How Do I Design My Class So Students Engage Fully with the Readings?

How Do I Design My Class So Students Engage Fully with the Readings?

Black and white photo of student reading beside their bike
University Photograph Collection (RG 110-176).
Special Collections and University Archives,
University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

There are numerous reasons why students may not engage fully with course readings. Focusing on what we can do to support and develop students’ reading habits, we are able to identify a variety of course design, assessment, and engagement strategies that can lead to deeper involvement with assigned readings.



Choose the Right Readings

Only assign what is most necessary to satisfy your learning outcomes. In the backward design model of course development, readings are intentionally chosen to support the mastery of clearly defined learning outcomes. Some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Why do I need this reading?
  • What is it providing that no other reading provides?
  • Does it support the particular type of learning you want in your class?

Some faculty find that by answering these questions, they sometimes realize they can drop a particular reading, or portion of a reading, and give more time for students to develop a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the other course readings. Also, remember that students are frequently balancing reading loads for multiple other courses.

Consider the type of reading you’re assigning. Different genres of writing require different amounts of time to read. A theoretical text is different from a popular press article, which is different from a textbook. Further complicating matters, the type of engagement with readings you expect from students changes the amount of time it will take them to read a text. You might ask yourself:

  • Am I asking students to survey a text, understand it, or engage deeply with it?
  • Is it a text with no new concepts, some new concepts, or many new concepts?
  • How skilled or experienced are my students with these types of readings?

Answering these questions can help you determine how many readings to assign, and how to explain the task to students. Rice University has a workload calculator that can help you determine how your readings fit into your course design, and how much time it might take students to engage deeply with a particular reading (scroll down to the bottom of the page linked above for a handy chart on estimated reading rates).

Integrate Readings into Your Course Design

Grade reading! It sounds obvious, but grading reading shows you value the activity, and gives students a clear and immediately tangible reason for reading. A few ways you can grade reading are through reading response papers, discussion board posts, reading quizzes, reading journals (open-form responses that you check), guided notes (handout with blanks they fill in), and other low-stakes mechanisms. You need not spend a ton of time grading these assignments – marking them “received” or “not received” will suffice (Hoeft, 2012; Nilson, 2016). You can also show the value of these low-stakes assignments by providing summary feedback to students, such as by posting exemplary student comments on a PowerPoint slide that you share with the class, or by highlighting contributions in a “Great Thinking” discussion board thread.

Embed reading in a cycle of learning. In essence, design a clear and intentional cycle of learning activities that begin with the assigning of readings. For example, have students encounter a topic (through the readings), practice engaging with ideas (through a low-stakes assignment), apply more complexity (through group work or a large class discussion), display new understanding (through a worksheet, quiz, paper, artifact) and reflect on learning (through a journal, group discussion, or assignment wrapper). Whatever you do, avoid pre-empting the need to do course readings by giving summaries or lectures based entirely on the readings. Students are discouraged from finishing course readings if they can come to class and get the gist.

Involve students and make it novel. Providing students with some degree of choice within a predictable structure can motivate students to come to class prepared. One unique way of encouraging reading is to use something called a “Monte Carlo Quiz.” A Monte Carlo Quiz is an activity in which students roll dice each class to determine if there is a reading quiz and, if so, what kinds of questions are asked on the quiz (out of five types of questions). In addition, these question types serve as an advanced organizer for students that shows them how they can effectively prepare for class time, engage with the readings, and study for exams. For a full description of how to facilitate the quiz, see this helpful page from Mount Holyoke College. Consider other ways in which students can have input into how they are assessed on the readings.

Frame the Readings

Tell students how the reading relates to the course. Explain the value of the reading, how it relates to the course outcomes, how it relates to other course readings, and why it is being read at a particular moment.

Preview the reading. Before students read a text, consider previewing the reading in the form of a reading guide. Explain key terms, author context, topic context, but do not summarize the main points to encourage students to read on their own. Ask students to contribute what they know about a topic before they read about it. Provide open-ended questions to guide students’ reading and thinking. And assign journal entry prompts that frame expectations for the readings.

Teach Effective Reading Strategies

Structure the reading process. Ask students to “pre-read” a text by skimming it and thinking about the structure, scope, titles, headings, positions, and limitations of a text. One thing you can encourage them to do is convert headings into questions that they then answer (Kellner, 2003; Nilson, 2016).

Advise students to use concept of “generation.” Also known as “pre-explaining,” generation is a process in which students try to answer a problem before seeing a solution. You can assign students generation tasks that ask them to think about a topic and use their personal knowledge to process material before experiencing it more fully in a reading (Brown, et al, 2014). For example, you can ask students to write everything they know about a topic, and provide specific examples of how a concept works in real life. You can also ask them to make predictions about what will happen when they approach a particular problem.

Encourage students to stop and explain. Encourage students to explain material to each other, or to a roommate, friend, or family member. By putting a reading into their own words, they are more likely to develop a deeper understanding of the text. Some instructors use collaborative reading and annotation tools like Perusall to structure interactive reading of texts.

Model good reading habits. Share examples of your own reading process, including your margin notes and note taking. How much do you underline? Do you respond to a text? Do you ask questions of it? Do you have a marking system you can share with them? How have your reading habits changed over time? You may also consider sharing effective reading and notetaking models with your students.

Warn against the illusion of mastery. Students sometimes re-read a text too soon, thinking it will help them. In fact, allowing time to pass before re-reading is a more effective strategy (Brown, et al, 2014). Also, encourage students not to over-highlight a text. Highlighting too much makes it harder to distinguish what is most notable later on.

Assign a video on reading! Consider sharing one of the many helpful videos on active reading, including UT Austin’s CRIT (Close Reading Interpretive Tool), Gannon University School of Education’s “Active and Close Reading Strategies” video, or Townsend Press’ “Active Reading and Study” video.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at



Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don’t read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(2).

Kellner, D. J. (2012). Reading strategies for college and beyond. San Diego, CA: Cognella.

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors, 4th edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[Written based on materials developed collaboratively with Rebecca Petitti, Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning]

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