Guided Tours: A Strategy That Encourages Reading

Many teachers experience “the decline in reading” as the weeks of a semester progress. At the beginning of the course, there are volunteers ready to answer questions posed about the assigned readings. Their numbers dwindle as time passes, until it is embarrassingly obvious that very few students are still doing the reading, be it a chapter from the text or a series of relevant articles.

Moreover, I often find myself in a load dilemma. To keep the content interesting and relevant, I add new reading material, yet I am loath to delete sources. The result is students meandering through an increasing volume of material on a “self-guided tour.” They read or scan bits of the chapters or articles that spark their interest and hope they can “hide” in the silence of the class when I ask questions. Quizzes, of course, are a quick remedy to self-guided tours, but I don’t use them for two reasons. First, I choose not to introduce regular quiz stress into the course, and second, quizzes do not produce the result I’m after: a robust, lively exchange of the ideas introduced in the assigned readings along with exploration of their practical application.

To remedy the decline in reading and resulting silence, I have adapted a strategy I first saw implemented by Dr. Edward Coss, author, professor, and fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He conducted “guided tours” of assigned readings. In my adaptation, I take all my reading materials on a topic, theme, or concept and divide them into separate collections. The readings in each collection can be different, related, or present opposing views, depending on the learning objective for that content and class session. I then have students form groups and allow each group to select a collection of readings. Alternatively, I sometimes give the same baseline reading to each group but then add additional readings that are different for each group—some of those readings apply the concept, some elaborate on it, and some contradict the baseline reading.

Key to getting students involved with the content and excited to read the material is allowing them to form their own reading groups, provided I can keep the groups fairly equal in size. I allow those groups more individual decision making. For example, groups of four may be assigned five or six readings. I don’t require each student to do all the readings assigned to the group. Instead I have them “work it out.” Each of the readings must be read by at least one student. This approach makes students feel a part of the curriculum instead of subject to it.

Assembling and organizing the materials for the reading groups is the easy part; the hard part comes in preparing for their discussion of those readings. I give each of the groups a separate set of applied questions designed so that students have to exchange ideas from the all readings in order to answer the questions satisfactorily. Preparing that kind of question takes time and intellectual energy. But when my questions are good, they immediately involve students in learning, discussing, and analyzing themes from their readings.

After they’ve discussed the readings and answered their questions, I generally use one of three techniques. Most simply, each group briefs the other groups on the ideas and application of their particular topic or theme. Once all the groups have shared, I can then integrate or reinforce the themes and use this content to facilitate further discussion. Or I have the groups engage in a round-robin debate over the reading themes. Or I create new groups with at least one student from each of the original groups to then work on an application or case study example that ties all the materials together.

Guided tours have some drawbacks. First, they work best in smaller classes. More than five groups all doing different readings simply requires too much time to prepare and debrief. If you increase the group size past five, students tend to fragment. In my experience three to four groups with four to five students is ideal. Second, you need a sizable collection of reading materials. You also need to use this approach more than once in order for students to get a feel for it. And finally, it’s labor-intensive for the instructor.

But the payoffs are worth the effort. Students read, even on the last week of class, and they do so for two reasons. First, they are invested and interested in the readings because they have formed their own groups and manage the reading assignments as they see fit. Second, students experience overwhelming peer pressure to complete the reading. Hiding in the silence of the larger class simply isn’t possible in a peer group that is depending on you to be able to discuss your part of the assignment.

Most important, however, guided tours allow me greater influence on student learning and foster the kind of experience exchanging ideas that students will remember long after they have forgotten the details in the readings. In addition to fighting the “decline in reading,” guided tours have also helped me increase student learning. And often I feel as though I’m learning as much as the students.

Contact Eric W. Miller at

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