help instill in students the habits and pleasure of reading that historians see as a hallmark of the discipline.

Reading Guides

Assessing students on reading seems like an obvious strategy. In some form or other, all history teachers do this, whether or not they label the assessment a book test. However, I think the extent to which I rigorously and consistently make the book tests part of the classroom’s schedule and grading regime sets them off from other strategies that test reading.

So that the book tests work as designed, there is a good bit of advance preparation. This begins, naturally, with selecting the books. I assign five to seven books per upper-division class and two to four books at the lower division (one of these is a survey text for which there is no test), including primary and secondary sources. For the upper-division classes, students can drop the lowest score. I read the books and then create a “reading guide” for each (see sidebar for an example, based on Barbara Alpern Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya-Vanderbeck, eds., A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History, which I use for both lower- and upper-division classes). The reading guide is a single sheet listing the author and title, followed by 4 to 8 “questions to prepare for” and another 12 to 30 “terms to identify.” Sometimes, the guide includes a glossary or a chronology. I list the terms in the order they are encountered by students. Some texts—monographs and edited works, especially—have an index that can help locate terms, though I emphasize to students that they should learn the terms as they read so that they can place them in context. The reading guides are distributed in class or through the course web site (we use Blackboard at my institution) well before the book test’s assigned date, which is indicated on the course schedule. I also give students a handout titled “Preparing for the Book Test” that has suggestions about reading for content. Before the first test, I go over all of this in class. I tell the class that they should assimilate the questions and terms in the reading guide, and then keep the guide at hand as they read so that they can mark comments and page numbers. I show them how easy it is to fold the guide in half to use as a bookmark! I tell them that a well-marked reading guide will serve as an excellent study sheet before the test. Finally, I remind them that I do not expect them to remember everything about the book, but that what I am looking for is a conscientious and critical reading.

Test Day

On the assigned day, the entire period is devoted to the test. I have experimented with a variety of formats over the years, but the one I have adopted of late has four multiple-choice questions drawn from the listed “terms to identify” as well as one essay question drawn from two-thirds of the questions suggested for preparation. The class is given 30 minutes to work. If the students are prepared—and they should be if they have used the reading guide—they can quickly finish the objective questions, gather their thoughts and still have approximately 25 minutes to write the essay. Early on, I tried open-book tests, but I soon discovered that students spent too much time flipping through the pages and that their work suffered. Again, if students are diligent, they should be fully prepared to do well on both sections of the test. After collecting the tests, we spend the rest of the period talking about the book, using the reading guide as a basis for our discussion. I tell students to bring the book to class so that we can refer to specific pages during discussion. When I began the book tests some years ago, it quickly became apparent how effectively the process led to good discussion.

Pros and Cons

I use the book tests in every class, though there is some variety in how I administer them. For the online first-year world history class I now teach, I use the Respondus test-making software available through Blackboard to give 25 multiple-choice questions instead of the combination of multiple-choice and essay questions in the lecture classes. Since these students take the tests unsupervised, my best control to ensure that they have read closely is the timing of the test, for which I allow 30 minutes. This seems to work well enough; as with the regular classes, if the online students have read thoroughly using the reading guide they will do well.

There are drawbacks to using book tests. Reading all of the books in advance, writing the reading guides and the book tests, and then grading the latter, are all time-consuming activities. I teach four classes each semester and this can amount to 16–20 grading sessions—a lot, when combined with regular exams and assigned papers. While literature can work for the book tests, I have found that students sometimes read novels too quickly and do not take satisfactory notes, with the curious result that some students fared less well on those tests for which they most enjoyed the reading. And while all this is meant to benefit discussion, if a class meets for just 50 minutes, then there is little time following a 30-minute test.

I recognize, too, that book tests are not for every teacher and every classroom. For a long time, I took for granted the notion that students would read everything assigned for a course. I rejected the thought that students should be rewarded for doing what seemed implicit in the college experience. But since coming to an open-admissions state university with classes ranging from 20 to over a 100, including non-majors taking general education classes, I recognize the practical limitations of that way of thinking. I now regard book tests as a means to ensure that students gain a substantive reading experience.

The rewards have overcome the reservations I had about book tests. While I sometimes hear indirectly that students dislike the tests, I have not heard this from them in class or through the evaluations done at the end of each semester. Nor do I think students avoid classes because of the book tests. Indeed, I have more often heard students say (at least after the fact) that they appreciated the purpose behind the tests and were grateful for having been compelled to undertake a close reading. I experimented recently by dropping the book tests altogether. The response from students whose judgment I valued was that they missed them! This was a telling moment for me and a signal that the tests were having the desired effect. I have come back to the book tests and plan to stay with them.

Book tests are an excellent entrée for meaningful classroom discussion and a sure way to gauge the effectiveness of particular titles. Most of all, book tests make students read closely and critically, and thus are a way to overcome the resistance to reading.

—Casey Harrison is professor of history at the University of Southern Indiana. He is the author of The Stonemasons of Creuse in Nineteenth-Century Paris (University of Delaware Press, 2008). He can be reached at charison@usi.edu.