Tip on Teaching Students to Read Course Material to Achieve Deeper Learning

Tip on Teaching Students to Read Course Material to Achieve Deeper Learning

“We have to do more than take our students out to sea. We have to teach them to fish in the deep”(Bean 1996, p. 133)

As teachers, quite often our conversations with colleagues revolve around students who don’t read assigned material, read superficially, or put off reading until the night before exams or tests. What can we do to motivate our students to actually read course materials and motivate them to read effectively to enhance their learning? Our role is to provide our students with the tools they need to develop effective reading skills and attitudes toward reading course material. This tip suggests ten strategies to assist you in encouraging your students to read and introduces you to ways to help students achieve deeper learning through reading:

Tip 1: Determine whether or not a textbook should be required for your course
Students often will not buy a text book if they know it is not going to be used extensively in the course. If you do not use the text often, or if only a small portion of course material is contained in the text, consider developing a course reading packet, or provide online links to journals etc. containing the necessary information.

Tip 2: Make sure reading material is not overly challenging for students to read   Choose readings carefully so that students are not overwhelmed by the amount and cognitive complexity of the material. Choosing reading material beyond the cognitive reach of the majority of students can discourage students from reading. Offering readings at various levels or using scaffolding to start students off with less complex material and introducing them to progressively more complex material will enable students to develop their reading skills as they build their knowledge base in the discipline and help motivate them to read assigned material. According to Lowman (2005) students are quick to realize that struggling to read “unreadable” assignments is not a valuable use of their study time and discourages them from reading assigned material.

Tip 3: Use the syllabus as a means to encourage reading
A strong course syllabus not only identifies reading materials, but provides background about the materials. This helps students to understand why the reading assignments contribute to learning and how they relate to other course content and course activities. Providing this information can motivate students to read the course materials.

Tip 4: Assign reading close to when it will be covered in class
When reading is assigned close to the date the material will be covered in class, students are more likely to read the assignments than if the reading list appears only in the syllabus and is not mentioned again.

Tip 5: Develop Class Activities to Encourage Reading
Each reading selected should connect in an obvious way to the course:  in class presentations, through course projects, and/or on examinations and tests. These types of connections indicate to students that doing the reading will benefit them in some way. The way reading assignments are connected to class activities can affect the number of students who will complete the assignments. For example, simply announcing reading assignments in the syllabus and rarely mentioning them again does not enable students to achieve as much in class as they would if classroom presentation, discussions, and activities reinforce course readings. The mention of specific readings during a class presentation may increase the likelihood that students will read that work.

Tip 6: Assess whether or not students are reading assigned material
Failing to check periodically whether or not students are reading assigned materials may indicate to students that reading is an optional activity and is, therefore, of little concern to the teacher. As a consequence, students might put off reading until just before tests or exams. This means that a great deal of the time students come to class unprepared to participate in class activities and discussion. Here are three suggestions for assessing whether or not students are reading assigned material:

  • Ask students to anonymously report if they have completed reading assignments for a given class
  • Grade reading assignments in some way so that students understand they will benefit by reading the material (see assignment suggestions below). Grades would indicate whether or not students are reading.
  • Use classroom response technology (clickers) to measure students’ understanding of assigned material before discussing the assigned reading in class.

Tip 7: Use activities that motivate students to read such as:

  • Reading guides:Provide help in areas where students may have difficulty by summarizing important concepts, helping with technical vocabulary, providing context (background, cultural values); and explaining illustrations, charts, graphs and tables found in the reading. To ensure students understand and pronounce words properly, it would be helpful to produce a glossary of terms that are pronounced in class by the instructor on more than one occasion.
  • Study questions:Provide students with questions linked to key points in the readings that require them to do more than a cursory scan to provide answers. Such questions when provided in class or on a course webpage help students to focus their reading.
  • Short writing assignments:At the beginning of class ask students to document links between reading assigned for a class and the topic that will be addressed during the current class (or, that were the focus of a previous class).
  • Summary and visualization:  Have students make a visual or graphic organizer (concept map etc.) to help them sort out reading content. Charts and lists also work well to help students organize and categorize ideas.
  • Reading as a group: Two or three students work as a study group to discuss the readings, focusing on key concepts, and then write up their ideas for submission.
  • The jig-saw approach: During this activity, students discuss an assigned reading with one group of peers who are assigned the same reading and teach the material to another group of peers who are assigned different material on a topic (Aronson, 2011). The acts of reading, discussing, and teaching reinforces student learning and places the responsibility of learning the material with students.
  • Provide different options: “If faculty want students to read deeply, they must work to develop assignments that encourage students to make sense of what they read. Because students use different methods to gain understanding, it makes sense to give them different options” (Roberts and Roberts in the Teaching Professor, p. 5).

It is suggested that instructors grade these assignments so that students know they have something to gain by doing them. Roberts and Roberts (2008) suggest that minimal efforts garner three points, solid summaries and connections garner four points, and extraordinary responses merit five points. They also suggest that in the beginning, teachers provide students with feedback designed to help them improve. Once they get used to doing the assignments, students get the score only.                                                                                                                                                                                           

Tip 8: Use class time
It might be worthwhile to allow time at the beginning of class (15 min.) for students to read material that will constitute the crux of the class presentation or activities to follow. To ensure students understand and pronounce words properly, it would be helpful to produce a glossary of terms that are pronounced in class by the instructor on more than one occasion. Cannon and Newble (2000) suggest allocating time during in-class lectures and discussions to tell students something about upcoming reading assignments in order to arouse their interest.

Tip 9: Make Prior Reading a Requirement
Burchfield and Sappington (2000) found, “failure to read assignments is a strong predictor of nonparticipation” (p. 58). When students read material before class they are more likely to be prepared and want to participate in class activities and discussion. Random questioning rather than relying on students to volunteer to participate in class discussion and activities may work to reinforce the need to read before class. Both students and teachers reap the benefits of increased student engagement, understanding, and participation. Setting the expectation that students must read the course material before class is one thing. It is also important to provide on-going reinforcement of that expectation.

Tip 10: Teach reading strategies explicitly                                                                        If reading assignments are part of a course; teachers need to ensure that students have the reading skills required to use that material for the intended purpose. Students often have a difficult time in selecting and marking key ideas and need assistance to read material at the desired level; therefore, instruction in this area should occur early in the semester. One way to show students how to mark text while reading is to copy pages from a course textbook that are marked in a way that assists learning and provide explanation of the marking so that students understand why that particular text is marked and how the text being marked in such a way can assist learning. This makes the importance of reading a topic of class discussion and introduces students to the methods experts use when reading complex materials.



Angelo, T.A., & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. (Second Edition) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Aronson, E. (2011). Jigsaw classroom: Overview of the technique. Retrieved January 27, 2011 from:http://www.jigsaw.org/overview.htm

Bean, J.C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Burchfield, C.M. & Sappinton, J. (2000). Compliance with required reading assignments. Teaching of Psychology, 27(1), 58-60.


Cannon, R. & Newble, D. (2000). A Handbook for teachers in universities and colleges: A guide to Improving teaching methods (4th ed.). London: Kogan Page.


Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the techniques of teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Roberts, J. C., and Roberts, K. A. (2008). Deep reading, cost/benefit, and the construction of meaning: Enhancing reading comprehension and deep learning in sociology courses. Teaching Sociology 36, 125-140.


The Teaching Professor(2008, August/September). Vol. 22(7). Magna Publications.