Jean-Francois Briere

 A. Using informal writing to encourage reading prior to class

In many courses, attempts to increase active learning in class are often blocked by the necessity of covering a lot of content.  One solution to the problem is to force students to come to class prepared by asking them to do the low cognitive level learning on their own, in some more or less radical versions of the flipped classroom. This way, class time does not need to be used for defining terms or deriving quantities, but can readily be used to debunk student’s misconceptions and have them engaging with the material.  Would a literature teacher read an entire novel in class with students?  It would make no sense to use class time in this way – but often this is exactly what we find ourselves doing.

Forcing students to read is easier to say than do. My first attempt at getting students to read the text before class was the classic reading quiz approach. I don’t think it lasted more than a few weeks… I was completely unable to separate reading from knowing. My quizzes always ended up checking if students understood the material. That was not my aim. With a reading assignment, I want students to make a first pass at understanding the material, but I’m not asking them to understand it all. That’s what we’ll work on in class! In addition, this method was not helping students to engage with the material, which probably had an impact on the participation rate.

I tried different strategies over the last few years and finally found one that I liked and polished to my needs. Let me go over different suggestions for assignments and some general advice based on my failures before presenting what I currently do in my classes.


 B. A few suggestions

The assignment should be more than just reading, it should also aim at engaging students with the topics by addressing high order learning objectives.  The task should encourage critical thinking, link to other topics and force students to react to what they read. This can be achieved in many ways.

    • Ask students to come up with three questions on their reading. You can have students discuss these questions in small groups at the beginning of class and then answer the best ones in class discussions. (Thanks to Martine Wizman (Social Services) for this idea!)
    • Ask students to do a reflective writing piece (free writing) on what they did not understand in their reading. It forces students to go away from the summary mode and really focuses on finding where it hurts (an important skill to learn…). A side benefit is the creation of a direct link between the student and the teacher. The questions asked by the students help the teacher to find misconceptions and adapt classes accordingly.  Using samples from the submissions in class clearly shows that you read at least some of them and that students are not alone in their misunderstanding. Some teachers are even making the submissions public so that students can read other students submission. (Calvin Kalman, Concordia, )
    • Ask students to link the reading to topics covered earlier in the course or to everyday life examples. Again the idea being to go beyond simple reading.
    • Ask students to answer really precise questions about the text in a few words. The purpose of these questions is to make sure that the students at least look at the concepts covered by these questions. An example of such a question could be: “In equation 9.19, why is the right hand term equal to zero?”. (Cynthia Heiner, UBC)
    • Ask students to explain a concept in simple terms that an eight-year old kid could understand. (This one advantage is that you can ask your kids to grade for you!)
    • First ask students to answer a question linking to the subject covered in the reading but before they read about it to assess their current knowledge. Then ask them to do the reading and answer the same question once again. Finally ask them to compare what they wrote before the reading to what they wrote after.  (Michael Dugdale and Nathaniel Lasry from John-Abbott tried this last fall, and I must say it sounds appealing…)


C. Humble advices based on personal failures

No matter what method you use these are my key recommendations:

    • Take a few minutes during the first class to explain why you want students to read and how it will advance their understanding key course concepts.
    • Assign points only based on effort, not on understanding for the reading assignment.  It should be an informal exercise that builds trust between the student and the teacher.
    • Whatever you decide to do, make sure the amount and the difficulty of the reading you assign can be tackled by students. The last thing you want to do is to discourage the students.
    • Try to focus the reading on the key concepts. Leave out the small details.
    • Do not redo in class what the reading was about. You can still discuss the tricky points, but make sure you do not re-teach all that was in the reading. If you do so, the students will lose all incentives to do the reading. This can be hard to do in the first few weeks as students did not do the reading. Some students will be a bit lost in class. You must insist that they must do the reading assignments.
    • You can ask for electronic submission of the reading assignment. This way, you can receive submissions before class time and adjust your lesson plan according to the student’s answers.


D. My very personal approach

Usually, I assign one reading assignment per week which is about 10 pages of reading of a science textbook. I ask for a quarter to half a page of reflective writing focusing on what they did not understand. If they feel they understood everything, then they must link the reading to some everyday life example.  Then I ask three or four short answer questions targeting key difficulties covered in the textbook. I generally come back to these questions in class. I also try to have a link to a clip or a website. The links can open up neat questions, clarify some more difficult ideas, or show practical applications of the material.

Here’s one of my reading assignments:

  1) Read section 10.6 on Conservation of Angular Momentum.(p. 325-328)

 2) Before reading the next section (10.7 on Gyroscopes and Precession p. 328-330) look at the clip from the link below. Precession is a surprising effect of rotating bodies and can be a bit scary. Hopefully the clip will help you understand the reading…

 3) Write a reflective writing piece on your reading. I’m particularly eager to hear what you have to say about precession. It’s a concept that seemed magical to me when I studied it the first time…

 4) Short Answer Questions:

4.1 Which program do you plan to apply in for university? (just for fun)

4.2 In example 10.10 (spinning professor) is kinetic energy conserved? What about linear momentum?

4.3 What’s the difference between figure 10.33 and 10.34?

4.4 Quick home experiment. Take a food processor or even better a coffee grinder. Put it on a slippery surface (just a piece of paper should do). Start the blade and notice what happens to the body of the grinder. We’ll discuss this in class.

 One last clip if you are interested by helicopter physics…

This guy has a full series of clips on the subject.


E. Conclusion

Let’s start with a confession: I never, not even in graduate school, read my textbook before class.  I do believe that I should have… and that it would have helped my conceptual understanding. I think that the reading assignments can contribute to make better independent learners of the students and prepare them for university studies. It can also have a big impact on the teaching since it gives an incredible access to the brain of the students and their misconceptions (for this, the reflective writing is the most effective). Of course not everyone is doing all the reading all the time, but I believe almost everyone is at least doing some of the reading every week and that’s already a big improvement!

Last Modified: May 15, 2013