Faculty regularly express concern about the struggles many students encounter when reading and engaging with course reading materials. This weakness, combined with an unwillingness to read class materials, makes it even more difficult for students to engage your course material. This first session in a two part series introduced research from Dr. Jenae Cohn, Dr. Naomi S. Baron, and Dr. Maryanne Wolf about reading myths students believe; what research shows to be true about comprehension; and how the medium affects comprehension, compliance, and interest in reading.

Students often believe things to be true about reading academic texts that are not accurate. Among the most common misconceptions is that for the same amount of material, digital reading should take less time than reading print on paper. College students also think that listening to the audio of a text while reading along in print is for little children or those with accommodations, but in reality, this is a very helpful comprehension aid. Students regularly assert that reading a book is more boring than reading on a screen and many believe that watching a video of content is a better method for learning than reading the content. Unfortunately, video shallowing happens, flattening out the content in a video and creating lower comprehension. Most people’s brains are trained to multitask while watching TV or a video and this carries over to viewing academic content as well.

What do we know to be true about college-level reading? Prior knowledge matters a lot when it comes to comprehension. The more an instructor can scaffold and build prior knowledge, the better the students will comprehend the assigned reading. Similarly, students need scaffolding and instruction on how to read a particular reading or watch a video. Assuming students will know how to read a passage or watch a video for deep comprehension may set you up for disappointment. We know that multitasking does not result in the best learning, but Cohn and Baron reminded readers that taking compliance into consideration might force us to accept that students often read while watching TV or listening to chatter in a coffee shop. If the choice is students reading in a less than ideal environment or not reading at all, maybe a little multitasking is acceptable! Finally, students often think of a reading assignment as passive rather than something they will actively do for a class. Students tend to complete assignments better than readings. One solution is to create an assignment asking students to do something as they read a chapter or article rather than simply assigning a reading. 

The following tips are a collection from Cohn, Baron, and Wolf’s books.

  • Allowing students to make their own reading choices increases compliance.
  • Print (instead of digital) is better for comprehending abstract concepts and making inferences. 
  • Giving students an estimate of how long a reading will take increases compliance and eases stress associated with reading.
  • For longer texts (500 words or more), print is better for comprehension.
  • For shorter texts (under 500 words), comprehension from digital or print is comparable.
  • If students are reading from a digital textbook or long online piece, use the page advance feature rather than scrolling.
  • Reading a physical book has significant sensorimotor advantages. A reader is able to visually see how much they’ve read and how much is left to read. They also can visualize where a particular passage, list, or image is in the text based on where it is located on the physical page.
  • Activities to try during reading include:
    • Prereading: scan through text prior to reading
    • Pacing one’s reading: knowing when to skim, scan, or read more mindfully
    • Rereading: be aware of when it is necessary to reread a portion of the text
  • Activities to try as one reads:
    • Marginalia: writing margin comments
    • Highlighting: students often need instruction on WHAT to highlight, but if done well, this is a positive activity to employ while reading
    • Underlining: similar to highlighting 
    • Taking separate notes
    • Copying passages
  • Response activities include:
    • Listing keywords
    • Summarizing
    • Answering questions
    • Taking a quiz

Mortimer Adler, in his book How to Read a Book, suggests questions one can ask after reading:

  • What have I learned?
  • Do I agree or disagree?
  • What don’t I understand?
  • How does what I’ve read connect with what I already know or have encountered elsewhere?
  • Why does what I’ve read matter?

Join us October 11th in the Adams Center for part two of this session series where classroom ideas and practices from Cohn’s book will be shared.

“Comprehension depends on a dialogical relationship between three sites of meaning: the meaning the reader brings to the text, the meaning embedded in the text, and the meaning the reader makes from interaction and engagement with the text. Meaning making and the triad of meaning interaction are fluid and recursive; new meaning is continuously made as  the reader engages with the text.  Rhetorician Tanya Rodrique

Slides from the session