October 17th, 2012

A Couple of Great Strategies to Improve Student Reading


The pedagogical periodical Teaching Theology and Religion has a unique section. In fact, many of the discipline-based periodicals on teaching and learning have interesting and relevant features, which is one of the reasons why I continue to bemoan the positioning of so much of our scholarship on teaching and learning in the disciplines. These journals regularly include research findings and great strategies that address aspects of teaching and learning that transcend disciplines.

The section in Teaching Theology and Religion is called “Teaching Tactics” and on one page it highlights a classroom activity that is useful in various religion and theology courses. The page includes a couple of sentences about the context in which the author has used it. The strategy is then described, its purpose identified and there’s a brief discussion of why it’s effective.

Here are two examples that are not only relevant in the courses of this field, but great ideas that could be easily modified to fit content in other disciplines.

Molly Basset uses this strategy in her “Religious Dimensions in Human Experience Course.” Before the first class meeting, students complete a short reading. At the beginning of class, they spend about five minutes answering questions about how they read the material; where they read it, when they read it, and how they figured out what was important in the reading. Then students form small groups, they introduce themselves and share their responses. Each group is tasked with generating a couple of “best practices” for reading. From these suggestions, Basset constructs for the class a list of reading best practices.

“This exercise invites students to talk to one another about reading. Reading will be crucial to their success in the course, and this exercise invites them to consider its importance and how they might prioritize reading.” (p. 259) This teaching tactic could be used with lots of different activities; say after students have done the first set of homework problems, after they’ve prepared and taken the first quiz, after early experiences in lab, after the midterm or even before the cumulative final. The teacher could distribute the best practices list to students and post it on the course website. As the course progresses and activities grow more challenging, the class could then review and revise the list as needed.

Kent Eilers uses his strategy in a Christian scripture course, but it would be appropriate in any course where students read and analyze texts. His goal is to develop the ability to read texts carefully. Additionally he is working on students’ abilities to interpret texts—using their own ideas, but also informed by the ideas of others. Here’s how it works.

Students complete a four-part interpretation worksheet. They first read an assigned text and record three notes about it on their worksheet. “The notes should demonstrate attentive reading.” (p. 258) The students and teacher discuss the reading and their ideas in class. For the next class, students read what a contemporary commentator writes about the text and they add three more notes to their worksheet. Their in-class discussion focuses on forming connections between their initial observations and those of the commentator. In preparation for the third class discussion, the students read a pre-modern interpretation of the text and add three more comments on their worksheet. They complete the worksheet with three final observations in which they integrate their thinking, class discussion and the commentaries on the text.

Eilers uses this exercise weekly. If time prevents that kind of frequency in your course, it could be used more intermittently or used at the beginning of the course to showcase the kind of careful reading skills required to be successful. It’s a great strategy for demonstrating how understanding of a reading changes and deepens when it’s read and thought about more than once. Students could add to their initial comments after having read the comments of other students (maybe after an online discussion of the reading) or after having completed a related reading. They also could revisit their notes about an early reading later in the course if that first reading is relevant to subsequent readings.

References: Bassett, M. (2012). Reading at its best. Teaching Theology and Religion, 15 (3), 259.

Eilers, K. (2012). Apprenticing with interpreters. Teaching Theology and Religion, 15 (3), 258.