Active In-Class Reading

Active Reading: The reading itself matters, but what comes before also does.*

In college classrooms, it is considered rather unusual to have in-class reading unless it’s part of an exam. Collective reading in class is time-consuming and instructors often assign readings as individual assignments. Dr. Katherine Robertson in her Global Health Ethics course, (for Duke Kunshan University’s Undergraduate Global Learning Semester Program) however, developed a creative way to engage in “active in class reading” that introduces not only the field of global health ethics, but also reading techniques that are critical to students’ future learning.

On the second day of class, Dr. Robertson handed out an eight-page reading from “Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics.”[1] Just as students were ready to dive into the text, Dr. Robertson called for everyone’s attention to discuss how to engage in “active reading.” She first raised the issue of culturally specific words, recognizing that some words and references in the reading might not be familiar to people coming from different backgrounds—and that’s okay. By acknowledging cultural differences before discussing content, Dr. Robertson creates a neutral and welcoming environment where students coming from different backgrounds can engage in ethics discussion without cultural barriers.

She then went over reading techniques, emphasizing the importance of context over specific words and tips on understanding compound words through recognizing their prefixes and suffixes. Dr. Robertson, a biologist by training, gave the example of “polymorph” and asked if anyone in the class knew the word. No one did. She wrote the word on the whiteboard and put a strike between “poly” and “morph.” Then she moved on to explaining that “poly” is a Greek word that means multi, and “morph” means shape. After explaining how to tackle compound word, Dr. Robertson gave more examples for students to practice and apply (e.g. “polysyllabic,” “polymer”). In two minutes, the class not only learned vocabulary that will occur in the reading, but also gained reading techniques that will assist them in Dr. Robertson’s class and beyond.

After going through cultural differences and reading technique, Dr. Robertson gave out the instruction for “active reading”—“Read three pages, mark phrases you don’t understand and anything that interests you.” In addition to asking students to mark words or phrases they don’t understand, she also told them to think about whether they could ascertain the meaning of unfamiliar words or phrases from the context of the surrounding sentence(s) and that they should then evaluate the importance of each unknown word or phrase for understanding the rest of the paragraph. She told them to mark sentences and passages that seemed “important,” then to write a sentence that summarized the take-home message of each paragraph and/or each page. After Dr. Robertson’s pre-reading instructions, students undertook their reading with a heightened level of confidence and skills. Some students still practice her techniques on a daily basis, in classes that have nothing to do with global health ethics. By incorporating innovative teaching techniques, Duke Kunshan classes can equip students with the necessary skills to learn, not just to study.

*Special thanks to Linda Zhang, a Duke and DKU Global Learning Semester student for significant contribution to the blog post!