Are Your Students Doing the Reading?

Supporting Academic Reading + Apps to Help

It’s a familiar problem: only some students complete the assigned reading, so in-class discussion only involves a few participants or activities aren’t as fruitful as they could be. Maryellen Weimer summarizes:

Getting students to do their assigned reading is a struggle. Most teachers don’t need anyone to tell them what the research pretty consistently reports. On any given day, only 20 to 30 percent of the students arrive at class having done the reading. Faculty are using a variety of approaches to up that percentage: quizzes (announced, unannounced, online), assignments that require some sort of written response to the reading, reading journals, a variety of optional reading support materials, and calling on students to answer questions about the reading.

Weimer says that, compared to doing nothing, these methods of holding students accountable for pre-class preparation do help, but she questions whether “students learn the value of reading when what motivates them is a requirement.”

Of course it’s also difficult for students to do the reading, or to value it, if they find the texts to be confusing, overwhelming, or painfully boring. Students often need more support to navigate the unfamiliar types of texts we assign. We may assume that they arrive in our courses with the knowledge and skills they need to do the academic reading common in our disciples, but they usually don’t, and we can and should teach them. (Weimer edited a Faculty Focus special report that provides a variety of strategies for not only getting students to the reading, but supporting them in being able to do it.)

John Bean, author of Engaging Ideas, helps us to understand what students might need to learn by contrasting novice and expert reading behaviors. For example, he says that novices typically read everything sequentially the same way and at the same speed, whereas experts “[vary] strategies according to genre and purpose” and “[vary] speed according to complexity and purpose; [know] when to skim, when to scan, when to read for gist, when to read for close analysis.” Novices typically “[read] passively, uncritically, and non-rhetorically,” but experts “[read] actively, critically, and rhetorically; [understand the] author’s occasion for writing and author’s persuasive purpose; [know] how text joins a conversation; [and decide] whether to assent to a text or resist it.”

Needless to say, support for reading deserves more consideration: What varying strategies should students use to read a novel, a textbook, a scientific paper, a philosophical text? What knowledge do they need to read them in the ways that we value? As students take courses in different disciplines, how do we introduce them to our common questions, arguments, genres, and conventions? Do we check that the readings we assign are level-appropriate? Can we help students preview challenging texts before they read them? Can we design our courses so that they do more reading and discussion together? Can we help them interact with the text itself, posing questions, making connections, and joining a conversion more like experts do?

Those last two questions lead us to new and interesting options that have become more popular in recent years: annotation software. Many apps are available: online tools that allow students to read and annotate texts collaboratively, and include options to add annotations to documents and pages publicly, privately, or within a group. FSU faculty in several departments have been using, to make reading more “active, visible, and social,” and the app is now integrated with Canvas. Anne Coldiron, Krafft Professor of English at FSU, explains:

This software permits—better than any other software I have tried, and I have tried several things—one of the most important core activities of teaching literature: the close analysis of texts and the collective, simultaneous engagement of students in that work. It helps create community around examining and interpreting a text. promotes inclusive teaching because it levels the playing field for usually disenfranchised students, those less likely for whatever reason to speak up. So count me as a grateful user and pro-Hypothesis member of our group.

If you’re interested in learning more about you can check out their upcoming webinars. As with any tech tool, we only want to use it if it really helps students to accomplish the learning goals of the course—and our implicit goals for students’ reading usually deserve to be made more explicit—and then we want to design the course, the assignment, or the activity, so that students use it well. Annotation software can be used for a wide variety of purposes, so if you’d like some support in thinking about how to use it strategically in your course, we welcome you to schedule a consultation.

If you’d like to explore additional ways of supporting students’ reading (and, of course, for motivating them to do the reading), there are resources linked throughout this message, and here are several more:

If you have a great strategy for helping students to read certain kinds of texts, please share it with us! And if you’d like support as you set learning goals for students’ development as readers, please contact us at We look forward to working with you!