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Disengaged Students? Encourage Effective Reading

Updated article originally published July 17, 2014.

Completion of course readings is one of the basic building blocks for achieving student learning outcomes. Unfortunately, instructors often find that students have skimmed or skipped the texts rather than given them a comprehensive review. This behaviour results in a limited ability for students to engage in class and with the course topics overall–ultimately impeding education and success.

A number of factors may be contributing to this lack of reading, and as some experts suggest, unawareness of how to read for comprehension may be one of them. Accordingly, educators may benefit from integrating reading comprehension prompts into course design as a way to increase student engagement.

Why Assigned Readings go Unread: An Instructor’s Perspective

All instructors have to deal with changing expectations. I remember being surprised by the page-long list of books I was given each week at Cambridge as “background reading”; apparently most students do not bother to read them (I certainly only read my tutors’ assigned readings when I was studying for exams).

As an instructor, I have experimented with “essential blocks”: 2-5 pages of required reading for times when students were just too squeezed with other assignments to be fully prepared for class. To my dismay, some students did not even complete that (although, to their credit, many students did far more).

Indeed, students’ unwillingness or even inability to do their assigned readings is well documented. Sheila Valencia suggests that the problem lies not in students’ work habits, other responsibilities (such as work or family), or even boredom with required material. As Valencia argues, the focus on speed over content leads to students skimming over bold words on the page and considering the task done.

This habit does not allow them to comprehend or remember what they have read. Students who learn that it is more important to finish a book than to understand it will continue these habits in their subsequent education, but not necessarily connect their reading habits to declining academic performance at the postsecondary level.

When I design courses, the readings complement what I say in lecture. They do not reiterate it. Students who only do the readings or listen to the lecture will take in 50% of class material (which is equally tested on exams). This is a low starting point, but an essential one to break the habit of low-comprehensive reading.

Helping Students Read More Effectively

A reading specialist may be a necessary support for struggling readers, depending on a student’s need. However, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Learning Center gives some active reading strategies that can assist students of all levels. The centre recommends using the skimming technique described above as a pre-reading exercise for getting a sense of important concepts. Students should use this technique to note important concepts for deeper reading later. Relatedly, students should set a purpose for reading and read end-of-chapter materials, such as discussion questions, before reading the main content.

Instructors can facilitate these behaviours by including signposts of the most important aspects of the reading(s). Signposts can take the form of directions (“Pay attention to the analysis of the Battle of Waterloo”), specific mandates (“Be ready to discuss what the formula on page 50 represents.”), or more open-ended prompts (“As you’re reading, think about a practical application of this principle.”).

The Learning Center also recommends that students be familiar with their digital reading environments. Tool proficiency allows students to take advantage of special features like bookmarking, annotation, and highlighting tools.

The Learning Center suggests that students follow these pre-reading techniques with deep reading and post-reading exercises.These comprehension tactics include reading small sections at a time, to allow time for knowledge absorption. To facilitate this behaviour, instructors can adopt modular teaching by assigning manageable reading sections in chunks. This approach differs slightly from “essential blocks” in that the student is still expected to do all the readings for the class; they are just given smaller amounts to read at a time.

Other high-comprehension techniques that instructors can facilitate include connecting reading material to real life and making note of how readings connect to course lectures and discussions. To assist in making these connections, consider giving micro-assessments that prompt students to discuss real-life examples of concepts or reflect on lecture concepts that touch on the reading material.

Assessment of this additional work should, of course, be done through a method of your choice, with improvement noted. With positive reinforcement, students may take these active reading techniques into and beyond the classroom.

For more information on instructional design to encourage comprehension, read:

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