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How to boost active reading in online learning

Most online learning experiences involve some, if not a substantial amount, of reading. There are numerous practical and academic benefits to reading and the use of text-based content. Many learners prefer or need to have learning materials available in a “readable” form, which supports their individual note taking strategies and the use of assistive technologies. Reading, however, like other aquisition¹-type learning activities (listening, watching), can very easily become a passive experience.

Passive learning experiences are those in which the learner receives information, through reading, listening, or watching, but without additional cognitive or intellectual demand. It is reasonable to assume that simply presenting learners with content will not in itself necessarily give rise to meaningful learning. Well, not in the pedagogical, or guided sense. There are always other ingredients involved in the facilitation of learning, which may arise from the way the content is presented, the learning context itself, or the academic capacity, or motivation, of each learner. When learners engage with content by doing something, making meaning, or reflecting, this is sometimes called active learning².

Some educators and learning and development professionals make the mistake of assuming that reading materials are inherently dry and unappealing. In response, they may resort to, for example, chopping big texts into digestible fragments, or completely changing the medium to videos. While there may be benefits to some aspects of these strategies, they are often somewhat misguided. The content might look more appealing on the face of it, but may be just as passive in reality. And sometimes, new formats can actually interrupt and stifle the processes and flow of learning, particularly for learners with advanced academic reading skills.

An educator or learning designer needs to find ways to nurture active reading by developing academic skills among learners, and by facilitating active engagement with text. 

Developing active reading skills

Active reading is partly achieved through academic skills, which need to be developed and nurtured. Modern schools, colleges and universities now implement strategies and curricula aligned to this effort. In fact, many university courses include entire modules focused on “learning to learn”, which will almost always cover active listening and active reading skills. In workplaces and other contexts, however, academic skills may be extremely varied, as will the motivational and environmental factors that come into play. You will need to determine the appropriate opportunities and interventions needed to support learners in your context.

It is best not to make any assumptions about your learners, so that you can design experiences that work for different individuals. You want to set learners up to succeed so that they can achieve their potential, which may be dependent on their ability to engage effectively with the learning materials you provide. One way to do this is to present sample content prior to the course, so that learners can self-assess skills like active reading, then practise them in advance. For example, the Open University provides short courses like English: Skills for learning, which covers reading techniques and other skills needed for university study. Providing useful links and support to help learners with active reading and other skills, is a good idea in most learning contexts.

Active reading strategies

There are lots of ways to read in an active way and it takes practice. Advanced and lifelong learners will tend to develop their own systems over time. Here are some common techniques:

  • Determine clear objectives and goals – set out a clear purpose for reading.
  • Identify key elements – look for key concepts, terms, themes, arguments, facts, and points.
  • Detect relevance – identify key information relating to learning objectives and also any points that reinforce or challenge their perspective or role.
  • Skimming – reading a text quickly to pick out key points, skipping past unnecessary details.
  • Scanning – reading a text rapidly to locate specific, predetermined pieces of information.
  • Close read – a slow and focused read of a text to analyse its features, structure, and meaning.
  • Questioning – identifying overall questions raised by the text, or specific questions that need to be answered in order to understand the text.
  • Summarising and condensing – for example, list key points, draw a mind map, summarise each chapter/paragraph as a sentence.
  • Annotation – e.g. highlighting, underlining, circling, symbols, notes in the margin.

When learners have developed active reading skills, they at least have the capacity to actively engage with text-based learning materials. Of course, motivation and other factors will still determine how much, or how effectively, they use them. Remember, also, to consider neurodiversity, including autism and dyslexia, disabilities such as visual impairment, and people reading in a second language. You can find useful advice and tips on making your learning materials accessible via eLaHub, AbilityNet, various UK government websites, and the WCAG Guidelines.

This brings us to the instructional design strategies that can develop active reading skills and encourage learners to put them to use. 

Design to promote active reading

Learning design professionals can strategically enhance and complement reading materials using digital tools, interactive mechanisms, and thoughtful activity design. Strategies can range from general facilitation and support, to coordinated skills interventions and evaluation.

Tools to support active reading

When learners must become accustomed to accessing and reading texts in digital form, it is important that non-digital active reading strategies can be replicated or improved upon using modern technologies. For some people (myself included) moving from printed documents, handwritten notes and highlighter pens, can be really challenging. Whether just starting to learn active reading skills or making the transition, it can really help to have user-friendly, intuitive tools that are designed for the task in hand.

Everyday tools

As a starting point, it’s important that learners, whether they be employees or university students, know how to use the reading features built into the tools they already use. For example, do they know How to annotate a PDF? Can they comment on a Word document? Such tasks might be routine for some, but completely new to others.

Checklists

If you are using an online learning platform, it should be easy to provide learners with checklists to tick off the key points or objectives when they feel they have grasped them. This helps learners to direct and track their own learning and share their progress with their supervisors.

checklist in Moodle
Checklist plugin in Moodle

Annotation tools

There are also plenty of tools and applications now available specifically designed for annotating and engaging with online texts and web pages, including Diigo and MarkUp.

A tool I tend to use frequently is Hypothes.is because it is open source and geared towards learning communities, like universities, but also useful for content development projects. There is even an established AnnotatED community of educators, researchers, and technologists continuously working on ways to use and improve it. While there is a VLE/LMS (learning platform) application, it is mostly used via a browser extension, allowing users to add public, private or group-specific notes to any web page for other Hypothes.is users to view and engage with. As such, it can be used as much more than an annotation tool for individual learners, but also as a means to communicate and collaborate around any text available on the internet. They provide plenty of ideas on how to use the tool in various contexts, including event hosting and research, but particularly educational uses.

Hypothes.is comment panel appearing (right-hand side) on Lexedio course page

Activities to develop and encourage active reading

Even when learners have honed their reading skills, they won’t always remember or recognise when or how to make use of them. After being out of formal education for a while it’s easy to forget skills and habits we don’t think are relevant anymore. So, it can be a good idea to coordinate active reading interventions whenever there’s a need to develop or refresh these skills, or when a text demands particular attention.

A popular learning device used to motivate learners through their reading is the quiz, which often sits at the end of a section of reading, to “check understanding”. It’s not a particularly bad way to do things, but it doesn’t really help the learner with the act of reading to make it more focused or purposeful. If the learner hasn’t gained and understood what they need in order to pass the quiz, then they have to go back and read the material again. Next time, however, they will likely be looking for the answers to specific questions, so the overall absorption of the material may be superficial and incomplete. Occasional individual quiz questions distributed throughout the content may be better because at least they can recap sections when they need to as they go along. Or, the quiz can be used to conclude a section, with other tools and strategies used support the reading itself. 

There are, however, far more creative, engaging and effective ways to motivate and support learners to read than the humble multiple choice quiz. If a text is particularly important, then you can justify spending time developing activities that challenge the learner to really interrogate a text. Or, you can come up with simple activities that are easy to adapt and reuse with lots of different texts throughout your course.

Example : word puzzle

A word puzzle is a fun way to get learners to actively engage with reading materials. It works best with texts that have keywords, facts and figures to work with. The puzzle format you choose should be familiar to your learners, or easy to grasp, like crosswords or wordsearches. Inspiration can be found from puzzle magazines and websites. The design and clues will depend on the text and topics you have to work with, and the appropriate level of learning.

Your clues can be straightforward or cryptic, but try not to disrupt the reading experience. Focus on things you would want them to highlight, underline, or commit to memory. Refer to your learning objectives to identify the types of information that hold relevant value.

You don’t need to be a developer to create online puzzles, but if you are, you can probably create something (e.g. like this) using HTML, CSS and Javascript. 

For the less tech savvy, or if you want to create something that non-developers can edit, there are other options. At a very basic level, you can create the puzzle structure using Microsoft Office tools, like PowerPoint and Word, as shown. You can set up an assignment on your VLE/LMS for learners to submit their answers. Maybe even offer a prize for the first three correct submissions!

screenshot of a puzzle created in Microsoft Word
A puzzle exercise created in Microsoft Word

Or, you can create something more interactive using a user-friendly tool like H5P. Its Fill in the Blanks tool can be used for the activity or just the submission feature. Try entering the activity password (ionic82) into the H5P object below to see how it works:

When it comes to designing your own activities, try not to be bound by what you think can or cannot be achieved. Even if your skills, or the technologies available are limited, often the most effective and innovative learning design outcomes are achieved by being resourceful. That’s why the example given above does not require coding skills, or advanced configuration of a learning platform.

Analysis tools

There are a number of open access tools available to facilitate text analysis. While not the same as active reading, per se, text analysis can motivate learners to read in a more active way. By using word clouds and tools like Voyant and Google Ngram Viewer to stimulate discussion around a text, learners may be motivated to read them more closely, to pick out elements of interest. They might also then re-read texts to explore the outcomes of their analyses. Used in conjunction with blogging and group discussions, such activities deepen learners’ relationships with text and can enrich the overall learning experience.

Rapid authoring options

If you want to create something more sophisticated using a rapid authoring tool like Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline, then think carefully about how the reading experience will be affected by a slide-based medium. Such tools are not really designed for sustained, in-depth reading. I wouldn’t recommend having much more than 100 words on a slide, but at the same time, it isn’t always a good idea to break up a text, unless this is part of a considered reading strategy. Click-to-reveal interactions often equate to not much more than guided reading and don’t always offer meaningful interactive or active reading experiences. However, texts that are already presented with smallish sections might work well in segmented designs. For example, a company policy, or a collection of poems, might work.

Where to start

If you want to improve engagement with text-based learning materials, start by looking at the overarching aims. Is there a lot of text, and/or an overall need to improve learner engagement? If so, first look to include more support for learners’ reading skills. Then, develop a content engagement strategy that motivates them to interact more effectively with all reading materials. This can be done by, for example, facilitating discussions around all online content using an annotation tool. However, if you have identified specific texts or topics that are particularly challenging or less inspiring for your learners, you might target an intervention around those particular texts e.g. through a word hunt challenge, puzzle, or text analysis activity.

If you need help with ideas for your projects or use of learning technologies, we offer 1-1 and group consultation and coaching sessions, tailored to your needs. Please get in touch for more information.

¹ Acquisition-type learning is one of the six learning types described by Diana Laurillard in her Conversational Learning Framework, also used in UCL’s ABC Learning Design model: https://abc-ld.org/6-learning-types/

² Passive and active learning – Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses, San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass, pp. 116-123.

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Pedagogy

Pedagogy is generally defined as the art, science and craft of teaching. The first pedagogues were Greek slaves who were responsible for caring for and instructing their masters’ children. In fact, the Greek origin of the word means ‘to lead the child’.

So, pedagogy may also be considered to be about nurture and pastoral care, as well as teaching. Despite the reference to children, the term is used fairly comfortably in adult education contexts. However, andragogy, which translates as ‘to lead the man’, may be used to refer specifically to the teaching of adults.

A number of related and derivative terms may be used to define particular fields of pedagogical interest, including digital pedagogycritical pedagogy, and heutagogy.