Increasing Reading Comprehension and Student Engagement, Face-to-Face and Online

Credit: iStock.com/Youst
Credit: iStock.com/Youst
Now that many of us have moved to a hybrid or online format, the conversation around student-to-content and student-to-student engagement has taken on a new level of significance and intention. We have developed a reading graphic organizer (RGO) that increases students’ reading comprehension, assesses their out-of-class work, and develops student-to-student interaction in both face-to-face and online classes.

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Now that many of us have moved to a hybrid or online format, the conversation around student-to-content and student-to-student engagement has taken on a new level of significance and intention. We have developed a reading graphic organizer (RGO) that increases students’ reading comprehension, assesses their out-of-class work, and develops student-to-student interaction in both face-to-face and online classes.

Teachers use this tool across a variety of disciplines at our university, such as history, education, and literature. Students report that the RGO helped them

Ideas for the RGO evolved from research on learning theories about organizing information to improve learning and academic reading skills (see Ambrose et al., 2010). For more than eight semesters, the RGO has yielded compelling results with student learning in our face-to-face classes, surpassing previous courses. This result has continued since we successfully moved the RGO fully online in March 2020.

The RGO has, in fact, become the mainspring in the clockwork that drives learning in our courses. Because it is such an integral part of our course design, it comprises one-third of the final grade. It gives us the ability to assess student interaction both with the content and with each other on a weekly basis. In addition, after we shared our work across our campus and at the Lilly Conference (Clemmons et al., 2020), several professors from a variety of disciplines started using RGOs in their courses with similar results.

Nuts and bolts of RGOs

The RGO is devised as a two-part assignment, assessed separately using specifications grading (Nilson, 2014). Specs grading holds students responsible to meet the criteria of a detailed rubric. The assignment is credit/no credit. Students are given an RGO model as an example, and can redo their first attempt, if needed.

Part A is a student-to-content tool that allows students to choose and write about the key points from the assigned reading that they find most interesting and important based on the overarching themes. Learning theory and our student feedback confirm that having this choice increases students’ intrinsic motivation (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Part A requires succinct summaries of the key points, facilitating easier grading. The format is flexible, making it adaptable to various disciplines. In history, for example, each student will do the following:

Click here to see RGO samples in multiple disciplines.

Part A encourages students to read critically and engage with the content, giving the professor a way to assess reading comprehension and metacognitive skills for each student—a double win. Part A can function as a standalone assignment, creating individual accountability for reading, and indeed we have faculty who use it this way.

Students download the Part A Word template, completing it before the first day of class in the week it is assigned. They bring this copy with them to their small group and are now ready to work on part B (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Example of Part A of Gayle Sollfrank’s world civilizations RGO

Part B is a continuation of part A, using small, permanent groups to create a concept map where groups organize their chosen key points under the overarching themes and draw and articulate connections (Figure 2). Part B utilizes both student-to-content and student-to-student interaction as groups discuss, negotiate, and organize information, ultimately coming to consensus as they build their concept maps. This group work forces students to make multiple decisions, which builds an important skill particularly needed for this current generation (Twenge, 2017). Students are assessed individually according to their participation and contribution within their small group, with a credit/no credit score using a rubric.

Figure 2. Example RGO online concept map
(see here for a face-to-face example)

The design and flexibility of the RGO allows it to function equally well in face-to-face or online courses. In either modality, there are three basic mechanisms that stay the same:

  1. Part A—Targeted reading: Students turn in the RGO homework (part A) either in person in a face-to-face class, or through the LMS online (Figure 1).
  2. Part B—Concept maps: Small groups meet once per week either online or in person to build their concept maps. This process promotes high levels of cognitive thinking, such as evaluation, synthesis, and creativity, while also building relationships and students’ self-confidence as they work together (Figure 2).
  3. Consensus: The final component is a consensus question: “What stands out to your group as being the most significant concept of this reading assignment? And why?” This exercise helps students decide on and synthesize the most important information into a clear and concise statement (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Sample group consensus question with student and teacher response

In face-to-face classes, the RGO can be a handwritten, two-sided document. Students come to class with the first side (part A) completed, and meet in their small groups to build their concept map. Moving the RGO into an LMS (Canvas) split parts A and B into separate documents. Part A is a Word template while Part B is a Google Slide template that allows each student to access it through their small group collaborations. Google Slides allows students to work simultaneously by adding text, objects, arrows, and lines to illustrate connections so each student can contribute to the building of the concept map. Groups can be required to submit a screenshot of themselves verifying their collaboration. Google Slides helps provide individual accountability for this group assignment through the activity dashboard.

Assessing effectiveness

We have collected substantial evidence from student feedback, test scores, and surveys all with positive results. For example, in one anonymous survey given to several sections of World Civilizations I, 93.4 percent of respondents said the RGO “helped them organize their learning”, and 91.6 percent that the RGO “helped them learn the material.”

Below are a few representative samples of RGO-related student comments from end-of course assessments.

  1. “To be able to freely pick out ideas that interested me and expand on those ideas with classmates made history more enjoyable.”
  2. “[RGO’s] have taught me the importance of making connections . . . establishing relationships between similar terms and main ideas. I have translated this habit into my other classes, and ultimately it has helped to improve my overall understanding.”
  3. “I learned so much about history by simply listening to my team-member’s perspectives.”
  4. “The Concept Maps were really helpful in my growth as a student, this is where I could visualize these connections and solidify them.”

Conclusion

Developing and using the RGO has been a rewarding experience for us, and its impact on student learning has been overwhelmingly positive. That impact can be seen across many disciplines at our university from history, literature, Christian ministry, education, and adult degree completion. We have found RGOs to be a versatile tool that builds academic reading skills, utilizing student-to-content and student-to-student engagement in both face-to-face and online environments.

References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Clemmons, J., Sollfrank, G., & Campbell, C. (2020, February 20). Getting students to read like a pro(fessor) [Presentation]. Lilly National Conference, San Diego, CA, United States.

Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing.

Twenge, J. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy—and completely unprepared for adulthood (2nd ed.). Atria.


Jo Clemmons, EdD, is the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, where she runs workshops and works directly with faculty to help develop their teaching practice. She hosts a yearly conference on faculty development at PLNU showcasing her faculty’s work.

Gayle Sollfrank, MA, the assistant in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Point Loma Nazarene University and has 15 years of experience teaching history in both face-to-face and online courses in higher ed. Jo Clemmons and Gayle Sollfrank have collaboratively presented their research on RGOs at several national conferences.