Come to class prepared: Pre-reading to optimize learning in the sciences

Come to class prepared: Pre-reading to optimize learning in the sciences

It’s well-established that pre-reading about upcoming topics improves performance in class and on exams. Yet classroom experience suggests that there must be barriers in place. So what does it take to get students to make the most out of their time in class? Perhaps a little more time put in before class--incentivized by a few points of the final grade--and some assurance that everyone else is doing it.

That’s what Cynthia Heiner, Amanda Banet and Carl Wieman found in a recent study published in the American Journal of Physics. Professor Wieman, who received his Ph.D. at Stanford in 1977, returned in 2013 to joint appointments in Physics and the Graduate School of Education. He has become particularly interested in the teaching of undergraduate science courses.

In the paper out of University of British Columbia (where Wieman was Director of the Science Education Initiative named after him), two undergraduate science classes were restructured with the goal of increasing the proportion of students who completed the suggested pre-reading assignments. According to the paper, the majority of students (70-80% in most studies) do not read before class, for a variety of theorized reasons.

Drastic increase in pre-reading

This experiment incentivized reading ahead with an online quiz that required reading selected parts of the textbook before at least one lecture per week (estimated time was an hour per pre-class assignment). Quiz participation accounted for 2-5% of the final grade. After the course, students were surveyed on how often, how and why they did the pre-reading, and how helpful they found it.

Overall, 98% of students did the quiz at least most weeks, and 79-85% did the pre-reading at least most weeks, which is significantly higher than had been found in previous pre-reading studies. The reason for pre-reading, cited by the majority of students, was for the grade, but lecture preparation was the next most frequent reason. In their comments, over 75% of students noted that the reading also helped their learning.

How to motivate your students to pre-read

The authors give seven best practice suggestions for implementing pre-reading assignments, which seem to share a theme of creating a high-yield tool for both the student and the teacher. Quickly reviewing the quiz scores before class allows the instructor to focus lecture on the concepts that were poorly understood and to skim over those that were largely mastered from the textbook alone.

The best practices are not necessarily intuitive. A few are listed below.  

  • Guided reading with explicit prompts like figure numbers.
  • Omit what is not necessary- and be realistic.
  • Quiz questions should be easy if one read and hard if one did not read.

Whether this is a magic bullet remains to be determined. Students have competing demands, and it’s not clear how additional assignments will factor into their priorities. Existing courses would need significant upfront effort, including technology support, to create the new quiz elements. Nevertheless, innovation in education is critical, and this study offers an example of a successful change. 

Kirsten Brandt, MD is a Resident in Internal Medicine at Stanford Hospital & Clinics. She plans to work as a primary care physician upon finishing her training in 2015.