A collection of resources on getting students to read what's assigned and strategies for developing college-level reading skills
Many students do not arrive in our courses with college-level reading skills. That usually ends up meaning a couple of things. First off, they don’t like to read and will challenge (usually quietly and covertly) teacher announcements and syllabus admonitions telling them they must do the reading. They’ll come to class, sit quietly, take a few notes, and see what happens if they aren’t prepared. If there are no negative consequences, they decide maybe they don’t have to do the reading or they can put it off until just before the exam. In the Relevant Research section below you’ll find a study that documents the number of students who come to class not having done the reading as well as what they say is the most effective tactic for encouraging them to read what’s assigned.
Getting students to read “boring” textbooks is especially challenging. To them, what’s in the reading is complicated, unfamiliar information that doesn’t seem all that relevant. What’s most important? What do they need to know? Why won’t the teacher just tell them what they need to know? After all, isn’t that the teacher’s job?
Without good reading skills, students often resort to dubious approaches when tackling their reading assignments. With brightly colored markers, they underline entire paragraphs, if not whole pages. They attempt the reading while attending to numerous distractions; TV, music, and electronic devices of various sorts. Their eyes glance across the words on the page, skipping over unfamiliar vocabulary and without stopping when they don’t understand something. The idea of interacting with the text—thinking about the contents, relating the content to what’s been talked about in class, trying more than once to understand a passage, keeping mental track of what they’ve just read in light of what they’re reading now—all of these close reading strategies necessary to understanding text material are not used at all or only modestly.
Complicating these deficient reading skills, are college courses in every discipline packed with content. Most teachers struggle to get through everything and don’t have time to teach students how to read the assigned material. However, there are some solutions to this dilemma and this collection of resources illustrates some of them. The articles highlighted in the Assignments and Activities
section propose various approaches that get students doing the reading and at the same time direct the student to read in ways that develop reading skills. They’re great illustrations of how content can be married with process.
The most common solution to getting students doing the reading is to quiz them—either through regularly scheduled or pop quizzes. Research verifies that quizzes do get students coming to class and keeping up with the reading. However, quizzes can also reinforce poor reading habits. If the quiz questions are simple, straightforward queries designed solely to see who’s done the reading, students can quickly become quiz-wise. They start to read the material in search of possible quiz answers, and that approach doesn’t do much to develop good reading skills. But there are ways to use quizzes that do get students reading in more productive ways and the Quiz Options that Promote Better Reading
section illustrates some of these approaches.
The resources contained in this collection come from a variety of different disciplines. Don’t let that prevent you from tracking down those that seem interesting. The approaches described can be used in many fields. It’s the idea that is useful, not where it was applied. Moreover, each activity, assignment, and approach is briefly described here. The articles provide much more in the way of details and should be consulted if you decide to try any of these approaches.
Relevant Research Findings
- The study below cites research starting in the 1970’s documenting that on any given day only 20 to 30% of the students have completed the assigned reading.
- Researchers asked a 423 cross-disciplinary, student cohort how likely they were to complete assigned readings if the teacher used one or more of the following tactics: announced reading quizzes, mandatory reading guides/questions, short required writing assignments, required journaling, randomly called on students to answer questions, unannounced reading quizzes, or optional reading guides. Students rated announced quizzes, mandatory reading questions, and short writing assignments as the approaches most likely to get them doing the reading.
Hatteberg, S. J. and Steffy, K., (2013). Increasing reading compliance of undergraduates: An evaluation of compliance methods. Teaching Sociology, 41
Assignments and Activities the Promote Reading and Develop Skills
Paraphrase text content –
Lloyd assigns various kinds of required written work (worksheets, short papers, and online discussions) in which students respond to materials in the primary and secondary texts used in his theology courses. When writing, students are not allowed to pull quotations from the reading, only their paraphrases of the ideas. And, for every sentence they write that uses information in the text, they must provide a page number citation.
Lloyd, D., (2016). No quotations, always citations. Teaching Theology and Religion, 19
Reading logs –
Students completed a reflective reading log assignment with 10 entries. Each entry responded to one of the essays assigned for the week. Manarin shared information on nine different reading strategies. The students had to select one of those strategies and use it when they read the essay. In the entry, they had to comment on how well that strategy worked with the essay’s content. Students had 15 minutes in class to write their entries and the assignment counted for 10% of their grade. Only modest teacher feedback was provided. One student wrote of the assignment, “Doing these logs over the course of the semester has really given me insight into how I read.” (p. 292)
Manarin, K., (2012). Reading value: Student choice in reading strategies.” Pedagogy, 12
Student-generated reading questions
– Students in an upper division biochemistry course generated questions from assigned readings, one question for each of 11 readings. The assignment stipulated that the questions could not be factual but must describe conceptual problems. “In generating their own questions, students reveal how they think about a topic, as well as the way in which they make connections between topics as they extend upon and construct new knowledge.” (p. 31)
Offerdahl, E. G., and Montplaisir, L, (2014). Student-generated reading questions: Diagnosing student thinking with diverse formative assessments.” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 42
Reading Groups –
Students were assigned to reading groups which meet regularly. Each student rotated through a set of roles: discussion leader, passage master, devil’s advocate, creative connector, and recorder. They came to group meetings having done the reading and with prepared materials reflective of their role. The group then discussed the readings for a designated amount of time. This article offers excellent advice on implementing reading groups in a course.
Parrott, H. M. and Cherry, E., (2011). Using structured reading groups to facilitate deep learning.” Teaching Sociology, 39
– These authors make a strong case against quizzes, proposing instead that students complete written reading responses for each of 29 reading assignments in the course. Students may choose any of the following responses for any of the readings: 1) interact with the text (underline, write comments, questions), then generate five questions and answer two of them; 2) summarize the readings and visualize key ideas with graphic organizers or charts; 3) prepare a reading response journal which lists questions or comments after each section of the reading; 4) study with one or two classmates with one person preparing a written report of what the group discussed; or 5) create a song or rap which is recorded and submitted.
Roberts, J. C., and Roberts, K. A., (2008). Deep reading, cost/benefit, and the construction of meaning: Enhancing reading comprehension and deep learning in sociology courses. Teaching Sociology, 36,
Reading Prompts –
Tomasek believes that prompts and questions can be “used to orient students with a critical reading stance and to guide their thinking as they read.” (p. 128) His overarching goal is to help student “synthesize and respond to the big ideas from the reading selection as opposed to mining facts or details.” (p. 128) He organizes the prompts around six categories; 1) identification of problem or issue, 2) making connections, 3) interpretation of evidence, 4) challenging assumptions, 5) making applications, and 6) taking a different point of view. He writes the prompts in first person so that they “promote active and personal learning.” (p. 128) For example, “How is what I’m reading different from what I already know? Why might this difference exist?”
Tomasek, T., (2009). Critical reading: Using reading prompts to promote active engagement with text.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education¸
Course Preparation Assignment
– The success of discussion-based courses depends on students coming to the discussion having thoughtfully done the reading. This assignment prepares students for discussion. Posted online (one for almost every class session) each course preparation assignment follows the same format: introduces the topic, states the objective, offers a bit of background information and then provides the question or prompt that students answer. Students bring these written assignments with them to class. Sometimes they are used in small group discussions that precede the whole class discussion. They are graded on a credit/no credit bases.
Yamane, D., (2006). Course preparation assignments: A strategy for creating discussion-based courses. Teaching Sociology
Quiz Options that Promote Better Reading
Two-question, online quiz, due before class
– “In the process of collecting assessment data in my introductory course, I made a startling and disappointing discovery. For the most part, students simply were not bothering to read. . .the introductory survey textbook that I assigned.” (p. 385) Howard’s solution was a two-question online quiz, due two hours before class. The first question was multiple-choice that forced students to consider evidence presented in the reading. He favored questions on text material that challenged conventional thinking. The second was a short-answer question that required students to summarize or synthesize information in text. Howard graded the quizzes before class and used some of the responses (both strong and weak ones) to launch class discussion of the topic.
Howard. J. R., (2004). Just in time teaching in sociology or how I convinced my students to actually read the assignment. Teaching Sociology, 32
Varying the quiz structure
–Tropman makes a strong case for reading quizzes. She changes the quiz structure on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s the usual objective questions, other times it’s short-answer questions, or it might be a question that asks for an opinion response to the reading. Some quizzes are open-book; a few are take home. This approach prevents students from searching for answers in the text rather than reading it.
Tropman, E., (2014). In defense of reading quizzes. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 26
Take the quiz with notes
– Students take detailed notes on the reading because they’re allowed to use those notes during the quiz. The pay-off is a good (or better) set of notes for use during exam preparation. Rezaei reports that open-note quizzing coupled with collaboration resulted in significantly higher final exam scores in his quantitative research methods course. If you want to improve the notes students take in class, this approach may accomplish that objective just as well.
Rezaei, A. R., (2015). Frequent collaborative quiz taking and conceptual learning. Active Learning in Higher Education, 16
– Students completed quizzes with 2-3 open-ended questions. Then they talked about their answers in a group, adjusting their answers as they saw fit. One quiz was randomly selected from the group and the grade on that quiz was received by everyone in the group.
Slusser, S. R., and Erickson, R. J., (2006). Group quizzes: An extension of the collaborative learning process. Teaching Sociology, 34
– Students did the quizzes individually first and then completed a group quiz. The student’s quiz grade was the average of the individual score and the group score.
Note: group quizzing approaches with questions on assigned readings get students doing the reading primarily because of peer pressure. The vast majority of students don’t want to look unprepared or foolish in front of their peers. They develop reading skills because they must recall and explain what they read.
Clinton, D. B., and Kohlmeyer III, J. M. (2005). The effects of group quizzes on performance and motivation to learn. Journal of Accounting Education, 23