GSIs may be the first to know when students are having trouble with either the kind or the volume of assigned readings. Students may show up in class without having prepared the readings, and this produces frustration for GSIs whose lesson plans depend on students coming to class prepared, as well as for students who have succeeded in doing the reading and are ready to work with the content.

How can we motivate students to prepare the readings adequately on their own? Remember that your course isn’t just about content: it also requires skills to get at and work with the content. A good starting point for students is to show them what you mean by “read” for your particular course or a common kind of text in your field. It may be that nothing in their previous academic or reading experience has prepared them for the kinds of learning activities you as an instructor have in mind when you assign a reading.

What are some typical pitfalls when reading texts that are important in your course? What are the most useful reading behaviors? Here are some activities to start thinking about. What suggestions would be on your list?

  • read the introduction, then list what you anticipate the rest of the text will try to do
  • skim first before reading word-for-word
  • scan first sentences of paragraphs first to get the gist
  • read the abstract and “results” section first, and translate them into your own words
  • look up unfamiliar terms, or try to figure them out from context (and how do you do this?)
  • summarize or outline the argument (and bring it to class)
  • list key words and concepts
  • look for tensions in the argument or in the use of key concepts
  • apply a particular set of instructor-generated questions to their reading
  • notice the uses of particular linguistic or rhetorical features
  • read or ignore sidebars of a textbook chapter
  • work through all the sample problems, or just a few of them
  • make notes as you read
  • make notes in the margin of the text
  • make connections with other content in the course

On the first reading assignment of the semester, you might bring several activities such as those listed together to give a step-by-step reading process for your students to start with. Follow up with a way students can demonstrate to you (and themselves) what they have gotten out of these steps. As the semester proceeds, work toward further procedures for more conceptually sophisticated objectives, such as discerning a rhetorical context or tracking a bibliographic or analytical trail.

Giving students such detailed guidance does not mean reducing a complex intellectual engagement into a rote exercise, nor does it mean taking students’ creative agency as readers away from them. It means initially working with the procedural knowledge (how people read in your discipline) that is necessary for them to get at the conceptual knowledge (content and relationships) you want them to ultimately work with.

Success with this kind of guided practice will give them a sense of mastery, which translates to motivation to move on to independent practice (in other words, more effective reading activities on their own).

To read more about the learning model this approach is based on, see the subsection “Learning” on our Cognitive Constructivism page. For more on different kinds of knowledge (e.g., “procedural” and “conceptual”), see the “Cognitive Processes” section of Leslie Owen Wilson’s page “Beyond Bloom — A New Version of the Cognitive Taxonomy.”