A student completes an assignment on her tabletReading activities can be a great way to gauge student understanding of content knowledge, extend in-class discussions, and ensure student comprehension of key ideas. However, reading activities can often fall flat if the purpose of the readings is not clear to students. Check out our advice below on maximizing the full potential of reading activities:

Keeping Students Engaged in a Reading Task

  • Assign a reading response. When students know they are responsible for particular material through responding to a particular response question, they come to class – whether it’s in a face-to-face or virtual environment – feeling more prepared to discuss particular key parts of the material. Assigning a reading response for students to complete before an in-class meeting or a webinar will promote greater engagement. Students can even submit responses online prior to class; this can give instructors the opportunity to gauge in advance how students processed the readings.
  • Assign short, low-stakes reading quizzes. If you are interested primarily in making sure that students walk away with basic comprehension of an idea from a reading, a short quiz – worth very few points – can be a great way for students to check their own understanding. Reading quizzes can be incorporated into a learning management system or can be delivered in a face-to-face classroom environment. Making reading quizzes too high stakes can add extra stress and actually dissuade students from completing the reading, but they can be a powerful tool if it’s clear that the quizzes are intended as a way for students to make sure for themselves that they’re on the right track.
  • Offer students a preview of reading assignments. Particularly for assignments that are difficult, offer students a brief preview of what they should expect from the reading so students have a better sense of how to budget and manage their reading time.
  • Align reading selections with the course or unit learning outcomes. Students  may sometimes have a hard time understanding how readings are relevant to either the goals of a course or to a particular unit. By making it clear how particular readings align with course learning outcomes, students can understand more clearly the relevance of readings for developing core course competencies.
  • Create “reading circles.” This suggestion, courtesy of Jane Gee at Faculty Focus, gives autonomy to students by allowing small groups to decide which readings they want to do from a curated list and then to each take on particular roles in discussing and breaking down the reading task.
  • Use online annotation tools. Tools like Genius and the Annotation Studio are great for encouraging students to add notes collaboratively to a text. Instructors can create class pages in Genius and the Annotation Studio to keep class work private and to create a community where students can see each other’s thoughts on the readings. To explore other Documentation Annotation tools you could use with your classes, check out our Recommended Tool guide for Document Annotation Tools.

Beyond “Getting the Reading Done:” Making Reading Tasks Meaningful

  • Provide structured reading activities to help students break down major themes and ideas. Asking students to list “the top ten” important concepts from a reading (See Sarah Clark’s article on Faculty Focus for more on this strategy), to identify a question or two that students still have after completing the reading, or to ask students to complete a reading response journal throughout the quarter can be great action items to help students engage meaningfully with course readings.
  • Divide parts of the reading among small groups in the class. Less can be more. By dividing a large reading among multiple students, individual students will feel responsible for reporting back on the portion of the reading they’re assigned. This can create deeper and more meaningful engagement with the reading by individual students, while also creating a classroom community where students help and support each other in their learning.
  • Reflect on how much reading students can realistically complete within a certain time frame. As an instructor, it’s very easy to assign too much reading! Use your past experiences with teaching particular reading assignments and your past interactions with undergraduate students to gauge to the best of your abilities how much reading your students can actually complete. Chances are, you need to scale back rather than add on more assignments.
  • Do not assign readings you don’t think students will have the time to complete. It’s common for students to give up on reading assignments if the amount feels overwhelming. Try to gauge as realistically as possible how much reading students can reasonably complete and respond to within a given time; that will guarantee a greater likelihood that students will continue to engage meaningfully with the reading assignments.
  • Only assign readings you know you will have a chance to follow up on and discuss. Students may lose motivation for completing reading tasks if they know they won’t be responsible for the material. Only require readings for which you know you’ll offer some kind of follow-up or discussion, and be clear about what reading material is for student reference.

Assessing Student Understanding of Readings

  • Create low-stakes quizzes for students to take. In an online, hybrid, or face-to-face class, a reading quiz can be a great way for both you and the students to assess their understanding of the readings. Quizzes can be incorporated into most learning management systems or can be developed through a separate quiz-making tool, like Quizlet. For more quiz tool suggestions, check out our tool guide for Online Flashcards.
  • Read students’ reading responses. Reading responses can be a powerful way for students to assess their own understandings of the readings. If you’re not sure whether students are understanding key concepts, quickly read and assess students’ responses. You don’t have to give feedback on student reading responses, but reading them and giving students some small credit for completing the responses can create not only student buy-in, but can also help you to assess how much the students are engaged with the reading.

Advantages of Online Reading Assignments

All online courses will involve a lot of reading for students. In fact, most students are engaging in an online class by reading the course content! However, assigning additional reading within an online class can still be a valuable way to achieve particular learning outcomes.

  • Advantages of asynchronous reading assignments in an online class
    • Allows students to process complex ideas about the course content.
    • Offers students a perspective beyond the professor’s on key course ideas.
  • Advantages of synchronous reading in an online class
    • Students can work together on dividing reading assignments and talking about them immediately after completing the reading
    • Creates a shared sense of community among students reading and sharing thoughts together.

Advantages of Face-to-Face Reading Assignments

  • Advantages of asynchronous reading assignments in a face-to-face class:
    • Allows students to process complex ideas about the course content.
    • Offers students a perspective beyond the professor’s on key course ideas.
  • Advantages of synchronous reading assignments  in a face-to-face class:
    • Students can work together on dividing reading assignments and talking about them immediately after completing the reading
    • Creates a shared sense of community among students reading and sharing thoughts together.

References & Resources

Bunn, M. (2013). Motivation and connection: Teaching reading (and writing) in the composition classroom.  College Composition and Communication 64(3), 496-516

Clark, S.K. (2011). Making the Review of Assigned Reading Meaningful. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/making-the-review-of-assigned-reading-meaningful/

Gee, J. (2014). Reading Circles Get Students to Do the Reading. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/reading-circles-get-students-reading/

Patton, M.D. (2008). A Case Study of Reading in a Writing-Intensive Physics Course for Non-Majors. Journal of Teaching Writing 28(1), 21-40

Weimer, M. (2009). Reading Assignment Strategies that Encourage Deep Learning. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/reading-assignment-strategies-that-encourage-deep-learning/