December 16th, 2011

Making the Review of Assigned Reading Meaningful


The typical college student dreads hearing, “Let’s review the chapters you read for homework.” What generally ensues is a question and answer drill in which students are peppered with questions designed to make clear who has and hasn’t done the reading. In reality, these exchanges do little to encourage deep thought or understanding of the assigned reading. They produce awkward silences during which students squirm in their seats, hoping to become invisible. Other times students decline to answer for fear of giving the wrong answer. Almost all the time a negative tone permeates the classroom during this review. I decided to restructure the way that I approached reviews of reading assignments, and found that by doing things differently, I could change both the tone and outcomes of the review activity. I’d like to share some of the ideas and techniques that I have found useful:

The Top Ten – Ask students to create their own “Top Ten List” of important concepts presented in the chapter(s). I encourage student collaboration in the creation of these lists. The activity provides a nice review of the material, and you’ll be amazed at what students consider to be most important. I use these lists as a starting point for discussions. They also let me know what areas of content need further explanation. For students who didn’t do the reading, the lists expose them to ideas in the text and that prepares them at least a bit for the subject of the day.

Secondary Sources – Gone are the days when the textbook is the only source of information available to students. With blogs, research articles, journals, informational pages, and news websites at the touch of a fingertip, students can easily learn more about the subject. After they’ve done the assigned readings, have students locate another viewpoint on the subject and bring it to class. In class, set a time limit (say 15 minutes) and have partners/groups discuss the reading material and their secondary sources. As you circulate around the room, you may hear some good examples that you can use later in the period. Interestingly, students often (without being asked) continue to bring in outside resources on the topics we study, which makes for rich and healthy discussions.

Journaling – For the ideas presented in the readings to become relevant, students need to articulate thoughts about what they are reading and they need to hear how others responded as well. I encourage my students to write journal notes, which I describe as what the brain is thinking while reading. Example: “Wow! I never considered how George Washington must have felt during this turbulent time in the nation’s history. I always thought of him as liking his role as president.” Students can share their journaling with a partner or small group. This exercise helps students get past initial impressions, and it connects what they already know to the new information.

Divide and Conquer – Divide up the next reading chapter among small groups of students. Student A reads the first section in the chapter, Student B reads the next section, and so forth. The next day, students meet in small groups and report on the section they read. Or you can have groups of students that read the same section meet with students who read different sections. Students become dependent on one another to create the full picture of what was in the reading material. My students seem to enjoy these group discussions, which are a way to become familiar with the material before being graded on it.

Using these and other strategies has really made a difference in my classes. More students are engaged in and contributing to class discussions, and they are moving beyond a simple repetition of facts and details. Students are digging deeper and connecting their world with other viewpoints, and that gives them a richer understanding of the content.

These new approaches are having an effect on me, too. I am more calm and confident in my role as a teacher and a learner. I find it easier to be more patient and thoughtful with my students. Most important, I have noticed that the classroom feels like a safe and positive place. Students show greater respect for one another and more appreciation of the material. In my opinion, all these responses make these changes worthwhile!

Dr. Sarah K. Clark is an assistant professor of elementary education at Utah State University.

Reprinted from “Making the Review of Assigned Reading Meaningful.” The Teaching Professor, 24.9 (2010): 2-3.

  • Thank you for these ideas. I've been incorporating new student engagement ideas and will add these as well. I love the "top 10 list" idea.

  • Scott Hamm

    Secondary sources- great idea. Great way to discover what they see as valid sources of information. Thanks! -Scott Hamm, Abilene Christian University

  • Nando

    Pretty naive. Students can ignore the 10 "important concept list" or fake. I found college students typically do not like working in groups as it takes more of their time and creates more complexity in their 'studentship' role.
    The major problem as to why students DONT READ is rooted in the consequences of technocracy. This cultural force is not likely to be overcome with a clever methodology. The fact is that the gap between, reading as a fundamental activity for intellectual development and the lack of importance on 'reading' as an activity to gather information, is wide and complex…well beyond a teacher induced manipulative pedagogical technique

  • Bets Douzar

    Some very thought out replies. I really like Scott's view, with getting aquainted with what the students feel is scholarly resources. These ideas are great…..I will definitely enter them in my class activities, thanks for the tips!
    Bets Douzar
    Univeristy of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston, Texas

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  • jennip98

    I am primarily involved in online learning and your post has prompted me to think about how I might re-word the questions I put up for forum discussions about the recommended readings. I usually ask students to respond to a particular question. E.g., From your understanding of the reading, provide your viewpoint in your own words to the following question: What is authentic learning? or Why use technology as cognitive tools rather then conveyors of information. However, I think your idea of asking them to identify the key concepts discussed in the reading & finding a secondary resource would be a much more powerful way to have a more meaningful discussion. I will trial it in my next course. 🙂
    Thank you for sharing .

  • I think that these are very good tips. I have been quite successful with convincing my students that "group work" is a good thing. In the past, I relied too heavily on the idea that groups could start off being student-led, but the process was much better if I led the groups to get them started, then turned them loose to review. They were also more likely to contribute ideas back to the larger class. My students acknowledged appreciation of this kind of review.

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  • Charu chaudhry

    Great ideas!! I will definitely try to engage my students through these activities. Because I believe that real learning happens when they learn from each other.

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