I've recently started teaching undergraduate students using the case method (management subjects). However, I'm finding that most of the students simply don't do the reading at home. Even though I (so far) have used only short cases (just a few pages), they still just don't do the work.

For those unfamiliar with the case method, if the students do not do the reading before coming to class, there is little to discuss in class. In the end, I feel like the class time is wasted.

Because of the design of the course, I actually don't have the flexibility to have this affect their grade other than to simply fail them. I cannot, for example, reduce their grade by 10%.

If anyone uses the case method with undergraduate students, I'd love to know how you get students to actually do the reading / thinking work required before they get to class.

  • 2
    Could you clarify I actually don't have the flexibility to have this affect their grade? Did you mean the grade is either pass or fail?
    – Nobody
    Mar 25, 2013 at 11:28
  • 2
    Yes, it is pass/fail.
    – earthling
    Mar 25, 2013 at 11:40
  • Are there going to be exams?
    – Raphael
    Mar 25, 2013 at 12:39
  • @Raphael No, but there are assignments on which they will be assessed. However, the assessment for the module is strictly pass/fail.
    – earthling
    Mar 25, 2013 at 13:06
  • 2
    Have you actually talked to them about it? I am in one class (graduate level class) where the students were not doing the reading. The professor indicated he was very disappointed in the class. Most students felt bad enough that now they are doing the reading and participating in discussions.
    – James
    Mar 25, 2013 at 18:00

8 Answers 8


I have some experience with lab practice in physics and chemistry, where we routinely ask students to read up on the work planned and do some preliminary calculations before they can come to the lab, in order to maximize their use of actual lab equipment. It's sometimes hard to motivate students for things that should be done in advance, but there are ways you can improve their involvement:

  1. Make sure that the amount of material is compatible with the time they have to study it, and the demands on their time by other courses. If you're going to require something of them, it should be within reasonable limits. Also, make sure you convey that point to them: I have, on a few occasions, had to reschedule things to give them more time, because the material was very heavy and taking more of their time than I had assumed, or because they just had many other things to do (e.g., a full week of exams).

  2. Be crystal clear that reading the material before classroom is actually one of the requirements of the class, and that it is entirely necessary to actually pass the class.

  3. If you want further motivation, introduce some sort of evaluation of their reading at the beginning of the lecture: get two or three students to come up, and argue the case (or whatever it is you do in those lectures) before the others. Then, give them a frank assessment of how they fared, including “you failed miserably because you didn't do your homework”. Even if that evaluation doesn't count for the final passing/failing grade, it will motivate them and might introduce some friendly competition.

  4. If some of them still don't do a thing, fail them. After all, you had told them (and more than once) that reading the material is a requirement for passing.

  • 2
    2, 3 and 4 are sort of sticks. Do we want to give the students some carrots?
    – Nobody
    Mar 25, 2013 at 9:28
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    @scaaahu good point… I count #3 as a carrot, as increasing student participation should help better motivate them. And the only carrots that actually work are actually those that raise their internal motivation, i.e. making the exercises more relevant to them, more interesting/appealing.
    – F'x
    Mar 25, 2013 at 9:34
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    The most important part of this method of teaching is acting like they did the reading, even if it is obvious they did not. Ask them questions. Yes, the first few sessions will be painful, but they will get the idea, even if only to avoid embarrassment. If you start acting like they did not do the reading, then you will never get them to do it.
    – Ben Norris
    Mar 25, 2013 at 11:44
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    @scaaahu - got any carrots in mind?
    – earthling
    Mar 25, 2013 at 11:50
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    when I ask them their opinion on it and they just stare blankly — Stare back. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Do not say anything until they answer. Just wait, even if it means you're just staring at each other for an hour.
    – JeffE
    Mar 25, 2013 at 17:06

I think encourage and praise are important.

Encourage them to say things even if they have no idea what they are talking about. If they say something wrong, point out why it is wrong. And tell them this is exactly why they need to take this class - they are there to learn.

If they say things right, praise them. Particularly, to those weak students. Everybody has his own weakness and strength. The weak students will get things right sometimes. Praise them when they did right.

Initiate the discussion in the classroom is your job. Find some hot, interesting topic to start your class. The topic may seem to be unrelated to what you are going to discuss in the classroom in the first place. Lead them to discuss the issue you want them to discuss. Encourage the discussion. Praise them when they arrive at right conclusions.

Once they are used to the discussions in the classroom, it will be natural for them to do their homework. This is because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves. They know they must prepare enough so that they can have something to say in the classroom and say the right things so that they would earn the praise instead of embarrassment.

Of course, you need to tell them if they keep quiet throughout the whole semester, you'll have no choice but fail the ones who never say anything because you have no basis to pass them.

Finally, I'd like to use this place to thank JeffE. I remember he said "scaaahu's excellent advice" in response to one of my first answers here. I was very much encouraged by this remark. I felt like my answer must not be a bad one. Otherwise, why did he say that? Thus, I continue to participate. You can see how important is encourage and praise to a mature adult. Not to mention undergraduates.

  • 1
    You're welcome!! (And it was excellent!)
    – JeffE
    Mar 26, 2013 at 4:27

I teach courses that include lecture and discussion. If reading is not completed it is difficult to get the most out of the material. One thing to try is to begin with a 'low risk' reading assignment - something more fun and popular, or pepper your reading list with scholarly and more popular reading. There has been a lot of scholarship on the value of using graphic novels with college students. Decoding images and text at the same time is good for developing brains and can serve as 'bridging' literature to more complex readings. Fun reading can be a hook. I also have all my students on Twitter. This is new for me this semester. I have seen increasing participation from students if I ask them to post a discussion question, based on the readings, on Twitter. I was able to assess the depth of their knowledge of the materials based on the relative sophistication of the question. Most posted something, which I measure as engagement, what I am seeking. I allow the use of social media in class as well - Storify is a fun way to get students to summarize readings by harvesting multimedia from the Internet.


I took a graduate course in immunology a couple of years back. The requirements to pass the course were simple:

  1. each student made 2-3 presentations in front of the class of basic research studies from a provided list. We had to create our own powerpoints, include the paper's graphics or provide our own, understand every line of the article, follow the footnotes, and possibly read related studies for perspective. Be prepared to answer questions from the class and the professor. Describe the research in our own words to prove we actually understood it.

  2. while others are presenting, we were expected to have already read the article being presented, and be prepared to ask intelligent questions.

  3. Write a paper based on other peer reviewed articles.

Each of these requirements was worth about 1/3 of the grade. You couldn't pass if you slacked off on any of them. Everyone had to show up for class prepared.

Obviously, this is a graduate level of responsibility, but I feel strongly that undergraduates can be just as responsible when properly motivated. Presenting a case study in front of their peers and professor is a strong incentive, and it can even get a bit competitive in a healthy way; someone showed up with a $3 laser pointer they bought on ebay, and suddenly everyone was getting one. The powerpoints got fancier and fancier as the semester went on. People really got into it.

For pass-fail I suppose you would simply make #1, #2, and #3 into requirements to pass the course. Why should someone pass if they didn't learn stuff? Anyway, this is just one data point and in a different field probably, but hopefully it might spark some ideas.

And I love Cailin's use of Twitter. Best use for that thing that I've heard of to date!


Maybe this could work for you. I once took a course where every lesson started with a brief quiz. We would get a very simple, very general question from the reading material, and use 5 minutes to answer it in writing, signing our names on the top of the paper before handing it in. It was made clear that this was not part of the grade, i.e. that the only purpose was to ensure we read the material. It worked well though, because nobody felt comfortable handing in an empty paper.


I know I'm basically just reiterating the earlier answers here, as most of these points have already been raised in one form or another (by F'x and scaaahu in particular), but I'd just like to add my summary of how I'd approach the problem.

[Note: Oh, wow, this answer turned out way longer than I thought it would. If you don't want to read all of it, I've highlighted the key parts so you can just skip the rest.]

For some background, I'm a graduate student in Helsinki, and I've grown up and studied in Finland. While Finns generally aren't quite as focused on "face" as people from some Asian cultures are said to be, we do tend to be rather shy and quiet, and sayings like "talk is silver, silence is gold" or "it is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt" definitely find resonance here. Thus, getting a lively classroom discussion going here can indeed be hard, something which I've heard several teachers from other parts of the world comment on.

First, as you correctly note, you will need to make the students understand the importance of the assignments, and vague threats of "I may have to fail you" aren't going to do it. It's completely natural for students to try to minimize their workload, and if they think they can pass the course without doing the homework, most of them (except the few truly motivated ones) won't do it. And if enough of them think so, it's likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, unless you're actually willing to fail the majority of your class.

To address that, I'd suggest that you introduce a points system and make it clear to the students that:

  • X points total are required to pass the course,
  • each exam / project (out of m during the course) is worth up to Y points,
  • each discussion class (out of n) is worth an additional Z points, and
  • getting any points for a discussion class requires active participation in the discussion.

Having all this clearly set out in advance lets the students make their own informed decisions about how to prioritize their tasks. In particular, setting a definite pass/fail threshold means that they'll know exactly how much work they need to do to pass the course, and that if they don't meet that threshold, they will fail.

Yes, some students will probably use this as an excuse to skip some fraction of the discussion classes, figuring that they'll still score enough points in the exams to pass — but those are the same students who otherwise probably wouldn't bother with the homework at all, figuring that you wouldn't fail them just for that as long as they did reasonably well in the exams.

Choosing the point scores and thresholds is up to you, but a fairly common choice around here seems to be that the exams make up 50% of the possible points, and 50% of the total is also the minimum level needed to pass. Thus, in principle, one can pass the course without any classroom participation... as long as one is confident of getting an absolutely perfect exam score. (FWIW, as a personal anecdote, I did that once as an undergrad — I signed up for the final exam of a course with such a grading policy, mistakenly thinking it was a stand-alone exam, and managed to just barely pass. Got the lowest possible passing grade, though.)

So much for the stick; you'll also want a carrot to go with it. I'd suggest telling your students that the aim of the course is not to stress them out, and that you're willing to adjust the homework to fit their workload, within reason, as long as they'll tell you in advance when they expect to be busy and when they'll have more time. Depending on how varied your students' schedules are, this might even involve some personalized assignments for students who, for some reason, won't be able to attend as many classes as they want or need to.

Such small kindnesses go a long way towards building goodwill and motivation, but there's a more subtle trick involved here as well: asking for adjustments to the homework is itself a form of classroom participation. Sure, it doesn't actually involve the subject of the course in any direct way, but as scaaahu notes, an important part of the process is to just get the students to speak up in class about something, whatever it is.

Another reason why discussing the appropriate amount of homework with the students can help is that, psychologically, being involved in making a rule makes people feel invested in it, and thus much more likely to follow it than if it were simply imposed on them by an external authority. I'm pretty sure there's actual psychological research on this, if I just knew the right keywords to find it, but it's definitely an effect I've noticed in practice. Effectively, by setting up a mutual agreement with your students about the appropriate level of homework, you're depriving them of the mental excuse that "there's way too much stuff for me to do, I'll never have time for this."

As I already wrote above, I also think scaaahu's suggestion of encouraging classroom discussion in any form, just to get the students used to it, is a good idea. In particular, while stressing that active participation is necessary to earn points for a discussion class, I'd also suggest explicitly noting that having read or understood the material is not required (albeit highly recommended), as long as one is willing to ask questions and discuss the topic. Of course, you can still make demonstrated familiarity with the material a requirement for getting the full points, if you want.

One way in which that could help is that, just possibly, some of the students who say they haven't read the material (but can't say why not) actually have read it, but just don't feel that they've understood it well enough to discuss it without "appearing stupid" or "losing face". If you manage to convince those students that they'll at least have to ask questions about the material, they may even come to realize that their understanding of it is neither as poor nor as embarrassing as they thought.

Finally, since I mentioned my background in the beginning, let me include a couple of tips and traps I've noticed specifically regarding Finnish audiences. I can't say whether or not these might apply also to your students, but they may be at least worth considering. (There are also some implicit assumptions about classroom style in the way I've presented things below, but the general points should be adaptable to different teaching methodologies.)

(Also, just to be clear, by "Finns" here I really mean "me, and some other people I've observed in class". Of course, as with any cultural or ethnic group, there's a huge amount of within-group variation, so nothing here should be construed as universal rules.)

One is that Finns generally don't like to interrupt when someone else is talking; it's considered rude. By the same token, if they do feel the need to interrupt you, they're likely to just politely clear their throat (or, in a classroom setting, raise their hand) or say "excuse me..." and wait for you to stop. Thus, one way to kill off any hope of an active classroom discussion is to just talk too much yourself.

Going off on a long uninterruptible monologue whenever someone asks something remotely relevant is particularly bad — you may think you're rewarding the asker by seizing on the topic they brought up, but it's more likely that you're just teaching everyone in the class not to ask too many questions if they want to get on with the course. Engaging the asker in a back-and-forth discussion is a much better approach, both because it gives them a better chance to participate, but also just because it gives them a chance to tell you "oh, I get it now, thanks!" without having to interrupt you.

Another trap is that Finnish students tend to be quite reluctant to answer questions which they consider trivial — there are several reasons for that, but I suspect it's partly a side effect of the early school system, where the teachers generally try to learn the progress level of each child and to direct questions of different levels to different students. While this is generally an excellent way of dealing with a heterogeneous group of students and making sure everyone gets to participate, it does have the side effect of teaching the more advanced students (who, of course, are the ones who mostly end up in academia later) not to even bother raising their hand for questions they feel are below their level, since they won't get to answer them anyway.

The problem here is that, if you don't already know your students well, you can end up asking a question and getting no answers, and having no idea whether the question was way too easy or way too hard (or just possibly both). My suggestion for dealing with that situation would be to ask something like "OK, so you all know this?" and seeing who nods. If not all do, direct the question to someone who didn't.

A third point, somewhat related to the first, is that Finns stereotypically don't like asking questions if they believe they can find the answer by just listening or reading more instead. (If you look at my Stack Exchange profile, you'll see that I'm a perfect example of the stereotype; I just counted that, excluding meta sites and code golf, I've posted well over a thousand answers and just four questions across the entire network. And most of those are self-answered.) If your students are like that too, they may be much more likely to speak up if they believe they have a reason to disagree with you than if they just don't understand something (even if they might actually phrase their argument as a question).

One rather cheap, but potentially effective, trick to encourage student participation in situations like that could be to deliberately make trivial mistakes, like replacing a plus sign with a minus in a simple equation, and see if your students spot them. If they do, thank them and encourage them to keep an eye out for anything else that might seem funny. If they don't, you can always just "notice" the mistake yourself a little later and correct it. Either way, you end up looking a little less like an infallible authority.

And, yeah, I realize that I've gone way off on a tangent at this point, so I'll just stop here. Sorry.


There are already a lot of answers and I feel a little silly about adding yet another one, but I think my view is very different. I would classify all the other answers as taking a carrot/stick approach to provide an extrinsic motivator. I would push for trying to use an intrinsic motivator. You need to demonstrate to the students that class is better and that they will get a lot more out of it if they read before hand. I would devote some time at the beginning of the next few classes for the students to either read the material or be lectured. You could either use a show of hands or an electronic "clicker" type quiz to decide when to move on. This will allow you to get to the "good" stuff, but obviously isn't sustainably. Stress throughout this initial period that the later portions of class would be better if they spent time before hand doing the reading. Further point out that less material will be covered if they don't do the reading before hand, or that you might have to switch to a less desirable teaching method (e.g., lectures or presentations).


I encountered a similar situation with some groups, but now only find the problem among the minority of students. When working with students who are not self-motivated, you must make them fear for their grade.

First, assigned students a short reading task to fit each assigned reading. One potential task might be a KWL. These are quite simple, but cannot really be completed if the students do not at least actually think about the topic.

Then, set the deadline to shortly before the class (or the night before), asking students to submit their short answers via E-mail. This lets you verify that they read the passage.

To deal with the pass-fail grading system, which I assume is for the total course grade and not for individual assignments, consider telling students that you will count how many times they miss these assignments, and if they miss 3, they have failed the course. Make sure the students see you keeping the record early on and let them see the tally for themselves.

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