Reading Assignment Strategies that Encourage Deep Learning

When given a reading assignment, some students feel they have met their obligation if they have forced their eyes to ‘touch’ (in appropriate sequence) each word on the pages assigned. How can we entice students to read the material we assign, and how do we help them develop strategies for deep comprehension and retention of the material? Are there subtle ways we can prod them to read and help them develop literary skills—without spending our own precious time explicitly teaching ‘reading?’ (p. 125-126)

The problem originates in high school or sometimes even before that, when students are encouraged to read for factual information that can then be regurgitated. They develop “surface learning” strategies that do not lend themselves to college-level reading, which requires engagement and analysis.

Generally, these skills are not explicitly taught at any level of education. Sophisticated learners (like faculty) discover them through a trial-and-error process, but most students in college courses today are not developing these reading comprehension skills. The article attributes the problem to a confluence of factors, including the anti-intellectualism that pervades our culture.

The authors are especially critical of quizzes over assigned readings. “They encourage surface learning based on episodic memory—short-term memorization for a day or two—rather than deep learning that is transformative of one’s perspective and involves long-term comprehension.” (p. 127)

If quizzes aren’t the answer, then how do instructors “make reading experiences meaningful so that students will want to learn via the written word and will develop an appreciation for the various strategies good readers utilize”? (p. 127)

The authors have developed an assignment strategy that certainly appears to move students in the right direction. Students complete reading responses for each reading assignment. Actually, there are 29 dates when reading responses are due; students are required to submit 25 of them so that if they have an emergency or a lot of work due in other classes, they can opt not to complete a reading response. Reading responses may take one of five forms and students are encouraged to try a variety of these options.

  • Connecting to the text—This involves underlining key ideas and making marks and comments in the margins. Students then go back through the reading and write five “big” questions on key concepts in the chapter. They answer two of those questions or write a commentary on why they think these are the core issues in the reading.
  • Summarizing the readings and visualizing the key ideas—Students make a visual or graphic organizer for content in the reading. (There are several examples in the article’s appendices.) They can also make a chart or several lists that organize and categorize ideas.
  • Reading response journal—Here each portion of the reading assignment is responded to with a question or comment.
  • Studying as a group—Two or three students can convene as a study group. They discuss the readings, focusing on key concepts. Ideas are recorded and then written up.
  • Create a song or a rap—Students create a song or rap about the assignment, which they then record and submit.

The instructors use a simple grading scheme for the assignment. Minimal efforts garner three points, solid summaries and connections are worth four points, and extraordinary responses merit five points. In the beginning, they provide students with feedback designed to help them improve. Subsequently, students get the score only.

Seventy-eight percent of the students reported that they read 75 percent or more of the assignments. Students also saw a definite connection between having done the readings and being able to participate at a higher level in class. Sixty-eight percent indicated that by doing the responses they did learn something about themselves as readers.

The authors note in their conclusion that if faculty want students to read deeply, they must work to develop assignments that encourage students to make sense of what they read. Because students use different methods to gain understanding, it makes sense to give them different options.

REFERENCE: 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, 125-140.

Excerpted from Still More on Developing Reading Skills, The Teaching Professor, Aug.-Sept. 2008.