Saturday, January 23, 2016

What? Your Students Are Reading Their Textbooks?!

An interesting discussion has been taking place on one of the listservs I belong to, focusing on what we can do to encourage students both to read their textbooks and to make sense of what they read.  Below are a few of the suggestions.
  • Try “JITTs” (Just-in-Time Teaching), an approach that involves asking deep questions or questions that you think will be hard for students to answer and ending with something like “What did you find especially puzzling or especially interesting in the reading?”  Student answers are graded (to encourage participation) and turned in before class, so that the teacher knows what to focus on in class  (Bill Goffe, Penn State University)
  • Don’t like JITTS?  Try SPUNKI, which stands for questions asking what was Surprising, Puzzling, Useful, New, Knew it already,  and Interesting.  Rebecca Clemente (North Central College) has students use a rubric that involves them finishing sentences like ““When the article stated … this was surprising because …“  Then they talk over their responses in groups at the beginning of class to set the focus for the discussion to follow.
  • Another way to stimulate motivation for reading recommended by Jen Lara is going through an upcoming assignment, writing important quotes down on individual note cards, and having all students at the beginning of class pick a quote that is of interest to them and then discuss it with a partner. 
  • A variation of this was suggested by Jill Dahlman (University of Nevada, Reno ): “I am going to ask people to note on a piece of paper (no name!) where they had difficulty and a list of words that they didn't fully understand and turn these in. I'm going to start our discussion with going through those areas of difficulty, and then see if any of these areas spark a discussion. Reading academic language is difficult, and the more students can see that it's ‘not just them,’ then I think more people will become engaged.”
  • A number of listserv members recommended online discussions as a good way to motivate students to read and clarify reading assignments.  Charles MacArthur (University of Delaware) pointed out that “one good angle for questions is about the value or meaning of the reading for students' own lives. How would you use this? How is it related to your experience?”
  • Lynda Harding (CSU Fresno) assigns students to online discussion groups and gives them some credit for posting a question and some for answering a colleague’s question or for helping to select one or two questions for the group to submit to her.
  • Jon Mueller (North Central College) has students write just a couple sentences about two or three questions he poses on the reading assignment.  Credit is given not for accuracy but just if the student has made a good-faith effort, so it only takes 5 -10 minutes to assign credit to a stack of papers.  He added, “I was initially surprised that virtually all of my students, including the weaker and less motivated ones, complete almost all of the assignments. They are much better prepared for class.”
  • Lee Torda (Bridgewater State University) has a different approach, a “top 5 document”:  “One page. Single spaced. Top Five Things You Think Are Important for Other People to Get from this Reading. It's a living document in class. Students read each others'. They battle over their choices in a friendly way. They write back and forth about it so I don't really do a ton of evaluation of it. Mostly if they do it and it's not absolutely wrong and phony, they get the credit. And it's 15% of their final grade.”
  • And finally Irv Peckham (Drexel) reminded everyone of the importance of giving reading assignments that students will enjoy reading, that they can feel connected to, since, as he put it, “Reading and writing should be a pleasure for students.”
Have you used any of these?  Did they work?  Do you have tips to add to the list? 


  1. Great topic – thanks Linda!
    I started adding “reading quizzes” in Moodle for most of my courses last semester. Before I assign a chapter for the students to read, I post a 10-15 question quiz in Moodle that the students have to complete by a certain date. I give them multiple attempts (usually 3 or 4) and about 20-40 min to complete the quiz. Only the highest score counts towards their grade. This way the students have multiple opportunities and don’t have to feel stressed about getting it right the first time so the focus is on learning - not on the grade. Most students earn 80-100% on the quizzes, which count for about 10-15% of the final grade (different in different classes). The amazing thing is that it actually works! The students read the book – or at least look up the answers to the questions somewhere - so they come better prepared to class and we can spend class time digging deeper into the material. Last semester when I started to feel overwhelmed by constantly having to write quiz questions, I asked the students if they wanted to continue to have reading quizzes and was surprised by the reply: everybody liked the quizzes and said that it helped them learn. This semester is a lot easier – I’m re-using most of the questions and it takes next to no time to set up the quizzes by pulling the questions from my test bank. Another bonus for the students: I use some of the questions on in-class exams, sometimes slightly modified, sometimes identical to the original question.

    I also like the model of giving students credit for engaging in online discussion with the rest of the class about a question that I post on a Moodle blog. It gives you much insight into what interests students and how their approach to a topic is completely different from yours! Their posts often form a terrific foundation for continued class activities and discussion.
    - Anna Hull

  2. Anna, I really like your idea of multiple low-stakes credit-bearing quizzes on the reading prior to class. I would think it would be both motivating and even--dare I say--fun. Have you ever tried having the students write the questions? I'm not sure how well that would work in beginning courses but it might indeed be something worth trying in upper-level classes where students bring more of a knowledge of the subject. The problem would be how to transfer the questions to Moodle since students couldn't do that part. Maybe it could be a project for the next semester--the students this term help you develop the quizzes that you will use for the following semester's classes.

    1. Linda, I have not used student-written questions for my reading quizzes yet as I try to post the quizzes before the students read the material. However, I regularly have students write quiz/test questions for review session before exams – I then use the questions in the exams. Students really seem to appreciate this approach to testing! I may add student-authored questions to future reading quizzes – just like you suggested. - Anna