Using Reading Groups to Get Students Reading

Given how difficult it is to get students to do their assigned reading, we continue to share strategies that encourage students to read, that develop their reading skills, and in this case, that also develop their abilities to work with others in groups.

This strategy was developed by two sociologists and they report on their experiences using it in 12 different sections of four courses at three institutions. Students in these courses are assigned individual readings, as opposed to a textbook, often on “highly politicized subject matter” (p. 364) like race and gender. The reading groups, each with five or six members, are formed by the teacher who works to create diverse groups so students are more likely to hear various viewpoints. Students complete an information survey that the teacher uses to form the groups.

Group reading discussions take place in class and are identified on the course calendar, with the readings assigned for each discussion listed there as well. Students arrive in class having done the readings and with a completed reading preparation sheet. Generally, they are allotted 20-30 minutes for their discussions, although in some courses discussion times are longer.

One of the interesting features of this assignment design is that students are assigned different roles—discussion leader, passage master, creative connector, devil’s advocate, and reporter. Students assume one of these roles in each discussion, but not the same role. The discussion leader comes to the discussion with prepared questions (and brief answers) that he or she uses to facilitate the discussion. The passage master brings several important passages — ones that provide key information. They may be controversial or just a passage the passage master finds interesting. He or she is prepared to summarize these passages for the group. The creative connector makes connections between the readings and other “social, cultural, political or economic ideas.” (p. 357) They may be connections to other readings or they may be advertisements, clips from YouTube, cartoons, or the discussion of movie content. The devil’s advocate prepares a list of questions raised by critics of the authors or by those whose viewpoints differ. The reporter summarizes the group’s discussion, including topics where there was agreement and disagreement, points of confusion, and ideas the group found most interesting. These roles are described on a handout given to students; that handout is included in an appendix at the end of the article.

Participation in these group reading discussions counts for between 10 and 30 percent of the course grade. Students are graded individually, not as a group, and their grade is based on their reading preparation sheets as well as a peer assessment of their participation in the group. Reading preparation sheets may be turned in on discussion days, they may be posted electronically, or they may be retained and submitted at the end of the course in a reading portfolio. The authors have used all these strategies and report the assets and liabilities of each. They are considering having students review all their reading preparation sheets before turning them in and then writing a paper in which they reflect on their reading and reading discussion experiences.

Student responses to this strategy have been very positive. Data reported in the article shows that on a 5-point scale with 5 being “Always,” the “How often did you complete the readings for this course?” question received a 4.25 overall average. The average response to the “Were the actual reading groups/class meetings helpful for understanding the readings?” question, again with 5 being “Always,” was 4.35, and a question about whether the prep sheets and discussion helped students see connections between the readings and everyday life garnered an overall average of 4.43.

This is a useful article, with various handout materials appended and all the logistical details carefully described. The authors correctly conclude, “The group format described here can provide the basis for collaborative learning within a range of courses within and beyond sociology.” (p. 365)

Reference: Parrott, H. M., and Cherry, E. (2011). Using structured reading groups to facilitate deep learning. Teaching Sociology, 39 (4), 354-370.

Reprinted from Reading Groups Get Students Reading, The Teaching Professor, 26.1 (2012): 3, 5.