Reading and Low-Stakes Writing Across the Curriculum

About the author: Ashley Vaughn (she/her) is an Instructor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, teaching courses in the Health Promotion and Health Behavior Department. After graduating from the University of Idaho in 2013, Ashley taught high school science in Philadelphia, PA, Passaic, NJ, and Detroit, MI. In 2019, Ashley decided to go to graduate school to combine her passions of teaching and public health. In 2021, she completed her Masters of Public Health in Health Promotion and Health Behavior at Oregon State University. Outside of her role as an Instructor, Ashley loves to explore her new home of Oregon by camping and fly fishing with her partner and their Australian Shepherd Rouie.

Picture this. You have assigned a reading and developed a lecture to provide additional context. You start your lecture with a question about the reading, to check for understanding on what students have read. As you look up to search for who has an answer, you see eyes lowered to the ground, avoiding eye contact, with students shifting in their seat, hoping you won’t choose to call on them. No one has done the reading.

This scenario can be all too familiar for instructors at all levels of education. We choose our course readings with intent, carefully crafting the course schedule to align with as much learning as possible. However, just because the readings are on the syllabus doesn’t mean that students will read them. How do we show students the importance and value of reading in preparation for class?

Answering this question was one of the goals of this past Tuesday’s Teaching + Tech Talk, Reading & Low Stakes Writing Across the Curriculum with Kristy Kelly, Ph.D. and Katherine McAlvage, Ph.D. Kristy and Katherine took us through an interactive workshop where we chatted about low stakes, interactive, and time-manageable ways to weave reading and writing together in our classes.

What are the reading habits of undergraduate students?

Kristy and Katherine shared that 92% of students report reading less than 3 hours/week for each course (Berry et al., 2010). In addition, when students do read, 53% of them say they never or rarely read before class, but rather will read for exam preparation, to look up a specific question, or help complete their homework (Berry et al., 2010). In my experience, students understand the importance of doing the reading and usually are disappointed when they don’t complete it in time. Reading—as one student described it to me—is like a perpetual task on the to do list, one that keeps getting tossed to the next day. Reading can be seen as a nice thing to do—always important, but rarely the first priority.

How do we help students to prioritize reading before they come to class?

Kristy and Katherine gave us a few tips on how to get students to read. First, talk explicitly about the importance of reading before class. We can do this by providing tips for how to read successfully and share expectations for how students should engage with each text. How can students do each reading well, particularly in our disciplines? Is it necessary for students to read every sentence or can they skim the document? Answering these questions at the beginning of the course can help students understand what to expect and how to prioritize readings in preparation for class.

Second, normalize in-class activities that encourage engagement with the readings. Rather than spending time summarizing the readings for students, do an activity based on the readings in class. Utilizing a flipped classroom model encourages students to show up ready to engage in activities. One way that I do this in my own classroom is by using Class Preparation Assignments (CPAs). In my course this Fall, students shared on a midterm reflection that without the CPAs they wouldn’t read the learning materials as carefully. Students also rated CPAs in the top two class activities that contributed the most to their learning.

What are specific strategies that we can use to encourage reading?

 1) Utilize Group Reading Apps such as Perusall

Kristy and Katherine shared a variety of strategies to increase student reading. One way is to allow students to engage in readings as a group. One app that helps facilitate group reading is Perusall. Perusall is a social annotation tool that integrates with Canvas and allows students and instructors to collaboratively annotate PDFs, websites, and videos. Perusall has been shown to increase the amount of time that students spend on reading and increase the number of students that complete the reading before class (Miller et al., 2018).

There are many benefits for both the instructor and for students. For instructors, Perusall is free to use, is canvas integrated, and facilitates automatic grading. For students, reading is no longer a solitary activity. Students can annotate a reading together, seeing that others have similar questions or different interpretations. This allows reading and engaging with the text to become a for-credit, low-stakes, activity. Kristy and Katherine created a document that instructors can use to explain Perusall to students, either in their syllabus or within canvas.

2) Integrate Low Stakes Writing to Encourage Reading

 Another strategy that Kristy and Katherine shared was to utilize writing to encourage students to engage with the readings. Writing and reading are linked! Assigning small writing tasks allows students to synthesize their understanding of the readings for themselves.

One activity that was shared was to assign reading journals via canvas or google forms. In these journals, instructors can ask the same questions for each reading. Questions can be as simple as, what is one passage that stood out to you and why? Or how does this reading connect to the previous readings? Utilizing the same questions for each reading, lessens the burden to design unique questions for instructors and allows students to know what to expect. The student answers to these questions can be used to generate questions or activities during class time.

Exit tickets are another way we can utilize low-stakes writing. Some examples of exit ticket activities include:

  • Mud cards: Students submit the muddiest idea from class/lecture onto an index card.
  • 3-2-1: Students identify three things they learned, two things they want to learn more about, and one question that they still have.
  • One minute paper: Students synthesize what they learned, or respond to a specific question.

These are just some of the examples from this T4 talk of easy-to-use activities that we can implement in our courses to encourage student reading. Telling students why they should be reading before class, making reading and writing activities repeatable, and creating opportunities for group interaction are all ways to increase student engagement with reading. One of the last pieces of advice that was shared, but was impactful for me, was to start small. Encouraging students to do even just a little reading or writing is better than none at all.

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