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Reading Guides Rediscovered

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The result of all this effort won't impress anyone looking for a large number of A's. But given the context, Maurer's experiment not only shifted the large classsituation from one where most students were failing to one where only about 10% currently do not pass.



The posting below looks at the use of reading guides in improving student understanding of textbook material. It is by James Rhem, executive editor of the The National Teaching & Learning Forum and is from the September 2014 issue, Volume 23, Number 5, September 2014. It is #70 in a series of selected excerpts from The NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Reading Guides Rediscovered


No one can remember everything just as no one has heard of everything, and that may explain why some ideas and insights that have been around for a long time can pop up, seem fresh, and save the day in current teaching situations when we discover them. And it's also where teaching and learning centers shine: it's their job to remember all the accumulated pedagogical strategies that have proven themselves over the years, as well as staying on top of the new ones coming continually along.

For years research has shown that students have difficulty with textbook reading assignments. Indeed, students often simply do not do the reading. Perhaps they've come to believe the professor will cover what they need to know for the test in class, and so plowing through the often boring textbook isn't necessary. But as faculty attitudes toward teaching have steadily moved beyond a duty to convey essential information toward constructing classrooms focused on applying knowledge, demonstrating understanding and building mastery, inducing students to do the reading and come prepared has become even more important.

Calling Words Isn't Reading

But what if students don't know how to read a textbook? What if they aren't practiced in identifying the main points and essential concepts? Putting in hours calling words isn't reading effectively. It's boring, unproductive and does not result in good grades. It's natural that students resist textbook assignments if this is all they know how to do.

When Trent Maurer, a professor of family science at Georgia Southern University encountered a magnified dose of this longstanding problem owing to suddenly mandated increased class size, he turned to the campus teaching and learning center for help. Judith Longfield, an Instructional Services Coordinator at GSU's Center for Teaching and Learning has one of those long, valuable memories, and she asked him if he'd heard of "reading guides." He had, but they hadn't seemed acutely relevant until now. Longfield pointed him toward what he describes as "some extraordinary resources" on "reading guides" (much of it from the 1970s) and he was off like a rocket. By that I mean he threw himself into both the construction of reading guides for his course and careful documentation of their effectiveness with enormous energy. The result was not only significantly improved student performance, but also an exemplary bit of SOTL research which Maurer and Longfield presented last November at the ISSOTL conference in Raleigh, NC.

Maurer frames the problem this way:

"When [students] do the reading, they don't know what to do with it. The problem of course is first getting them to do the reading in the first place. We know fromresearch that as little as 20-33% of the students do the reading. There is further research that indicates if you declare you are going to quiz students on the reading, they will do it, but because they aren't accustomed to doing reading, they don't get out of it what they should get out of it."

Indeed, according to Longfield, some studies show that students' reading compliance has declined from +80% to -20% in the past 30 years, and the National Survey of Student Engagement [NSSE] data indicate that +80% of seniors attend class without reading or other preparation. But as Maurer suggests the problem is at least two-fold: "If students are going to do the reading, you want them to get the most out of it. You want them to have the expectation that if they do the reading, they willlearn the material. If they don't have that expectation, then even if they're motivated to learn [the material], they're not going to do [the reading] because they don't expect anything good is going to come from it." In short, if they believed doing the reading would actually help them, they'd do it. But the reason they don't believe stems from the fact that they don't know how to read the material, other than putting in time and calling words. Before they can be taught the material in the textbook, they need to be taught how to read it, and that's where reading guides (sometimes called "study guides") come in.

Look for Landmarks

"The logic behind the reading guides," Maurer explains, "is that as an expert, I read the textbook, and I say 'Okay, this is what they need to focus on.' I'm theexpert and they are not; so they don't know what to focus on or how much to focus on because these are intro level students in intro level classes. So the idea isto kind of model how to select and what to focus on. It's this meta level of learning. If they learn the process then they can take it into any other class, anyother course.

"It's almost like an assignment," Maurer continues, "You give them this set of pages to read and this set of questions to focus on and answer as they go along. The 20 questions they have confront them every single day with what they need to know to come to class prepared. It is their choice whether they do the reading or not, but if they don't, then they have to acknowledge that 'I am not prepared.'''

To explore the delicate dance between motivation to learn and learning, Maurer set up a somewhat complicated experiment design involving multiple sections of the course and a number of pedagogical variables. Since research already had shown that employing quizzes motivates students to do the reading, Maurer introduced quizzes in all five sections of his course. These were real-time quizzes utilizing "clickers" and thus gave immediate feedback on what students understood and what they did not. Only four of his sections received reading guides. In addition to the in-class quizzes, those four sections also sometimes got online quizzes. Some got practice quizzes. Some got graded quizzes. Some got both graded and practice quizzes. Those who got online practice quizzes displayed the "sweet spot" in the research: they scored better than any other section on the in-class quizzes. But a "sour spot" also emerged: students who got both graded and practice online quizzes did the poorest of any on the in-class quizzes. "The in-class quizzes then seemed to matter less to them," says Maurer.

It's (Now) Part of the Job

"As faculty we don't expect that we are going to have to teach students how to learn," says Maurer. "We think we're just going to teach them material, but that's one of the reasons I love working at the intro level because once I figured out that part of my job is teaching students who aren't really ready for college how to learn, then I can do that and I can do it very well. I just needed to know I need to do this as part of my job. I enjoy doing it."

There's a twist to Maurer's research experiment that covertly encourages students to develop a level of metacognitive awareness as well: "At the start of everyclass period, we have a quiz over the reading, and right before the quiz I ask them a series of questions-' How much of the reading did you do for today? How much of the RG did you do for today? How many hours did you spend studying for today's class?' Just a little bit of information on that. Which I then compared to their end of course self-report data, and it turns out that their daily course self-report data is far more accurate than their end of course self-report estimation."

Maurer's use of reading guides and of studying the effect of using them employs elements of the "flipped" classroom and "Just-in-time" teaching, elements which always force professors to work in fresh, responsive ways. "What I've done for any 75 min. class period . . . I might plan 2-3 hours of activity," says Maurer. "So there's no way I'm ever going to be able to use them all." Between the in-class quiz and the online quiz, Maurer has "a pretty good idea what most of the class got, what most missed, and then something in the middle. Usually that tends to be the cluster- some right, some wrong, some in the middle. So I start each day with something most of them got. I always start from a point of strength to build on something they got. And then after we've got that and we've flexed their critical thinking skills, we move on to something they missed. What we do really depends on how they did on the quiz. Maybe we only do two activities one day; another we may do five." It's a model of engaged teaching, almost theater with a script-outline and a lot of improvisation.

The result of all this effort won't impress anyone looking for a large number of A's. But given the context, Maurer's experiment not only shifted the large classsituation from one where most students were failing to one where only about 10% currently do not pass. In the smaller classes (20-25 students) even without the "reading guides," A's and B's were common; C's were rare. Now, C's are common. "There is no question that the student outcomes are better when the class is small," says Maurer, "in part because each student gets more individual and small group interaction with me." Still, in the class of just 28 he's teaching this summer, he's adding "reading guides."

As Lee Shulman said in his keynote at the same ISSOTL conference, every experiment carried to the fullest extent becomes a case study as one answeredquestion leads to yet another. Maurer's careful research on the positive effect of reading guides in large intro classes seems in his own practice to lead to a question about whether small class sizes using reading guides will learn more than small classes who don't.

Stay tuned. SoTL research and past pedagogical wisdom are finding common ground.

There's only one downside to "reading guides," and perhaps it can't be regarded as a downside since students learn more from their introduction. Preparing"reading guides" takes a lot of time. "The time is 'up-front time,' in much the same way that developing an online course is upfront time," says Maurer. "OnceI've done it I usually don't have to change anything unless a new edition of the text comes out."


Trent W. Maurer, PhDAssociate Professor of Child & Family DevelopmentSchool of Human EcologyGeorgia Southern UniversityP.O. Box 8034Statesboro, GA 30460Telephone: (912) 478-1522Fax: (912) 478-0276E-mail:

Judith Longfield, PhDGeorgia Southern University, Box 8143Centers for Teaching & TechnologyHenderson Library, Suite 1303