Getting students to do the reading… and to talk about it!

Last month I launched a weekly newsletter called Intentional Teaching. It’s full of practical ideas and strategies for developing foundational teaching skills and exploring new ideas in teaching. Below is an excerpt from a recent issue in which I share a tool that’s useful for helping students “do the reading” and discuss that reading during class. I hope you find this excerpt useful! To receive future newsletters in your inbox, just subscribe here. And if you’d like to access all the past newsletters, you can back me on Patreon to get a complete archive.

Structured Reading Groups

Last week in the newsletter I described a common challenge that many educators are facing this fall, that of student disengagement in the learning process. This challenge seems to have grown as teachers and students recover from too many months of pandemic teaching and learning. I argued that helping students find their purpose in the courses they’re taking is one way to address this challenge. This week, I want to suggest another strategy for addressing disengagement, one that is perhaps a little more concrete and practical than helping students find their purpose.

Back in 2011, sociology professors Heather Macpherson Parrott of Long Island University and Elizabeth Cherry of Manhattanville College published an article called “Structured Reading Groups to Facilitate Deep Learning” in Teaching Sociology. I’m pretty sure I saw them present on this teaching strategy at a conference not long after, which is how it got on my radar. I’ve shared Parrott and Cherry’s work many times since then because it addresses two question I hear from faculty all the time: How do you get students to do the reading? And how do you structure small group discussions so they actually work?

In structured reading groups, students are assigned a reading to complete before class along with a role they will play during small-group discussion of that reading during class. I’ve seen a lot of ideas for student roles in group work, but none have struck me as smart and as useful as the ones that Parrott and Cherry detail in their article. There’s the discussion leader, sure, who develops questions for the small group to discuss, and of course the reporter, who writes a summer of the group discussion. Those roles are pretty common.

But Parrott and Cherry also recommend the passage master, who chooses and summarizes a few key passages from the readings that they think the group needs to discuss. The creative connector‘s job is to make connections “between the readings and other social, cultural, political, or economic ideas” either from earlier in the course or from outside the course, like maybe some aspect of pop culture. And the devil’s advocate is there to thoughtfully question or take issue with the arguments the reading’s author makes.

These are really interesting roles! Moreover, they give each student something to focus on as they’re “doing” the reading. Students often find academic readings for their courses overwhelming, and I’ve heard at least one student say that if there’s too much reading, she just won’t do it. By having a specific focus for their reading and a deliverable to bring to their small group (Parrott and Cherry recommend using a pre-class worksheet of sorts for each role), students are in a much better position to get something useful out of the reading.

What’s more, each student is bringing something different to the group discussion, so there’s a natural role for everyone in the discussion. This interdependence prepares the way for more equitable participation within the small group. Structure is one way to practice more inclusive teaching (see the book with that name by Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy for more on this notion), and structures where students have time to prepare their contribution (like a think-pair-share) or are equipped to make a unique contribution (like a jigsaw) are particularly good at supporting engagement by all students. Structured reading groups includes both of these attributes.

I adapted this idea for my first-year seminar on cryptography, surveillance, and privacy. I asked students to annotate a novel (Little Brother by Cory Doctorow) that was available as a PDF under a Creative Commons license. This allowed me to load the novel into Perusall, the social annotation tool we were using that semester, and ask students to annotate it collaboratively. We had permanent groups in that course, and each group was asked to make a different “move” as they annotated: one group focused on identifying key quotations, another on making creative connections, a third on being devil’s advocates, and a fourth on posing big questions raised by the novel.

Not only did this approach give each a student a focus for their reading of the novel, it also meant that the annotations they made would be more interesting to their colleagues, since they weren’t being as duplicative. This was a small way I tried to turn my course into a learning community, where students weren’t just learning from the readings or from me, but they were learning from and with each other.

As I did in my seminar, you may need to adapt the roles or how they’re used to your particular course. In their article, Parrott and Cherry provide a lot of implementation details useful for other instructors to consider as they use structured reading groups. I recommend you read the article and brainstorm a few ways structured reading groups might help you as you engage your students this fall and beyond. And if you try out this approach in some fashion, I’d love to hear about it!


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