Writing to Promote Engagement: Writing about reading, viewing, and listening

Daniel Emery

This tip suggests informal writing activities to assist with a vexing challenge for instructors: How can instructors promote engagement with course reading, viewing, and listening materials through writing?

Establish context for reading, viewing, and listening assignments

Unfortunately, the direction to “read Chapter 10” or “watch the linked Ted Talk” may not be enough to promote careful reading, viewing, and listening. Students are more likely to be engaged when they investigate and establish the context of reading and viewing activity.

Person writing on wooden table near mug, phone and notebook.

For example, if the reading is a part of a course textbook, what accounts for the location of this topic in the text? How does it connect to prior learning and establish a foundation for later topics? While novice students may not yet be able to answer these questions, they will benefit from considering these connections. As they move through the course, you might ask students to prepare for class by drawing connections between the current assignment and what you’ve already read, seen, and discussed.

If the material comes from somewhere else, who was the initial audience for what students are seeing? What was the purpose of the material, and who was the original audience? Assuming that the content was not generated specifically for the course, why is it appropriate to feature in this course at this time? It may be useful to ask students to note what elements are most relevant to their current understanding and how this new information extends that knowledge.

More than simply asking students to summarize the content of a particular reading, addressing these questions in writing will help students understand how course materials relate to wider ideas, concepts, or themes central to the course.

Ask students to consider their prior knowledge

Research in reading for the last 50 years has stressed that connections to prior knowledge are critical to the comprehension of complex texts. Prior subject-matter knowledge is positively correlated with the successful recall of text details, effective summary, and almost every other measure of comprehension.

Even before students engage with course materials, it can be helpful to ask students to describe what they already know about a topic and consider how they have come to that knowledge. This recall activity is especially useful for unearthing common misconceptions and features of incomplete understanding.

Similarly, while students may be unfamiliar with the content of course materials, you might ask them what they already know about the form or genre in which the material is presented. What are the conventions of a research article, Ted Talk, documentary, or podcast? Prior genre knowledge can also assist students with identifying key features or crucial moves that are conventional elements of these modes of presentation.

Identify and describe a reading/viewing/listening strategy (or strategies)

In her description of learning dispositions, Elizabeth Wardle suggests that in contexts of short-term, multiple-choice assessments, students may develop an “Answer Getting” disposition to subject-matter reading. Students operating in this frame will emphasize the ability to recall discrete details and prioritize a surface-level mastery of terms as ‘effective’ reading. Unfortunately, this surface mastery of discrete topics and readings can inhibit students’ ability to apply knowledge in new circumstances. While recall and summary are important skills for novice readers, asking students to read with attention to application, connection, inference, and prediction can assist students in building deeper connections to the subject matter.

Ask students to read with an eye to connection, application, and extension will aid students in their efforts to understand course content. Corresponding writing activities help to make students thinking visible. These responses can be collected before class via Canvas, either as discussion or an assignment, and can guide the direction of other in-class activities.

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