Reading to Learn
By: Neil Haave, PhD
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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Recently I had a discussion with faculty about reading assignments. The perennial problem? Faculty assign but students don’t read. The faculty I work with aren’t the only ones facing this problem. David Gooblar, They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again. [The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vitae, Pedagogy Unbound, September 24, 2014], starts off by citing research showing that on a given day in class 70% of the students will not have done the assigned reading. He dismisses the use of quizzes as punitive and time-consuming. What to do instead?
Gooblar suggests starting by making sure that the assigned reading is really necessary. Students prioritize their work and won’t bother with the reading if they feel it is not essential. Make sure that your required reading aligns with course objectives and can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Show students that the reading is, indeed, necessary. At the end of class preview the upcoming reading assignment, explain how it fits into the material to be covered in the next class, and give the students some questions to consider as they do the reading.
Handouts created for the students can be useful, Gooblar writes. These can be specific to each reading assignment or more general to be used for all the readings. Questions posed in handouts help prepare students for in-class discussion. End by asking “What one question would you like me to answer in class about the reading?” Instead of a quiz, create a questionnaire to gauge problems students are having with the reading. “By asking questions that point to the use you’ll make of the reading, you’ll underline the fact that the reading is indeed integral to the course. You’ll also provide yourself with useful information to guide your lecture or class discussion.” These questionnaires can be used to monitor students’ completion of the reading.
Finally, Gooblar advises making use of the information from the reading assignments in class without repeating it in detail. Why should students spend their time reading if you are going to tell them what they need to know? You want the reading to serve as a foundation for in-class discussion or use lecture time to build on the ideas presented in the reading.
A special report from Faculty Focus on Teaching offers 11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned [Magna Publications, July 2010]. I’ve summarized the main point(s) of each one after the title, but the articles are all short, so it won’t take long to review the full report.
- Enhancing Students’ Readiness to Learn: Being explicit with your students about expectations [concerning the reading assignments] and assessing their preparedness improves motivation and learning outcomes
- What Textbook Reading Teaches Students: Make sure your students understand why you are assigning textbook readings and how it relates to other course content. Don’t repeat the exact information in class and thus make it easy for students to skip the reading.
- Getting Students to Read: Design your course so that students must do the reading to do well. Create assignments that require more than passive reading, structuring these so that students must engage with and respond to the reading.
- Helping Students Use Their Textbooks More Effectively: Suggestions in this article include giving explicit requirements, introducing the text in class, and offering students effective textbook study practices.
- Still More on Developing Reading Skills: Quizzing is not an effective motivator for students to complete reading assignments and may encourage surface reading. Assignments, such as reading responses, that structure reading for the students work better.
- Text Highlighting: Helping Students Understand What They Read: Have students bring highlighted/annotated/underlined texts to class and share their reasons for the markup. “In this way, the types of thinking that accompanies purposeful, active reading become more apparent.”
- When Students Don’t Do the Reading: Students won’t read if they know that the material will be closely reviewed during lecture. Let students know that the reading is necessary background that will be referenced and built on.
- Pre-Reading Strategies: Connecting Expert Understanding and Novice Learning: Examples of scaffolding or structuring the reading experience for students, especially underclassmen, by building a framework for topics, giving them reading strategies, making connections to the course content, identifying roadblocks to understanding, and uncovering the structure of the argument presented.
- The Use of Reading Lists: The article looks at a British study on how students can be motivated to read outside of required texts for a course. The answer lies in taking time to develop student reading skills and raising interesting, challenging questions whose answers are to be found in the readings.
- The Student-Accessible Reading List: Structured and discussion-specific lists (of non-required texts) with a limited number of readings are more accessible to students. Annotations direct students to readings that will be useful to them.
- How to Get Your Students to Read What’s Assigned: The final article provides a nice summary of ideas. Introduce the textbook and encourage use of supplemental materials the textbook provides, identify discipline-specific terminology, have students mark-up readings, structure the reading by providing questions to be answered ahead of class, use the textbook in class to emphasize its importance, teach students to ask questions about the reading, link the reading to exams, and identify and work with students who need help with reading.
Faculty I talked with pointed out that students coming into colleges and universities today may be less prepared to take on reading assignments than in the past. In high schools today many students are being taught to the test and may be associating reading with learning facts, which often means reading on the surface without understanding the big picture. If you teach a course that relies heavily on reading assignments, consider taking time at the beginning of the semester to provide some in-class training on the best practices and strategies that your students should adopt. Have the students scan a text, skimming the abstract or first paragraphs and conclusion, noting the section headings, illustrations and or graphics. Based on this preview, have them frame several questions that they have about the content, before they do a thorough reading. Discuss the value of taking notes and what those notes should cover. Ask them what they highlight when they read and why. Remind your students that they should be bringing questions to class about their reading assignments.
If you have a solution that you’ve used to encourage students to do the reading, please share it with us in the comments.
Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
Image source: Pixabay.com