Active Reading: Getting Your Students to Engage With Course Reading Material

By Maria Gallardo-Williams, SoTL Faculty Fellow, Office for Faculty Excellence and Teaching Professor, Department of Chemistry
A stock image of an open book.
Image credit: Pexels, Shawn Reza

Many instructors assign reading materials in their courses with the unwritten expectation that students will know how to read as an expert in the discipline, or at the very least as an interested party with good reading skills. It turns out that this is rarely the case, and reading assignments greatly favor students with existing good study habits. However, there are simple interventions that can help all the students in the class to master the reading materials with a modest time investment on the part of the instructor.

From the students’ perspective, active reading goes beyond reading and re-reading the material, and it transforms it into the act of reading with a determination to reach an understanding of what is being read and the relevance that it might have to the reader’s needs.

In order to achieve this goal, the instructor can create assignments that purposefully connect the concepts being covered in class to the reading materials; assignments that require reading comprehension in order to be successfully completed. An Active Reading Document (ARD) is an instructor-generated instrument that can give students the necessary incentive to engage with the text/readings. If we make active reading part of homework, class participation, and/or exam grades the students feel rewarded for their reading efforts and are more likely to engage deeply with the course readings.

Active Reading Documents can be as simple as one question introduced as part of a homework assignment, or a more complex series of questions. The questions or activities required from the students should align with the course’s learning objectives and it is important to provide students with rubrics or exemplary materials to facilitate the completion of their active reading assignments. In the references I provide a couple of resources that can be helpful to instructors who are interested in creating such assignments for their courses.

Students can be asked to:

  • Visually represent the key information (concepts, ideas, and terminology) from the reading
  • Visually represent an organizational structure of the information
  • Find relevant information in the reading and use it in context
  • Depict their personal understanding of key information from the reading using short explanations in their own words
  • Discover logical connections with other materials


Active Reading Documents, Videos and Templates

Dubas and Toledo, 2015. Active Reading Documents (ARDs): A Tool to Facilitate Meaningful Learning Through Reading