You have to love a post that begins: “I asked if everyone had done all the reading and the majority of the class avoided looking at me. Such are the occupational hazards of teaching.”
When students fall behind in the reading, class discussions can become strained: there’s “wait time” when you ask a question and wait for someone other than your usual suspects to respond, and then there’s “huh, wait a minute . . . ” time when it dawns on you that most of the class has no idea how to answer the perfectly reasonable reading comprehension question you’ve just asked. The latter is, obviously, undesirable.
I’ve heard of the quick-poll anonymous method of asking students to use a piece of scrap paper to write down what page they are on in the reading (or just all / most / some / none in reference to their progress on that day’s materials). But this method a) works better for smaller classes (flipping through 200 pieces of odd-sized scrap paper at the start of class takes rather more time than one would think), and b) doesn’t work at all for online courses.
Enter Google Docs.
Prof Hacker has a great post about how to use a Google spreadsheet to quickly and anonymously compute how much, on average, your students have read. Yes, your students will need computer access to do this – it’s great for online courses, and works well for face-to-face courses since all you need to do is share the link in advance (students can punch in their data whenever they realize they’ve done all the reading they are going to be able to do before next class) and then you can just check the spreadsheet shortly before class.
Now you’ll know if there’s just a lull in the conversation or if most of the class really isn’t prepared – and you can adjust your teaching methods accordingly.