The Solution: Introduce students to small bits of technical reading, which may lead them to the enjoyment of all reading.
You know you are up against a hard problem when the student actually enjoys reading instructions. What kind of person does that? Well, maintenance technicians do. We—I happily take this title as my own—usually enjoy Christmas time and “some assembly required.” Yes, we know we see the world differently than most, but it allows us to have the confidence to fix something that we have no idea of how it works.
In my classes, if I give a reading assignment of Chapter 1, I can give a test and almost everyone will fail it. But if I give a lab over Chapter 1, everyone will pass it. It is amazing to see my students work with foreign concepts and conquer them if they can put wires together. But if they are just reading for information and memorization, they can see nothing but words. I know the scholarly people reading this will probably not understand what I mean, but technicians see the world in a binary way. We like things to be on or off, up or down. We don’t really care about the theory of something, we want to see it in practice and working.
I have found that my students will read 5 pages of information if those pages are mixed into a lab. As long as they are working towards an end goal, they will plow through the information. I have also learned that even if it is easier for me to just tell them how to do something, it is usually better for them to read and try it on their own. If I show them the way, that will probably be the only way they ever learn how to do something. But if they read and try to find their own solution, they may find a better way than the way I was going to show them.
Just as with kids, if you give them the tools, an idea, and some time, they can accomplish anything. But if I show them the way to build something, their minds get boxed in very quickly. If they can understand the “why”, they can usually accomplish a task more easily and they will retain most of what they learn.
Reading for my students is the same way. If I tell them there is a test over Chapter 1, they don’t know what to learn. If we are working through a concept, and I have them read Chapter 1 while looking for a certain answer, they will find lots of other information that is useful. Giving technical students a problem and letting them try and fail is a great way for them to learn. They will fail once, but never again at that task. If they never fail, they never learn.
If I can give another teacher any advice for their technical students, especially in the area of reading, it is this: Give them the question you want answered before they start reading. You are very likely to waste your time and theirs if you just tell them to read a chapter.