Strategies and Tools to Promote ‘Reading to Learn’ in Higher Ed


In higher education, assigned readings challenge students in ways that we may not fully anticipate: culturally, linguistically and cognitively. Assigned readings challenge students if, on any given day, students complete the assigned reading at all!

The statistics on reading compliance are disheartening but not surprising, given students’ time constraints, divided attention and the inherent challenges of reading to learn.

Readings may require a cultural literacy to understand the references or analogies. They may require a highly developed vocabulary or a specialized vocabulary. They may also demand of students a prior knowledge, or a knowledge of specific principles, rules, and concepts. Instructors depend on students to complete the readings and understand them in order to participate in class or in online discussion groups and perform well on assigned papers and projects.

In their report on “Increasing Reading Compliance of Undergraduates: An evaluation of compliance methods” authors Sarah Hatteberg and Kody Steffy report that “studies have shown that no more than 30 percent of students complete a reading assignment on any given day.” In their study, they evaluate the effectiveness of strategies to get students to complete the assigned reading. Most effective were 1) announced reading quizzes, and 2) mandatory reading guides and questions. Least effective were pop quizzes and optional reading guides.

Getting students to read is a first step. Getting students to understand the reading and read deeply and critically is challenging.

In higher education, one can easily take the position that we simply assign readings to students and expect them to complete the readings and understand the readings sufficiently to participate in activities. A more enlightened approach might be to prepare students with motivators, advanced organizers, inquiry style questions, practice on critical concepts, self-checks and more. In other words, we can build activities that help student derive the most benefit from assigned readings.

Motivate Students

The most critical piece to getting students to read is motivation. Instructors need to address motivation head on by answering the following questions: After completing the reading, what will students know that they didn’t before? What will they be able to do that they could not do before? What relevance is the reading to the world beyond academia? If instructors can address these questions directly, students will prioritize the reading accordingly.

I recently heard an instructor say that students regard assigned activities (including readings) as a transaction. ‘I do this; you give me points.’ Students are given loads of stuff to read and to do. Selective reading – including skimming – is a survival skill.  Reading without a perceived direct reward gets lower priority.

So we can certainly quiz students ahead of or at the start of class. But that probably doesn’t encourage deep reading. We can be selective and give some of the readings the full ‘treatment’. By that, I mean, we can underscore the importance of the reading with a personal recording pleading the case. If a problem is central to the readings, we can look for a TED Talk or a short YouTube video that introduces the problem to students.

I’ll use a recent example that I experienced. In Minnesota, we generally enjoy a high standard of living and benefit from a good educational system – but that standard of living and access to good education is not equally open to all. Currently in Minnesota, families of color have median incomes half of those of their white neighbors. In a sociology class, students might be assigned an anthology of perspectives on what it is like to live in Minnesota for a person of color. Ahead of that reading, an instructor can use headlines, video clips, testimonials and other things to ratchet up interest in the issue of economic disparity in our state.

In my experience, inattention to motivation is prevalent in online education. Instructors put up course documents on grading policy and schedule of assignments – but neglect to get their students jazzed on the significance of the course to them. Michael Allen, in his Guide to e-Learning, laments that “Although outstanding teachers do their best to motivate learners on the first day of class and continually thereafter, many e-Learning designers don’t even consider the issue of learner motivation.” He is primarily writing about corporate eLearning designers, but I would venture that the same holds true in higher education. Examine the most popular rubrics for evaluating online education. Motivation is hidden in the rubrics and its importance is overshadowed by the rubrics’ attention to the issues of alignment, organization and communication. Michael Allen’s book goes on to reveal seven magic keys to enhancing learning motivation. His first magic key relates to helping learners see how their involvement in the course will produce outcomes that they care about.

Prepare and Engage Students

Prepare students for difficult readings with pre-training. Pre-training is one of the principles of multimedia learning featured in Richard Mayer’s research (co). Ruth Colvin Clark describes it as such: “The pre-training principle is relevant in situations when trying to process the essential material in the lesson would overwhelm the learner’s cognitive system. In these situations involving complex material, it is helpful if some of the processing can be done in advance”. Assigned readings can present essential material that may induce a cognitive overload. Pre-training may involve an advance organizer, graphical chart, an infographic, glossary or other aid to reduce the cognitive challenge of a reading.

One method of engaging students in assigned readings is to help focus students on the critical parts of the reading. Inquiry-based learning provides us with strategies that help focus students’ attention on the essential parts of the reading. Inquiry-based learning has many antecedents in educational practice, but the common theme is in helping students to think in advance of the reading by posing a burning question that needs to be answered; or asking students to consider what they know about this topic and what they not know; what do they anticipate that the reading will reveal to them (and then how does the actual reading differ). Inquiry-based learning can take on multiple forms. Instructors can generate questions for the students to answer. This is the most structured level of inquiry-based learning. Students can generate their own questions based on their interest. This is the most open and purest form of inquiry. There are several shades in between. Instructors can adapt the best approach and level of inquiry based on the students’ sophistication and need. The overall goal is the same. Deliberately select strategies to prepare and engage students in the readings.

Provide Direct Instruction on Concepts

We can choose to assume that students will complete the readings and understand concepts. That may, however, be a dangerous assumption. Sarah K. Clark in her post on “Making the Review of Assigned Reading Meaningful’ assumes differently. She asks her students to create a ‘top ten’ list of important concepts. This illuminates what students judge to be important and helps to uncover misconceptions about concepts. If we accept that student understanding of key concepts is essential, we can plan activities that directly address concept learning.

A learning object can be tremendously useful in promoting concept learning. A learning object, in this sense, is simply a learning activity that is authored with the help of any one of dozens of eLearning authoring tools and uploaded to the learning management system. The activity could help students categorize the examples and non-examples of a concept. For example, the concept of a ‘chemical reaction’. A chemical reaction occurs when the chemical composition of matter changes from one thing to another. An example is found when an acid is mixed with a base, resulting in the formation of something new: water and a type of salt. Many things, however, appear to change physically, but don’t change in chemical composition. These are non-examples.

A learning object can not only help students sort out examples from non-examples but identify attributes of a concept and engage in the elaboration of a concept. The elaboration model (in instructional design parlance) starts with simple examples that can be easily categorized and progresses to more challenging examples that are more difficult to categorize. We can help students to generalize (apply the attributes of a concept to unknown cases) and not to over-generalize. The key here is direct instruction. We are not assuming that students have understood the concepts presented in a chapter in either simple or complex form, but we are engaging them with the concept and helping them to think about it.

To further promote concept learning, we can ask students to create concept maps, Frayer models (which include concept definition, association, examples, and non-examples) and create analogies in their own words.


The LodeStar eLearning authoring tool was used to create learning activities that challenged workshop participants’ understanding of declarative knowledge and concept learning based on the reading of Patricia Smith and Tillman Ragan’s book titled Instructional Design.

Use the Reading

The literature consistently refers to the strategy of ‘using the reading’. Concepts learned in a chapter can be immediately put to use in an activity that involves analysis. Students in a political science course who read about federalism versus republicanism can apply their understanding to the analysis of a case study. They can be asked to judge whether or not the case is an example of the ideology of a Jefferson style republican or Hamilton style federalist. A timeline could show the change of meaning of the concept of republicanism over the decades.

Readings are important towards understanding the content, performing well on assessments and writing papers. In some courses, the assessments, papers and projects may be summative in that they are the culminating activity and not the building activity. As an alternative, we can design shorter activities that require students to use the reading. We can ask students to cite the readings in their discussion forum. We can ask students to create timelines or concept maps from the reading. We can ask students to produce charts related to what they already knew, what they now understand and what they don’t understand. We can ask students to produce an outline of the reading …. and the list goes on. Once we have students produce something, we can provide feedback. In that way, we have engaged students in a ‘building’ activity. We are helping students to build their skills.


The key to all of this is the attitude that we are going to do something deliberate and strategic. In higher education, we can no longer put the onus on students to complete the assigned readings, understand the readings and apply the concepts and principles appropriately. Students noncompliance with reading assignments is one reason; college dropout rate is another. A variety of strategies and tools helps us in this cause. Strategies and tools range from inquiry-based learning to motivating videos to learning objects that promote understanding of concepts. Online instructors can use strategies and tools to flesh out their courses and transform them from an assigned reading/high stakes assessment paradigm to one that directly addresses student learning.