As teachers, we would like to believe that when students do the assigned reading, they will understand the content it covers and so can be tested on it or given new information that builds on that understanding. When students do not demonstrate understanding of a reading, it’s easy to conclude that they simply did not do it.
Of course, it is possible for students to do the reading and still struggle to comprehend it, and for a variety of reasons. The reading might be too jargon heavy for non-experts or assume too much prior knowledge. Maybe English is not the student’s first language, and they struggle with certain syntax or vocabulary. Perhaps the student’s prior schooling simply failed to prepare them to read at a college level. Whatever the case, there are ways to help.
Faculty can help comprehension by making their assigned readings interactive. One method is to place the readings on a community annotation tool. These tools place the reading on one side of the screen and allow students to post comments about the reading on the other. When students do not understand a passage, they can highlight and ask a question about it. Other students who see that question can reply with the answer. This taps into a natural human desire to answer other people’s questions.
Some faculty will worry that student answers will be incorrect, but students do not want to be wrong in front of their peers. More important, if someone does post the wrong answer, the rest of the class will likely correct it. An even stronger desire than providing others with an answer is correcting another’s error, and correcting another’s error or having one’s own error corrected is an excellent way to learn and retain information.
Moreover, students can post their own thoughts about a reading, agreeing or disagreeing with something that is said. Students rarely have a forum to comment on readings. Instructors commonly pre-populate online discussion forms with their own questions, not students’. If a student has a comment about a reading, they are not likely to remember it when they reach the discussion forum later. Integrating the commentary with the reading will produce a far more student-driven discussion around the reading.
Finally, faculty can add their own commentary to readings. As readings rarely match exactly what the faculty member wants, faculty can customize them by adding information where needed. The faculty member might see a word that students are not likely to know and post a comment explaining it. They might also post an elaboration on a concept that is poorly explained in the reading. Most important, they can guide student reading by telling students what to look for in each section. Students often do not know what they are expected to get out of a reading and so read for the wrong information. Tracking students to the right takeaways can make a huge difference in comprehension. Moreover, guiding students’ reading will help them develop the skill of extracting the main points from readings. Often students read for details because they are not good at reading for the big picture. Faculty comments can help students learn how faculty read work and thus help them develop an understanding of how an expert in the field engages new information.
Here are two free systems specifically designed for community annotation:
Social annotation tools take reading from a solitary activity that leaves each student’s misunderstandings or confusions unaddressed to a mutually supporting one that raises all students’ comprehension.