Getting Your Students to Engage with Course Readings

Students read in college setting

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 my upcoming online seminar, Maximizing Student Engagement with Course Readings, on Tuesday, August 18th at 1:00 PM Central, I will introduce you to four activities guaranteed to motivate your students to do the required readings and think critically about them.  The following article gives you an idea of what we will cover.

Jigsaw readings

With jigsaw activities, 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 identify two to four readings that you’d like the students to cover, but each student will read only oneof 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. Once 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.  Another important benefit, from an instructor’s perspective, is that students are highly motivated to do the readings as they don’t want to let their group members down. 

Reading discussion roles

This activity is explained in detail in an article that will be shared during the online seminar, where I will guide you through my own adaptation of the activity.  I have found it helpful for not only motivating students to do the readings but also to engage critically with them.  

How it works

Students are assigned a role the week before the discussion takes place. Each role has a particular “task” they must complete during the discussion and this task is made clear to them when their role is assigned.  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 identifies one or two readings for students to discuss and the discussion in class takes 30-40 minutes of class time.

The roles are as follows:

  • Discussion leader
  • Passage master
  • Devil’s advocate
  • Illustrator
  • Connector
  • Recorder

The tasks required of each role will be explained in detail during the online seminar.

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 managing their group members. The activity also builds community as students get to know each other through the discussions.  Students are again highly motivated to do the readings with this approach, as they don’t want to let their group members down and/or appear unprepared. 

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. The way this activity works is the instructor assigns one or two readings and tells students they will be required to discuss the reading(s) during the next class period. When students arrive to the next session, the instructor distributes the “debate” handout, which is divided into four quadrants, and poses a question that is related to the reading(s). 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 the first quadrant on the handout. After the allotted time is up (approx. 3-5 minutes per quadrant, but this will vary with each class and the question you ask) and they have responded in quadrant 1, each student passes their paper to another student, who follows the instructions in quadrant 2. The same process happens with quadrants 3 and 4. The instructions in each quadrant refer to the main question and ask students to respond to the main question through four different perspectives.

When all quadrants 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.

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.

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. Students are motivated to do the readings as they will want to contribute intelligent comments to their peers’ debate handouts, and this is especially so if you ask them to include their name with each response. 

Collaborative quiz

For this activity, students do a quiz individually and then in teams, based on a reading assigned the week before.  If they do best on the individual quiz, they can keep that score; if they do better on the group quiz, they can take the average between their individual and group marks. 

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 motivation to do the reading(s) comes from knowing that you will be getting them to use their knowledge from the reading.  If you use this activity more than once, extra motivation comes from students’ wanting a good grade and wanting to appear intelligent in front of their peers. 


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.

Join Fiona Hunt’s live, online seminar, Maximizing Student Engagement with Course Readings, on August 18th at 1:00 PM Central.

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.