How do you engage students with their readings?

One of the perennial issues in education is how to encourage students to engage with their readings. 

Often, students do not complete set readings or do not understand the connections between weekly readings and course learning outcomes. This results in the need to dedicate time in tutorials explaining the readings that students should have completed but didn’t. 

Students typically plan and prioritise their study hours to be effective. This sometimes result in them only reading what they have time for, or feel is relevant. Using a narrative, and clearly stating the value and purpose of a reading or preclass activity can help students understand the value, and acknowledging the time required to complete the tasks can help ensure the workload is realistic. Rice University have create a simple course workload estimator to help predict the time required to complete common tasks.  


The student perspective: 

As a student I am required to read several articles or textbook chapters each week for each course 

If I don’t understand a reading or I don’t have time to complete a reading, I might: 

  • ask one of my classmates next time I see them 
  • email my lecturer
  • pretend I understand and hope I get it in class 

I am not always engaged with what I am reading nor do I see the relevance to this weeks topic. Due to competing priorities I might not complete my readings, but I will try to read what I need to so I can pass. When I do my readings or preparatory work there is no-one to help me, or give me feedback and  no one is going to check anyway. 


The staff perspective: 

I’ve set this reading so students are able to get the most value from the upcoming in class activities and sessions. I want to motivate my students to complete their set reading, if they do this allows me to move beyond knowledge transmission in our classes, I can use activities and problem solving when we are together. By not completing readings, tutorials take longer as I have to spend more time reviewing all the readings which slows down the progress for all students. I would like to be able to know if students are engaging with set readings or not and to what level. I would also like to know before the start of class the common issues students are having, or which topics they seem to struggle with. This would allow me to adjust the frame (or focus) of my in-class discussions.  


The process of becoming engaged: 

It is possible to design and present tasks and activities to increase engagement. Some of the key factors which can be adjusted to improve engagement are autonomy, competence and relatedness (for more information see Ryan and Deci, 2000) 

Autonomy Can be increased by designing opportunities for students to make meaningful choices about participation, assessment, topics and how they present their work.

Competence Can be developed by providing students with regular feedback, rewards and grades as they gain mastery in various topics and skills.

Relatedness (or belonging) Can be promoted by creating a platform for students to share successes, interact with peers, collaborate in forums and share understanding.

Relatedness and social integration are often the missing piece in student engagement. By presenting a task or reading as an element of a collaborative process, students are more likely to see the value of the task and therefore complete it successfully 


Over the next week we will look at some strategies you can use to improve engagement with readings.

While you are waiting, would you like to explore a tool? Download this guide and join our discussion in Perusall.