getting students to read what's assigned May 10

10 Strategies for Promoting Accountability and Investment in Reading Assignments

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As teachers, we see value in what we assign students, but students don’t always appreciate the relevance or understand the purpose of their assignments. Required readings are a great example of this disconnect. However, when students have some input into their learning, their response to assignments (yes, even reading assignments) changes. Rather than requiring fill-in-the-blank reading guides or giving weekly quizzes to “motivate” students to do assigned readings, professors can give students some alternatives. We can design those alternatives to give students greater choice and responsibility for their learning, thereby making the assignments more meaningful. Here is a collection of reading assignment alternatives we use and recommend.

  1. Non-structured Notes: Allow students to submit notes on assigned readings in various formats. These formats may include a detailed outline, graphic organizer, poster, summary paragraphs, or other visual representations of the material. Different format samples can be shared with the entire class or within small groups to stimulate discussion of the readings.

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studying outside May 8

Using Reading Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking

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“Students can critically read in a variety of ways:

  • When they raise vital questions and problems from the text,
  • When they gather and assess relevant information and then offer plausible interpretations of that information,
  • When they test their interpretations against previous knowledge or experience …,
  • When they examine their assumptions and the implications of those assumptions, and
  • When they use what they have read to communicate effectively with others or to develop potential solutions to complex problems.” (p. 127)

And don’t we all wish our students read this way! Unfortunately most of them don’t, and the challenge is finding those strategies and approaches that help them develop these sophisticated reading skills. Terry Tomasek, who crafted this description of critical reading, proposes one of those kinds of strategies.

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college-level reading skills February 12

Reading Reframed for the Community College Classroom

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When people hear I’m a professor of reading at a local community college, I’m often met with some variation of, “Really? You teach reading…in college?”

The assumption implied, of course, is that college students should already know how to read, that reading as a focus of study belongs in the elementary classroom. For most people reading this article, the fact that students struggle with collegiate-level text is not revelatory. Indeed, the office-doorway concerns swapped amongst faculty are confirmed by various reports, such as the one cited in the U.S. Department of Education’s recent review of developmental education, which noted that approximately 40% of first-year community college students enrolled in at least one developmental course in the 2011-2012 year (2017).


getting your students to read February 1

Reading to Learn

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For some time now, students in my first-year biology course have been protesting that I’m assigning too much pre-class reading. I use the flipped classroom structure in most of my courses and that means students prepare for class by reading assigned pages in the textbook. To hold students accountable for completing the reading, I administer a two-stage reading quiz before we discuss the content and apply the concepts to problems during class. Those who complain tell me that reading is not part of their learning style and I’m putting them at a disadvantage.

The research on learning styles is inconclusive and contradictory (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). The theory behind them proposes that students learn best when teaching matches their learning preference, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. The research, however, does not support this theory in very convincing ways.

What the research does suggest is that learning occurs best when the teaching method matches the content and the learning task. Thus, if problem-solving is the skill to be learned, then practicing problem-solving is the best way to learn it. If concepts are what’s being learned, then various explanations of the concepts and practice explaining them is the best way to learn them. Learning can be approached in many different ways, and we each have our preferences about how we like to learn. But our preferences do not, indeed should not, prevent us from learning in different ways. If we find it difficult to learn by listening to a lecture, that does not mean we must live with poor listening skills. It means we need more practice at listening for meaning when we find the content challenging. If we have difficulties understanding the written material that appears in texts, that does not prevent us from becoming more skillful readers of text. It means we need a better understanding of the skills involved in reading textbook material and repeated practice in applying those skills.

What troubles me about learning styles is that they promote a fixed mindset and that evolves into a perceived learning disability where none exists. Certainly, learning disabilities are real and experienced by some students, but many of my students conflate having a particular learning style with the inability to learn any other mode. They treat their difficulty with learning from texts as an incurable problem and ask to be excused from ever having to do it. I can’t think of any profession where people are excused from reading. Rather, poor reading comprehension comes with consequences.

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college students reading as a group September 15, 2017

A Method for Deep Reading

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Many students struggle with college-level reading and writing assignments. Part of it is simply not knowing how to get the essentials from a text. I have been experimenting with a simple method I call GSSW: Gather, Sort, Shrink, and Wrap.

The goal of using this method is that students learn to write an essay, based on the readings, that is exemplary of organized, clear, accurate, and critical thinking.


students reading June 1, 2017

Reading Assignments, Activities, and Approaches to Promote Learning

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A collection of resources on getting students to read what's assigned and strategies for developing college-level reading skills

Many students do not arrive in our courses with college-level reading skills. That usually ends up meaning a couple of things. First off, they don’t like to read and will challenge (usually quietly and covertly) teacher announcements and syllabus admonitions telling them they must do the reading. They’ll come to class, sit quietly, take a few notes, and see what happens if they aren’t prepared. If there are no negative consequences, they decide maybe they don’t have to do the reading or they can put it off until just before the exam. In the Relevant Research section below you’ll find a study that documents the number of students who come to class not having done the reading as well as what they say is the most effective tactic for encouraging them to read what’s assigned.

Getting students to read “boring” textbooks is especially challenging. To them, what’s in the reading is complicated, unfamiliar information that doesn’t seem all that relevant. What’s most important? What do they need to know? Why won’t the teacher just tell them what they need to know? After all, isn’t that the teacher’s job?

Without good reading skills, students often resort to dubious approaches when tackling their reading assignments. With brightly colored markers, they underline entire paragraphs, if not whole pages. They attempt the reading while attending to numerous distractions; TV, music, and electronic devices of various sorts. Their eyes glance across the words on the page, skipping over unfamiliar vocabulary and without stopping when they don’t understand something. The idea of interacting with the text—thinking about the contents, relating the content to what’s been talked about in class, trying more than once to understand a passage, keeping mental track of what they’ve just read in light of what they’re reading now—all of these close reading strategies necessary to understanding text material are not used at all or only modestly.

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small group discussion February 20, 2017

An Activity That Promotes Engagement with Required Readings, Even in Large Classes

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On the first day of class, I often say something like this to my students: “Nothing floats my boat more than great discussion. Nothing promotes great discussion like having completed the readings. And nothing promotes completing the readings like having points attached to it.”


students reading July 22, 2016

An Old-School Approach to Getting Students to Read

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During semester breaks, I prepare my courses for the upcoming semester, a regular ritual for most academics. My process begins with reflecting on my formal and informal teaching evaluations and considering ways to improve the course. I add new topics and delete others. I review assignments and change them as needed. And I spend a lot of my preparation time choosing timely, thought-provoking articles to assist students in learning the course content.


September 25, 2015

Getting Horses to Drink: Three Ways to Promote Student Ownership of Reading Assignments

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There’s no arguing with Ryan’s (2009) observation that “coming to class prepared and with some background knowledge transforms students from passive to active learners” (para. 3). But how to get our students to this state of “transformation readiness” is an age-old issue challenging most instructors throughout their careers. I’m sure the struggle also extends to my own students, who are aspiring or practicing language-teaching professionals juggling multiple personal, academic, and professional demands. Research shows that reasons for not completing reading assignments also include factors such as reading comprehension, low student self-confidence, and lack of interest in the topic (e.g., Lei, Bartlett, Gorney, & Herschbach, 2010).


reading textbook June 26, 2015

Getting Students to Do the Reading

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Getting students to do their assigned reading is a struggle. Most teachers don’t need anyone to tell them what the research pretty consistently reports. On any given day, only 20 to 30 percent of the students arrive at class having done the reading. Faculty are using a variety of approaches to up that percentage: quizzes (announced, unannounced, online), assignments that require some sort of written response to the reading, reading journals, a variety of optional reading support materials, and calling on students to answer questions about the reading. Which of these approaches work best?