Helping Students Read Effectively


October 03, 2017

by Tris Utschig
Director for Scholarly Teaching and Associate Professor of Nuclear Engineering        Kennesaw State University

A faculty member recently asked me what the research recommends you do when you want students to effectively engage with supplementary reading material, such as a journal article, beyond the usual textbook readings students are assigned. Many of us might first react by thinking something like “Let’s get real here, my students don’t even read the textbook sections they are assigned! How can I get them to read something extra?” Fortunately, research on student learning shows that we can get students to read, and to read effectively, if we are willing set up the conditions that make it worth our student’s time. In short, we can take a research-based approach to helping students read effectively, whether from the course text or other materials. The basic principles needed to help students read effectively are:

(1) build in motivation to do the work,

(2) include some form of accountability,

(3) offer strategies specific to reading in your discipline, and

(4) provide guidance on what students should look for and how to organize the information.

We foster student motivation to read effectively when we highlight the authentic nature of the real-world work represented in the reading, when we directly connect the content of the reading to course assignments and/or exams, and when we build in value for students spending time reading by connecting it to the course learning outcomes and grading system in some way [1]. This connection to the course grading system also builds in accountability. We can build in accountability before class with questions about the reading, during class via specific contributions to discussion or written work, or after class via a reflection or by using the reading in a related assignment.

In order to help students maximize what they learn while reading, we need to provide some strategies to help them read effectively. We also need to provide guidance on what to look for. A simple read-through is very different from the interrogation of the material you likely want students to practice. How do you read when preparing to respond to written work in your discipline? Do you read everything in order like a novel, or do you strategically preview certain aspects of the reading before diving in further to address questions you have? Students are likely to choose the former linear approach, but we can help them learn to practice the latter, more strategic approach. Additionally, we can provide some structure for students to organize the knowledge they are developing by including expectations about what they might respond to while they are reading.

In the rest of this blog post, I introduce several research-tested strategies you can use to help your students read effectively:

The Just-In-Time Teaching (JiTT) approach [2] involves posting the reading ahead of class and asking students to respond to one or two prompts, due at least an hour before class. You then sample the responses (you don’t need to read them all) before class begins. If students are not articulating what you expected, you can correct misconceptions or address what's missing before you begin the main discussion. If they are on target you can extend and deepen the discussion with the students.

Another research-tested approach is to have students complete a reading log [3]. This tool will focus the student reading effort, but it will take them more time, especially at first. The tool has sections for defining reading purpose, setting reading performance expectations, outlining content, and key questions to address. It also has sections for notes on skimming, key vocabulary, summary notes, integrating what is learned with prior knowledge, and reflecting on the reading experience. You might adapt which of these aspects you ask students to complete.

Additionally, you can give students a few tips about reading effectively. You might give them a suggested time limit for outside reading and then offer ways to make the most use of that time such as skimming by reading section headers; reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph before reading all the way through; focusing on the abstract and conclusions or certain figures, tables or results; writing their own brief outline, or whatever is most appropriate for your discipline and the particular reading you are assigning.

Finally, you might introduce one of several time tested approaches to effective reading. The reading comprehension approach promoted by the Institute of Reading Development [4] has these basic steps:

  1. Preview text before reading*
  2. Develop Questions*
  3. Read one paragraph at a time and paraphrase information

*These two steps are about helping students develop an anticipatory mindset

The SQ5R model [5, 6], extended from the original SQ3R model, has the following steps in the reading process:

  • Survey
  • Questions
  • Read (one paragraph at a time)
  • Respond (summarize in own words)
  • Record (write notes, annotate in margins, etc.)
  • Recite (what not looking at the material)
  • Review

Any of these techniques used by themselves or combination can help motivate your students to read, to read purposefully, and to learn more. Perhaps they might even enjoy it!


(1)   Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.S., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

(2)   Novak, G., Patterson, E.T., Gavrin, A.D., and Christian, W. (1999). Just-In-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

(3)   Miller, R. (2007). Using Reading and Lecture Notes Logs to Improve Learning in Faculty Guidebook: A Comprehensive Tool for Improving Faculty Performance. Pacific Crest. Available at

(4)   Institute for Reading Development (2017), Reading Programs

(5)   Flippo, R.F, and Caverly, D.C. (2009). Handbook of College Reading and Study Strategy Research, 2nd Ed. Taylor & Francis.

(6)   Carlston, David L. (July 2011). Benefits of Student-Generated Note Packets: A Preliminary Investigation of SQ3R Implementation. Teaching of Psychology 38, no. 3: 142–146.


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