How to make students read?
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! After a bit of a break, due to my move to Maastricht (yes, after a year and a half I finally live and work in the same place!), this week I want to dedicate this space to a topic that, even though (ever)present in the back of minds, is not so often explicitly discussed- students’ relation to reading. In fact, this topic is often framed as a complaint (variations of “students never do the required reading”), and if we are honest we are also all too often guilty of the same “sin”, especially when we’re drowning in information. I’ve put together some thoughts on the various purposes of academic reading and how to best embed it in the learning journey. Especially in the light of the past years, it’s important to look at reading beyond “the hard copy”, so I’m also addressing reading in digital environments. As always, I add some useful resources at the end, if you want to read further (no pun intended). Looking forward to your thoughts, ideas and strategies and have a nice week!
Why do we ask students to read?
At first this may sound like a pretty silly question. Reading for most (if not all) of us is the very foundation of learning. But I am not challenging that. So take a deep breath and read the question again, thinking specifically about the courses you teach/ taught/ will be teaching. If you can, take a walk down memory lane and also think about your time as a student and what role reading played then. Let’s try to unpack the question: thinking more granularly than “because they need to know”, what are the reasons (yes, plural) why you are asking students to read? Is it because they need to better understand the topic? Because they need to do something with that information (write, discuss, etc)? Understanding this will help us decide what type of reading students will need to do and will enable us to embed reading in a meaningful way in the learning journey.
Reading can serve a variety of purposes (read more in the following section) and this is why it is part of the DNA of a course. The problem is we tend to take it for granted and while we do put effort into the content aspect (selecting the articles, chapters, etc), we often do not put enough thought into:
the specific purpose for each piece of reading;
how we include it in the syllabus and embed it in learning activities;
how we communicate the value of reading (generally) and the specific relevance of each piece to students;
how we can help train their reading skills and support them (through moments of practice, feedback, etc).
How to make students read?
This is certainly one of the questions that, as faculty developers, we get most often. And while I don’t have a one-fits-all recipe, I do have some ideas that can help you both at the course design stage and also when teaching the course.
Embed the reading into learning activities
This is my “go to” tip for this question. Instead of adding a list of literature for each session in the syllabus (and knowing there is a great risk that many students will not bother), why not stop for a moment and try to give them a good reason to read each piece? Yes, each piece. One exception are of course some “basic” textbooks or reference items that are relevant for the entire course (and they should be clearly communicated as such), and even here, embedding parts of them in some activities can give an extra push to students and make them more approachable. Some examples of productive and interactive reading would be:
reading in order to articulate one’s ideas (in writing or orally);
reading in order to develop and support an argument in a discussion;
reading in order to teach others, which implies the ability to synthesise and communicate the essence;
reading in order to participate in a simulation or debate (researching one’s position, gathering evidence);
reading in order to produce something (a video, a podcast, an artefact).
Explicitly communicate to students the role of reading in the particular context
Once we make a decision on how we include reading in different learning activities, it is equally important to take our time and explain to students why it is important to do the reading, how it relates to the learning objectives (of the course and of that particular activity) and how it can help them succeed in the course. This is often a step we tend to jump, as we prefer to dedicate the time to “real work”. But making sure students are on the same page and understand why we set up their learning journey in a certain way is crucial and can result in deeper engagement and more ownership of the learning process.
Scaffold the reading process
We often take for granted the reading skills of our students. We assume they have well-developed reading strategies and they don’t need our support. Let’s think again. Just because they can read doesn’t mean they can do it effectively and in a way that enables them to learn in our course. So, beside making sure the purpose for reading is clear and clearly communicated, we also need to be ready to support them through the process (often proactively, as many will be too embarrassed to come and ask). By intentionally creating space for practice and feedback, we can ensure students build their confidence and develop their skills. Yes, it may take time from our all-important content, but it’s time well spent! Also, openly talking to them about different reading strategies (and generally learning strategies) can contribute to their success in the course and in their studies in general.
Offer context and structure
Reading texts in a vacuum, because “they have to”, can really alienate students. So a good idea here is to try to provide as much context as possible. As mentioned above- making reading part of an activity, not necessarily a goal in itself, can be a way to do that. Helping students make connections between texts, and between the texts they read and current topics or own experiences is another way. Having them read on various angles of a topic and/or different types of texts (academic and non-academic voice) enables them to build context around what they are reading and also experience a variety of styles. Structure is also very important. Openly discussing the structure of a text and having them practice “de-constructing” a text to emphasise the structure is a good way to train reading skills and help them find and follow an argument in a more effective way.
Make it social
Reading is often seen as an individual endeavour. But it does not (always) have to be like that. Students can often become demotivated when faced with a long list of literature and one thing that can bring back the motivation is the ability to share the reading experience with their peers. This can be done in various ways, either, more “traditionally”, through discussion groups, or in a technology enhanced way via social annotation. There are several platforms that provide these tools and they are often embedded in the LMS so, like with the points above, it is a matter of intentionally designing the activities and adding this option that allows students to make sense of what they read though different perspectives.
Like with every skill and piece of knowledge, the reflective element plays a crucial role as it gives us the space to absorb what we learned and make sense of in through our own lens. Having students reflect on the reading process, identify their challenges and brainstorm ideas to overcome them can be a good exercise to embed at different points in the course.
We are all aware that, increasingly in the past years, students have been doing most (if not all) of the reading in a digital environment. Books (the paper version) will not disappear, and guiding our students to the library is definitely worth it, as they should learn to enjoy the experience of reading on paper. In the meantime however, we need to be aware of the advantages and pitfalls of reading digitally (you can find more tips in the resources below) in order to be able to provide students with support, as mentioned above, and make sure the reading materials we suggest are accessible.
And because we have a large variety of media at our disposal, why not make the most of multimodality and challenge students to bring reading to the next level? They can do that for instance by combining the reading experience with a visualisation exercise in which they draw the core message of the text or they create a video/ podcast based on the text.
Regardless of the environment, I think we should try to help our students see reading as a useful, meaningful, creative and fun endeavour. Because we are talking about more than training a skill, we are talking about creating a habit, and this takes time, effort and patience. From all of us.
Active Reading: Five ways to engage students in their reading- a useful compilation of active reading strategies, including links to various apps;
How to Read for a Course- tips and strategies for academic reading;
Reading Strategies- a comprehensive list of reading strategies by Dr. Kathleen King;
Active Online Reading- a list of pedagogical resources and case studies on active reading online;
Putting the joy back into reading- an article by Jamie Wood on how tools for online reading can help students to better engage with texts;
Reading Comprehension Strategies- list of 25 reading strategies that can work for any content area;
Reading Strategies That Work- several useful reading strategies that you can share with your students
Academic Reading Strategies- useful academic reading tips for before, during and after reading.