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Most academic courses require learners to do some amount of reading to provide background in core concepts, to demonstrate applications and use cases, and to elaborate intriguing new applications and directions—or maybe just to navigate the various prompts and guidelines. But reading is a skill, one that learners may not possess when they walk in the classroom door. That’s why, even if it’s not an explicit part of your course curriculum, spending some time talking about reading expectations and strategies for best practices can reap very real and very positive benefits in terms of learning and retention. By explicitly framing the reading requirements in your academic class and taking steps to make reading strategies a part of the conversation from day one, you can help lead your students to more rewarding engagement with the course content, leading to a deeper level of engagement and retention.

By drawing attention to the reading in your class—the instructional content as well as the process itself—you can ensure that students can both comprehend and apply what they’ve read.

To start, make sure that you explicitly address the role of reading in the course. Maybe it’s just a blurb on your syllabus or, better yet, a conversation early in the course. But be sure to talk openly about the reading required in the course, and work to demonstrate how important it is to success.

One way to do that is to talk about how to read. So many people read on their phones or on the run. Have a conversation with your students about how academic and instructional reading materials require a different level of attention. If you expect students to take notes and engage in active reading, tell them—and show them how to do it.

Active reading is the key to ensuring that you grasp all the information in a text while remaining open to experiencing things like particular word choice and sentence construction and variety. And an important aspect of active reading is close reading. Here is how Nancy Boyles (2012) defines it: “Essentially, close reading means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension.” Reading closely involves taking note of terms, phrases, or short clauses that stand out or seem significant. And students should be encouraged to highlight, circle, or underline passages that seem most important. Of course, students should always plan to read a text more than once. On a second reading, they may notice more connections between ideas and concepts.

Using active reading strategies in the classroom can result in better content retention. But how can faculty help ensure that students slow down, deepen their focus, and engage in active reading?

The SQ3R method

One strategy to apply when approaching a text is the SQ3R method: survey, question, read, recite, and review. Students may have been exposed to this in a class before, but providing them with some explicit guidance can reinforce this habit. Tell them to employ this method when reading particularly challenging texts, and give them a reminder alongside any required reading to demonstrate how important it is to their success.

To survey means to preview information. Before reading a piece of text, students should skim or flip through it and read the bold headings that divide the text into different sections. And they should change chapter headings to a question that features the words who, what, where, when, why, or how. Because students are reading for information that they will need to rely on later—either in class, or as a foundation for lifelong skills—they should develop a system for recording information as they read it. After reading a section of text, students can recite what they learned silently. Think of reciting as a type of self-test to reinforce information. Finally, students review the most important information by going back and looking over what they underlined, marked, or highlighted. Reread or type up any handwritten notes. After reading the assigned text, summarize the main points or ideas the text is suggesting. The goal is to gain a sense of what is valuable in the text.

The SQ3R strategy is often employed in academic settings because it works. But each stage of the process doesn’t work the same for everyone and doesn’t equally apply to all types of texts. After going through the complete process a few times, you can develop a feel for how it works. Then, unless specifically asked not to do so, students can adapt the different aspects of this powerful strategy for their own needs. In fact, after some time, these different stages will become intuitive, and students will find themselves almost automatically following the process.

Dynamic document annotation

Document annotation helps provide a forum for you to guide a student’s reading experience and to help them feel supported as they work through the material. But rather than static annotation, there are a variety of tools we can use that turn even the most esoteric or technical journal article into a collaborative workspace.

Document annotation puts you as the instructor literally at the student’s side as they work through assigned reading. If there’s a particular article or section of the text that is might be difficult, or is just lengthy, find a way to help your students while they are reading.

Rather than treating reading as a passive process, we can create a dynamic environment that activates students. And with heightened interactivity, we can engage students in the process of learning and retention. We create a collaborative learning experience that forges a true community of learners.

In one of my courses, students need to read a robust and lengthy journal article before responding in a discussion forum. But it became clear to me that students weren’t interacting with the article the way I hoped. They weren’t pulling the right insights from the reading—maybe in part because they were hitting roadblocks throughout the piece. I could motivate the reading material in the classroom, and I could provide resources that helped cut through the difficult passages. But without finding some way to embed this within the process of reading itself, I couldn’t put my support where students needed it most.

To do this, locate or create a PDF version of the article and put it somewhere students can access it. I used a shared Google Drive, but there are many other ways this can be accomplished, including Perusall and Then, using your chosen platform, go through the article, highlighting different passages and offering explanatory annotations via sticky notes or other annotation tools. I found that asking questions worked well. When the article discussed a specific application of a course concept, I asked whether anyone had experienced something similar—or how they felt about a particular finding. Finally, allow yourself to get informal. In my case, I dropped a few comments at the start of particularly challenging passages, parts that weren’t strictly relevant to why I had selected the article, and told students they could skip ahead.

Using Google Drive functionality, I created a shareable link that allowed students to respond to my comments, leave their own annotations, and add their own highlights. Then I created a starter post in a discussion forum where I shared the link and explained what I’d done while motivating students to jump in and engage. This could work equally well as a direct email or announcement. Collaborative annotations engage students in critical reading, critical thinking, writing, and collaboration. It can help ensure that students think more critically about the material under consideration while increasing retention. Students feel more engaged by the process as they can literally see their instructor and peers at work together, and this boosts their confidence in their ability to analyze particularly complex material.

We can’t just ask our students to read course-related content without giving them explicit instructions in how to do so. In fact, beyond that, we owe our students strategic support in any activity that has a bearing on course learning outcomes. With some planning, instructors can easily intervene to assist students with reading in their courses.


Boyles, N. (2012, December 1). Closing in on close reading. Educational Leadership, 70(4).

Nathan Pritts, PhD, is a professor in the Academic Engagement Center at the University of Arizona Global Campus. He is the author or coauthor of 12 books, including Film: From Watching to Seeing (3rd ed.), Research & Writing (2nd ed.), and Living Online: A Digital Fluency Handbook.