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Maximizing Student Engagement with Course Readings

Motivating Students

Maximizing Student Engagement with Course Readings

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Have you ever struggled to get students to do required readings? Do your students treat them as optional? Perhaps they do the readings, but when you ask them to engage in critical discussion or think deeply about the material, they are unable to do so. If any of these scenarios resonate with you, read on! In the paragraphs that follow, I introduce four activities guaranteed to motivate your students to do the required readings and think critically about them.

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Have you ever struggled to get students to do required readings? Do your students treat them as optional? Perhaps they do the readings, but when you ask them to engage in critical discussion or think deeply about the material, they are unable to do so. If any of these scenarios resonate with you, read on! In the paragraphs that follow, I discuss four activities guaranteed to motivate your students to do the required readings and think critically about them.

Jigsaw readings

Jigsaw activities work because there is an information gap between one group of students and another or between a student and their partner or group members. This means that a student or group of students possesses information that their group or another one needs and vice versa. Because of this gap, students are forced to listen to each other to gain a full picture and gather all relevant information.

How it works

In the context of course readings, there are two ways to do a jigsaw activity. The first is to have students read in class, and the second is to assign the readings for homework. Both approaches work well and are similar in their execution, involving only a couple of minor adjustments.

The idea is that each student will read only the text assigned to them and take notes on the important points so they can teach the content of their reading to other students in the class. As the instructor, you will have identified two to four readings that you’d like the students to cover, but each student will read only one of these. When it comes time to teach their peers, students work in groups and take turns explaining their readings. When they are not explaining, they take notes on the readings being explained to them. After all the information has been shared, the instructor leads a follow-up activity. This activity could be a discussion, a problem-solving exercise, or some other activity that can only be done with the information gleaned from all the readings.

Benefits of this activity

The benefits of a jigsaw activity include students’ working together, learning from each other, and thinking critically about the readings by identifying the main points and teaching them to others. Jigsaw activities also encourage community and collaborative thinking. For the version in which the reading is done for homework (and is therefore likely lengthier than a reading done in class), students appreciate that you are asking them to do only one reading instead of all three or four. This contributes to your rapport with them; they appreciate that you respect their time.


There are very few drawbacks to this activity. For one, you must set up the readings so that they are isolated from each other and only the students assigned to a given reading have access to it. The reason for isolating the readings is that you want to ensure that students need the information that the other students are teaching them; if all students can read all readings, they no longer need to listen to each other. Also, you must set aside time in class to run the jigsaw activity. Otherwise, the activity is fairly straightforward, and the benefits outnumber the drawbacks.

Student motivation

What motivates students to do the readings and prepare for class by taking notes? Based on feedback I have received from many semesters of using this activity, students typically do not want to let their group members down, they don’t want to look like slackers, and they don’t want to look dumb. These are strong motivators!

Reading discussion roles

This activity is explained in detail in an article by Heather Parrott and Elizabeth Cherry (2011). I have found it helpful for motivating students not only to do the readings but also to engage critically with them.

How it works

Students are assigned a role the week before the discussion is to take place. In the intervening week, students complete the required reading(s) (everyone reads all texts identified by the instructor) through the lens of their role. When they come to class the following week, they bring with them their preparation and take part in discussion according to the requirements of their role. The instructor should identify one or two readings for students to discuss; three should be the limit as the discussion will extend beyond the allotted 30 minutes if more readings are assigned. The discussion in class should take 30–40 minutes of class time, and debriefing can take up to another 10 minutes.

The roles are as follows:

  • The discussion leader identifies two or three questions related to the main ideas in the reading and poses them to the group. The discussion leader also facilitates the discussion, keeping everyone on track time-wise and ensuring that each person gets a chance to contribute.
  • The passage master identifies one or two passages that are central to the point of the reading, that are particularly interesting, or that in some other way catch their attention. They read the passages aloud to the group to spark discussion.
  • The devil’s advocate critiques the reading. The challenge here is that the student with this role must find critical comments to make even if they agree with the reading. The devil’s advocate is meant to stir things up, share alternatives, and get people thinking.
  • The illustrator draws a picture or puts together a flow chart or other graphic based on the reading. Their contribution might highlight the main points of the reading, illustrate a reaction that they had while they read, or express disagreement. This role allows the student flexibility in terms of what they can draw.
  • The connector finds connections between the reading and the real world. They can pull examples from sources such as the news, the workplace, or popular culture.
  • The recorder takes notes during the discussion. They are also meant to participate and can ask questions to clarify points if things are unclear. After the discussion, all the other group members email their contributions to the recorder. The recorder then compiles everything into one document and uploads it to the learning management system for the instructor to see.

Benefits of this activity

Because this approach is highly structured, students know exactly what they are supposed to do. Discussion does not peter out; it can easily be sustained for 30 minutes. Students engage critically with the material, and they learn from each other as they work collaboratively. The discussion leader role helps students practice time management and group leadership. The activity also builds community as students get to know each other through the discussions.


There are no drawbacks.

Student motivation

My students said they got more out of the readings using this method and viewed the readings as more valuable than they do with the usual approach to readings, where everyone reads on their own and the instructor may or may not address the readings in class. Additionally, as with the jigsaw activity, students reported that they didn’t want to let their group members down, look like slackers, or appear unintelligent.

“Pass the paper” debate

This is an excellent activity to engage students who express themselves better on paper than in discussion and those who are shy to speak up in class.

How it works

The instructor assigns one or two readings and tells students that they will be required to discuss them during the next class period. When students arrive for the next session, the instructor distributes the handout pictured in Figure 1 below, including a question that is related to the reading(s) in the diamond in the middle of the page. The question should encourage students to think deeply and critically. Students begin by putting their names at the top of the paper and follow the instructions in box 1. After the allotted time is up (approximately three to five minutes per box, but this will vary with each class and according to the question you ask) and they have responded in box 1, each student passes their paper to another student, who follows the instructions in box 2. The same process happens with boxes 3 and 4. When all boxes are complete, the fourth student passes the paper back to the original student—whose name is at the top of the paper—and that student reads over all the responses they got.

Figure 1. Template for “pass the paper” debate activity. Note that normally this document would take up a full 8.5"×11" sheet of paper. The boxes should be big enough to accommodate lengthier responses. I have truncated them here to save space. In addition, you will need to change the question in the diamond to something relevant for your reading.

Once each student has had time to read their completed handout, the instructor can proceed in several ways. A class discussion or small group discussions about some aspect of the responses could ensue. An individual reflection on the reading, enhanced by the input from their peers, is another helpful follow-up. Alternately, the completed debate paper could be used as a jumping-off point for a research paper or other individual assignment.

A variation would be to ask each student to include their name with each of their responses. Doing so would hold students accountable to one another for what they write and encourage them to take the activity seriously, if that is an issue.

Benefits of this activity

Students learn from each other and think critically about the reading(s). This activity also allows introverts time for reflection, and it provides a springboard for other activities.


Devising a good question for the central diamond can take time and thought.

Student motivation

Because students know that others will read their ideas, they don’t want to appear foolish or ill prepared (especially if you ask all students to include their names on every response).

Collaborative quiz

For this activity, students come to class having done the assigned readings and prepared to “demonstrate their knowledge.” (Their professor will have instructed them to do this in the previous class. They do not know in what way they will demonstrate their knowledge.) The instructor distributes a quiz based on the reading(s) and asks students to complete it individually. The instructor scores the quiz and gives students their marks. Then students are put into groups and given the quiz again, but this time they can discuss the answers and help each other. All students in a group put their names on the same quiz paper. The instructor scores the quizzes again. If a student’s group grade exceeds their individual grade, that student receives the average of the two scores for their quiz grade. If a student’s individual score exceeds their group’s score, they can keep the higher grade.

The main issue with this activity is the grading of the quiz. I suggest creating a self-grading electronic quiz or, if you have teaching assistants, recruiting their help to grade paper quizzes. Naturally, if you use an electronic quiz, you should hide the answers from the students until after they have completed the group quiz.

If you’re not using a self-grading electronic quiz, plan an activity for students to do between the individual and group quizzes. This will give you time to do the scoring.

Benefits of this activity

Students learn together and from each other. They also learn from their mistakes. This activity builds community as students work together to improve their grades.


The timely grading of the individual quiz is the only potential drawback to this activity.

Student motivation

Students want a good grade. Also, after the first time, they will want to look prepared and intelligent in front of their peers during the collaborative part of the quiz.


Since applying these strategies in my classes, I no longer dread required readings. Students come to class prepared and participate actively. They glean more from the readings and as a result feel that they have received good value; the readings have become an interesting and useful component of the course and students are enthusiastic in their feedback. I trust that you will find these activities equally beneficial with your students!


Parrott, H. M., & Cherry, E. (2011). Using structured reading groups to facilitate deep learning. Teaching Sociology, 39(4), 354–370. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X11418687

Fiona Hunt, MLIS, is an academic librarian-turned professor who teaches in the library and information technology program at the University of the Fraser Valley. She has 20-plus years of teaching experience and is passionate about maximizing student support and engagement in all her classes.

A version of this article appeared in the Best of the 2019 Teaching Professor Conference report. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.