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As teachers, we see value in what we assign students, but students don’t always appreciate the relevance or understand the purpose of their assignments. Required readings are a great example of this disconnect. However, when students have some input into their learning, their response to assignments (yes, even reading assignments) changes. Rather than requiring fill-in-the-blank reading guides or giving weekly quizzes to “motivate” students to do assigned readings, professors can give students some alternatives. We can design those alternatives to give students greater choice and responsibility for their learning, thereby making the assignments more meaningful. Here is a collection of reading assignment alternatives we use and recommend.
  1. Non-structured Notes: Allow students to submit notes on assigned readings in various formats. These formats may include a detailed outline, graphic organizer, poster, summary paragraphs, or other visual representations of the material. Different format samples can be shared with the entire class or within small groups to stimulate discussion of the readings.
  1. Written Conversations: Prepare prompts (questions or short quotes from the reading) one per sheet of paper, which are then passed around the room with students responding to the prompts or posing related questions. Alternatively, prompts can be put on posters and hung around the classroom. Students walk around adding their responses to the posters. Written conversations can last 10-15 minutes or the entire period. They can be used with the whole class or in groups. We like written responses because they provide introverts a non-threatening way into the conversation and they give us great formative assessment feedback.
  1. Dialogue Journals: Each student starts a journal. After certain reading assignments, they write an entry that connects the reading to a personal experience or content in another course, or they summarize the key points of the reading. The entry ends with a question.  Journals are collected and then passed out at random. Now students provide their own response to the first entry or they’re assigned a new entry, and the journals continue to be passed around.  At the end of the semester, the journal returns to the original owner.
  1. Related Research: Let students research and select their own readings about a course topic. With beginning students you might need to provide a list of possibilities or suggestions as to where to find relevant readings. Letting students select readings deepens content knowledge and enlivens classroom discussions with multiple perspectives. Or, after students choose a reading and complete it, they switch readings with a partner and come to the class discussion having completed both readings.
  1. Compare and Contrast: Have students use visuals such as Venn diagrams or other graphics to generate ideas, make valuable connections, and deepen understanding of content. They can do this with partners, in small groups, or as a large group discussion. This approach leaves students with a visual representation of the material, along with the ideas and perspectives provided by their peers.
  1. Justify Your Thinking: After students complete a reading assignment, they write a brief summary identifying which course objectives were met through this reading assignment. They explain how and why the reading met the objective. This approach demonstrates that readings are assigned with purpose and helps students fulfill the course objectives.
  1. Debate with a Twist: Take a reading assignment and have half the students take a particular position in response to what they read and the other half develop a list of open-ended questions related to the reading. Students then defend their position and respond to the open-ended questions. This alternative sets the framework for rich classroom discussions while encouraging critical thinking and giving students the chance to try out various arguments. Switch the roles with subsequent reading assignments.
  1. Own the Assessment: Have students create their own evaluation method for a reading assignment. This could be a checklist, rubric, summary, or other tool. What they create can be used for self-assessment or exchanged with a peer who uses the tool to provide formative feedback. Ownership in the assessment increases participation and motivation, and the understanding of what’s needed to make the finished assignment “good.”
  1. Speed Sharing: After students complete a reading assignment, form two single-file lines facing each other. Students share one idea, pose a question, or make a connection to what they read with the person directly across from them. After a predetermined time (say one minute) they rotate to the next person in line and share something different. This approach has lots going for it: it’s fun and allows students to meet others in the class; it exposes students who have not done the reading at the same time it provides them information about it; and it forces students to have more than one idea, question, or connection from the reading. We encourage students to have the reading with them so they can refer to it and use it to trigger more ideas.
  1. Silent Chalk Talk: Write the main topic and subtopics on the board. Have students write their ideas, connections, and questions. We let students use their reading materials to write quotations and drawings. It’s interesting to see how the ideas build on each other. The amount of time devoted to this activity can change. Be sure there is time at the end for students to review what’s been written about the reading. In larger classes the activity can take place in groups. Teachers can incorporate some of the students’ contributions when they talk about content contained in the reading.
Opportunities for collaboration with readings and other assignments increases engagement, builds knowledge, and turns classrooms into learning communities. Our students bring a wealth of experience to the classroom. Building on these experiences and broadening perspectives of students takes place organically when they are allowed to make their own discoveries and given opportunities to learn from each other. Moreover, when students are engaged and invested they are more likely to complete assigned readings. Ellen M. Spencer is an assistant professor of education at Clarke University. Rebecca Bodish is an assistant professor of education at Clarke University.