This article explores five strategies for helping students engage thoroughly and thoughtfully with reading assignments. Use the techniques that resonate with your own particular needs in the classroom.

  • Align readings with assignments and the unit’s learning goals.
  • Develop a predictable flow for a typical week of the course. Consider carefully how readings fit into this flow.
  • Tie a formative assessment or an activity to the reading. Clearly incorporate the reading into your class discussions.
  • Have students reflect on how readings and resources were incorporated into their assignments/projects.
  • Explain how you want students to do the reading.

Align readings with assignments and learning goals

Using the Backwards Design technique can help you tailor readings to your course goals and demonstrate the relevance of the material for your students. Backwards Design is part of the Understanding by Design framework.

The basic concept is to follow these steps (in this order):

  1. Figure out what you want students to be able to do at the end of the unit
  2. Determine how you will assess whether students have achieved the desired learning outcomes. Determine the assignments / projects that students will do.
  3. Plan the readings, learning experience and instruction

By ensuring that the readings align tightly with the goals of the unit and the assignments the students are doing, you can help students see the relevance of the readings to the work they are doing. Don’t assume that students will automatically grasp this relevance, though. It may be helpful to start each week with a quick overview of how the week’s readings and activities build toward certain competencies and skills.

We have developed a Backwards Design Form that can help you design your course.

Develop a predictable flow for a typical week of the course

Students benefit from transparency and clarity about when tasks are due and how they contribute to other learning activities. One way to provide this clarity is to make the cycle of readings and activities in a week predictable. Consider carefully how readings fit into this flow. Do students read the text before you discuss the concepts in class, or do you lecture first on the topic before they read about it? You might have students read (or watch videos) to prepare for class discussion and activities, or you might use readings to advance them to the next level, or you might clearly delineate which readings are required before certain activities and which provide further enrichment or review. Clarity is key!

As an example, here is a diagram of the flow used in an introductory programming course at Champlain College. This diagram was presented to students during the first week of class in order to familiarize them with the expectations of the course. Your week’s flow and how readings are tied to it may vary.

Five-stage cycle of weekly work: read before the week starts, reading quiz before first class, instant feedback labs, programming lab, self-reflection

Tie a formative assessment or an activity to the reading

Basically, have an assignment or quiz for every reading in your course. Here are three examples that have worked well in other courses. Contact the CLT if you are looking for more ideas or require help setting these up in Canvas.

Using the Canvas Quiz for reading assessments

Create a weekly quiz tied to the reading. Again, predictability is good! For each quiz, start with the same question:

Did you find anything difficult or confusing in the reading? Which parts? If you didn’t find anything difficult or confusing, describe what did you find most interesting. What questions about the reading do you want to see answered in class?

Each week add a few additional questions that test students’ understanding of the material and whether they did the reading. This is based on techniques developed and researched by Erik Mazur. You may wish to consider grading these quizzes based on completion if you do so with other iterative assignments.

Use an online discussion to jumpstart a discussion you’ll continue in class

Canvas discussions are not necessarily a substitute for class discussion; they can be a powerful tool for avoiding the awkward silence at the beginning of an in-class discussion. If you’ve ever wondered whether any students have done the reading, this is a great option for dispelling that feeling. Your discussion prompt should have no single right answer. We suggest making the post due at least an hour before the start of class so you have time to skim the responses.

Some example prompts are:

  • What did you find confusing in the reading? Formulate a question you might ask your instructor or peers to help you understand better.
  • How will you apply the concepts you learned in the reading to your final project?
  • Connect the concepts in the reading to a current event. How do these concepts inform your understanding of the event in the news?

Incorporate the reading into your class activties

While seemingly straight forward, surprisingly often we forget as instructors to highlight and refer to the readings in class. This can leave students wondering what the reading has to do with class, and less likely to do it for future classes. Use specific references to the reading–difficult passages, examples or case studies that deserve further explanation or review, or exercises that ask students to apply a portion of the readings–to show students how the reading matters and simultaneously ensure that they understand and can use it.

Have students reflect on how they incorporated readings into their assignments

Incorporate a reflective component in student assignments. This can take various forms, like requiring the use of at least one class reading in a research project, asking students to use a method described in a reading and explaining why it was chosen, or assigning a separate short written reflection as a component of a project. 

Explain how you want students to do the reading

Sometimes students struggle to know how to do the reading. You may know what you want them to take away from it, but that does not mean they do.

Consider requiring specific reading activities, like taking notes that they submit later, producing a discussion question based on the reading each week, or using a collaborative annotation tool like Hypothesis or Perusall.

Also consider telling students what to read for. Are there particular sections of an assigned reading that are more important (or less important)? Is there a topic in the reading you plan to spend a lot of time on, or that students often find difficult? Letting students know where to focus their attention can help them read more productively.


These are not the only ways you can help students engage with reading! Regardless of which approaches you choose, remember that clarity and transparency help motivate students and enable them to strategize about their workload. Associating tasks with readings provides an additional reason to read promptly and allows you to assess comprehension and growth.

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