Meaningful engagement with course readings

STATS

Level of Difficulty
Medium
Unit Size Evaluated
300 and 1500
Scope
Semester long
Delivery
Hybrid, Online
Resources Needed
Learning Management system
Course readings
Collaborative tool
Related Patterns
Self-paced online modules

Reflection at scale  

This pattern is concerned with meaningfully engaging students with course readings. Gradual and active engagement with reading materials is used to spark student curiosity and target those students who typically have limited, if any, interest in academic texts. This pattern interweaves reading tasks as integral activities in the wider course design.

Problem

Educators have concerns about changing trends of student engagement with readings. The nature of student relationship, comprehension and engagement with readings is shifting, and on average only 20-30% of students read (Deale & Lee, 2021) the assigned course materials. Students rarely regard textbooks as a primary source of information; this is linked to increasing power of technology, media and apps affecting engagement.

The main reasons why university students struggle, and do not engage, with course readings are: (1) unpreparedness, (2) time constraint, (3) lack of motivation, (4) an underestimation of reading importance, (5) insufficient reading skills, (6) sociocultural aspects (Kerr & Frese, 2017). In addition, domestic and international students often have limited awareness of different reading strategies, e.g. skimming, reviewing, and their benefits.

Solution

In the early weeks of semester, the teaching team communicates clear expectations on what, how and why to read and their role in the wider course design. The readings should be carefully and purposefully selected to meet learning objectives and engage students. Depending on the frequency of readings, the unit should use the same template/structure/steps each week and thus build a participatory culture during the semester. When readings are provided, students are expected to complete a list of tasks to engage with readings on a learning management system (LMS) e.g. Canvas. We suggest three tasks: (1) Read the must-read pages, (2) Complete a short online activity, (3) Review and skim the full reading.

Implementation

01 > Create a visually engaging template page on the LMS for students to use weekly or fortnightly. It should provide clear expectations, tasks and interactive tools to help students to engage with the reading content.

02 > Template step 1: Read the must-read pages – a short excerpt (1-2 pages) of the full text is provided and embedded as an open PDF file on the LMS. Students can easily read the text without leaving the page.

03 > Template step 2: Complete a short online activity – Students complete a brief online activity (e.g. Padlet, live poll, discussion board) about the must-read pages. The activity should provide options for students to reflect and share with, and learn from, other students.

04 > Template step 3: Review and skim the full reading – students are expected to engage with the full text. Clear guidelines on how to engage with text, e.g. using strategies such as skim or critique, should be provided, and a direct link to the text (in the readings depository) should be highlighted. Depending on the context, step 2 could include activities/questions that relate to the step 3.

05 > Active synchronous discussion – the artifacts from the online activity (Template step 2) should be used as the impetus for a facilitated class discussion by students and teaching team. Preferably, the discussion is enquiry-focused rather than check-your-understanding-focused.

Examples of pattern in use

Example 1: International Business

This pattern was tested in a first-year post-graduate unit called IBUS5003: Global Business with 300 students and then reused with 1,500 students in the following semester.

This pattern was iteratively developed and implemented. We acknowledge the unit coordinator Vikas Kumar from the International Business discipline and the wider co-design team.

Description

In 2020 the unit was redesigned from face-to-face to blended mode delivery. The new design included 2 hours of SELF-PACED ONLINE MODULES (including reading, videos, texts and a range of interactive activities) and a 1-hr tutorial each week. In occasional weeks, the unit coordinator delivered live classes which were linked to the self-paced online learning. Students were required to complete the online work prior to coming to their tutorial.

Before the intervention, students were expected to read 2-3 articles referenced in the unit outline before attending the lecture. No guidelines were provided on how and why to engage with the texts and how they contribute to the wider or weekly course design. After the intervention, the second page on the LMS was designated to the course readings and associated tasks. The page included a clear rationale for readings, simple steps (tasks) on how to engage with them and opportunities to engage with individual and collaborative reflections.

Technology / resources used

Three reading tasks were used weekly and embedded directly into the LMS (Canvas) as the second page on the weekly online module. The page consisted of the designed structure including weekly readings (1-2 articles), 3 reading tasks, importance of weekly readings, guidelines on how to participate in collaborative reflections, and a collaborative tool. The Canvas page was used as a weekly template that integrated new articles and activity questions each week. The engagement with the tasks was optional and not assessed, however the reading and activities were integrated in the weekly tutorials.

The following guidelines were provided to students. Each week they were expected to complete three tasks:

  • Read the must-read pages – you must thoroughly read the highlighted 1-2 must-read pages. These pages will be embedded as a PDF on the required reading page for each week. See Week XX pages below.
  • Complete a short online activity – you will then need to complete a brief online activity about the must-read pages to check and expand your understanding. 
  • Review and skim the full readings (reading reference and link) – you are expected to engage with the full readings each week.

Findings

Student survey data indicated that 94% considered the three readings task intervention as useful (includes ‘extremely’, ‘very’ and ‘moderately useful’) with a significantly large portion of students engaging with readings. The majority of students engaged with all weekly must-read pages, while there was a proportional increase of students who read full articles. Students described the reading tasks as “easy to understand”, “straight forward”, and “very useful and manageable”.

Although the engagement with full readings increased slightly, the majority of students read most, often all, must-read pages which addressed the key points of the article. The latter portion included those students who rarely, if ever, engaged with full course readings. 

About the author

Dr Sandris Zeivots is a Lecturer - Educational Development with Business Co-Design at the University of Sydney Business School. He investigates how to design and implement innovative learning experiences that are engaging, meaningful and purposeful. With a professional background in experiential learning, Sandris explores how to design impactful educational events to strategically improve the experiences of learners through learning spaces, experiential education and emotional engagement.

Published by Sandris Zeivots

Dr Sandris Zeivots is a Lecturer - Educational Development with Business Co-Design at the University of Sydney Business School. He investigates how to design and implement innovative learning experiences that are engaging, meaningful and purposeful. With a professional background in experiential learning, Sandris explores how to design impactful educational events to strategically improve the experiences of learners through learning spaces, experiential education and emotional engagement.

2 thoughts on “Meaningful engagement with course readings

  1. Tom Worthington – Canberra – An educational technology consultant, Certified Professional member of the Australian Computer Society, and part time university lecturer.
    Tom Worthington says:

    As a student, the problem I had with course readings was that there were more than I could possibly read, with it unclear what the expected outcome was. I suggest the way to make this more meaningful is to not set more readings than a student, with the minimum literacy level for the course, can read in the time available. For example, I use a reading speed of 80 words a minute to estimate how long it will take to read the material (from McEwan, 2012, p. 80).

    I suggest it is important to have assessed exercises where the students make use of what they read. Obviously the readings must be an accessible format which those with a visual impairment can read.

    Creating a “visually engaging template page” will do little to help the struggling student. This also unlawfully discriminates against a student who can’t see the visuals on the template.

    Having “must-read” pages suggests there is content the student doesn’t have to read. In which case why is it in the course? Instead eliminate non-essential content, which is not really course content at all, just a distraction which detracts from the student’s learning.

    A mix a activities is a good idea, but where is the assessment? If there is no assessment why would the student do it? By leaving out assessment, you say to the student “This reading is not important, don’t bother with it”.

    Reference

    McEwan, M. (2012). Evaluating and enhancing the feedback process: an international college case study. Practice and Evidence of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 7(1), 79-95. Retrieved fromhttp://community.dur.ac.uk/pestlhe.learning/index.php/pestlhe/article/viewFile/131/244

  2. Thanks for the thoughts and ideas, Tom.

    I agree with you about the importance of amount and how, more often than not, we ask students to read too much. It certainly affects the level of their engagement and how much they can realistically learn from it.

    The idea behind ‘must-read’ pages is based on research which suggests that most (up to 80%) of students don’t engage with readings. It can differ from subject to subject, yet overall pattern of disengagement with reading is quite noticeable. We observed that nearly all students engaged with the ‘must-read’ pages which means that those who typically don’t read the required texts did reviewed them. In this case we go beyond the expectation as a reality and learn from how students engage with the content.

    I agree with your suggestion to link the readings to assessments. It is a good strategy that will likely work in many instances. Quite often however readings are linked to wider learning objectives, weekly content etc and may not directly be linked to assessments which is fine. It depends on the purpose (of the text) and pedagogical values/strategies (e.g. over-assessment) that will the determine the integration of the required readings. Assessment should not be the only reason why students read.

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