Using Reading Guides to Help Students Engage with Course Materials

Using Reading Guides to Help Students Engage with Course Materials

Fall 2022
Dr. Youngmin Yi wearing a UMass Amherst ball cap
Youngmin Yi
Area of Study
Assistant Professor in Sociology
Email Address

Many instructors seek ways to help students engage more effectively with course readings. One method that some have found particularly helpful is the reading guide – an outline that helps students navigate a reading, respond to key concepts, and track their understanding. Dr. Youngmin Yi, Assistant Professor in Sociology, explains how she uses reading guides to help students develop a personal relationship to course material. 

What motivated you to create a reading guide activity for your students?  

My motivation for creating and incorporating the reading guide activity was to offer students with some guidance on the “essentials”—i.e., what concepts or terms they should expect to encounter and engage –while asking them to think about these concepts and terms in their own way. I also hoped to use this as one of a couple activities that would feel and be low-stakes, but still present an expectation of and opportunity for regular engagement with the course material. 

What kinds of classes are you teaching, and how have you introduced and scaffolded the reading guide activity?  

I am currently teaching SOCIOL212 Elementary Statistics and SOCIOL261 Population Studies. The courses that I teach have a few important things in common. First, they both satisfy the GenEd R2 Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Second, they both aim to equip students with a set of tools to describe, analyze, and evaluate claims about the social world. Third, as students’ responses to the introductory questionnaires indicate, these are both courses that many (virtually all) students approach with trepidation, self-doubt, anxiety, and outright dread and are primarily serving as courses that satisfy some sort of requirement.  

The reading guide is introduced on day one – its structure, evaluation criteria, and, above all, its objective – orally in class and in writing in the syllabus and on Moodle. I emphasize that students’ engagement with the terms should be in their own words, rather than copying my slides or the textbook (which gets a gentle guiding warning in feedback). I also strongly recommend that students consider using this as a note-taking device as they complete course reading/activities, digest class discussions and lectures, and/or watch assigned course video modules, if that is helpful. 

What has been the impact of this strategy on student learning?  

Because this particular learning tool is not graded in a way that is directly comparable across students or time, it is difficult to say definitively. However, based on both anonymous student course evaluations and informal feedback shared with me directly by students, I get the sense that this strategy impacts student learning positively by offering them the following: (1) a sense of the key concepts and language they should make sure to encounter across a range of learning materials (i.e., textbook, lectures, video modules, other assigned material, class discussion, Moodle discussion forum); (2) an opportunity to document their understanding of these concepts and terms in the way that makes the most sense to them; and (3) a low-stakes graded activity that is low-pressure and forgiving. In my two classes, students who took the end-of-semester Forward FOCUS survey rated the reading guide a 4.4/5 and 4.2/5 this semester (4=Frequently Valuable, 5=Almost Always Valuable to their learning) and in the open-ended questions about my classes, the reading guides came up very frequently and in positive terms, with feedback like: 

“The most helpful for me in this class was the reading guides. They gave me an opportunity to fully understand words and concepts in order for me to succeed in the class and on the assignments that were assigned as well.” 

“I think the reading guide is one of the most valuable course activities for me as it gives me a great opportunity to review what I learn in the class and discover the point I do not understand when I use my own words to interpret the concept.” 

“I loved reading guides. They made it so easy to go back and refresh on previously learned topics. It also drew units together.”  

What considerations or tips do you have for other faculty interested in using reading guides?  

I have 2 tips: (1) Although these are not intensive grading tasks, I do recommend using these as opportunities to signal that you “see” student effort and insight and to celebrate both, particularly for students whose engagement with course material and coursework might not be reflected in other areas of class activities. I do keep an eye out, as well, for any particularly innovative or creative presentations of student understanding and encourage students to share their definitions with others, in class or via the discussion forum, or ask their permission to share them myself in my weekly updates or as part of our class discussion (identified or anonymous).  (2) Use the reading guide not only as an activity for students but as an outline for teaching  – it helps me make sure that I’ve “hit” each concept and term in a way and in enough varied ways that students are able to put down something meaningful for each term. In times when I feel out of step with the reading guide, whether because there are important terms that I find I didn’t include or because I don’t spend time engaging with a particular term at all (signaled by multiple questions from students in student hours and class about a term), I take that as a sign that that term should be added or removed (either in real time with communication to students to strike the term, disregarding the term in evaluating reading guides, or in the following semester).  

Indeed, a few students (only 2-3 comments in my time teaching these classes so far) have critiqued the reading guide specifically on the basis of non-alignment with other course activities and objectives. For example, this student feedback highlights the utility of reading guides as a tool for reflexive (and responsive!) course design and planning: 

“I thought that some of the words on the reading guides weren't necessary for learning some of the material. There were just specific words that were barely mentioned in class, the module, or the readings that felt difficult to find and define.” 

This type of feedback, along with my observations of strong or weak alignment of the course objectives and material with the reading guides, invites revision of the content of the reading guides for the next iteration of this class.     

Excerpt from Syllabus: 

Note: This activity/description was listed under the course activities/grading criteria as one of a set of “Learning Activities”:   

Bi-weekly reading guides (6 guides, 3 points each) 

Reading guides are outlines for taking notes as you complete readings, modules, and participate in class/discussion sections. You are encouraged to update your guides as your understanding of the material improves. By the end of the semester, you will have built your own glossary of statistics and probability. Each reading guide will be graded on a scale of 1-3 based on the degree to which the guide is complete (all definitions attempted) and shows evidence of engagement with the terms (active use of the reading guide as a note-taking device as well as evidence of concerted effort to put the terms in one’s own words). 

UMass community members can access a template of Dr. Yi’s reading guides in our resource folder