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Stephanie Chasteen




Do they do the reading? Helping students prepare for lecture

posted: December 28, 2011 by

Since my last post on the Flipped Classroom, I’ve stumbled across enough particularly good resources on a similar topic to merit a follow-up post.  The idea behind the Flipped Classroom is that classtime is better spent in helping students to apply ideas (e.g., working problems, doing labs, or in other words making sense of the content) rather than in the traditional lecture content-delivery mode.  So, students watch mini recorded lectures at home to get the content, and then spend class time applying the ideas, with the teacher as a coach.  You can see more about this technique on the previous posts, or at Learning4Mastery. In this post, I will talk about ways to help students use pre-lecture time to adequately prepare for class — whether you’re using a flipped classroom model or not — and the research behind some of those techniques.

Have student reading habits changed?

Have student reading habits changed?

It’s a common complaint:  Students don’t read the book before class.  It’s probably equally true in the humanities, but my main experience is in the sciences.  Science textbooks are dense, full of extraneous diagrams and pictures, and it’s a real challenge for an introductory student to muddle their way through all that information to try to extract useful information from it.  So most don’t bother — they go to class to see what content the professor thinks is important, and then use the textbook to help them to do the homework and guide their exam studying.  But this constrains us to use class in content-delivery mode: If students don’t know the first thing about Newton’s Laws, then how can we do anything in class other than tell them about Newton’s Laws?

Do they read?

Some of my colleagues at CU Boulder studied how students use textbooks in introductory physics (Podolefsky and Finkelstein, “The Perceived Value of Textbooks: Students and instructors may not see eye to eye.” The Physics Teacher, 44, 6, 2006),     Noah Podolefsky, one of the study’s authors, summarizes it below (as quoted from a physics teacher listserv):

In a nutshell, what we found was that few students read the book before class, more student did read (but still not many). However, there was no correlation between reading habits and final grade.  We interviewed students and basically found that they had different strategies for
reading – some read straight through, some read in a non-linear way (going back and forth), some just read the summary. Some students didn’t use the book because they scoured the internet for resources that made more sense to them. We couldn’t find any consistent patterns that related reading habits to performance in the class.

From their data, he claims, it was not clear that encouraging students to read the textbook would have actually helped them.  There’s no correlation between reading the book and doing well in the class, and students are reading in so many different ways that it’s hard to say anymore what “reading” means.  Noah postulates:

I can speculate as to why textbooks are not read, and perhaps not that useful, which is that they aren’t very well designed tools for learning physics. They’re pretty good for re-learning physics if you already have a good framework (i.e., you’re an upper level physics major or grad). But they don’t match very well how new comers (intro students) learn.

I think that this is why we, as academics, get so frustrated when students don’t read.  This is how we learn a new topic — by reading a journal article or a book.  But we’re experts, and we can make sense of the information as it’s presented in the book.  But students are novices, and need more guidance.

So how can we provide that guidance?

One thing that some faculty have tried are multimedia modules to help guide your students in their pre-class preparation.  For example, the University of Illinois has created a suite of multimedia modules, about 10 minutes long, which each guide students through some of the main ideas in the text for a particular topic.   Students watch the videos before class, and take a short quiz on their content to encourage participation. Below are a few such resources that are available online, but please let me know of others that you’re aware of:

  1. Physics: Multimedia Modules; 20-minute lessons with pictures and audio from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne.  Published work on effectiveness here.
  2. Various science: Hippocampus. Short lessons on various topics from the Monterey Institute of Technology, including some recommended ones on physics.
  3. Chemistry & Physics: Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Videos on science, recommended by a high school teacher.
  4. Chemical Engineering: LearnChMe screencasts from CU-Boulder. A richly developed suite of materials on engineering topics.
  5. Various science: Learning4Mastery website by Bergman and Sams covers high school chemistry, physics, earth science, astronomy, calculus, and biology, though their style is idiosyncratic and less easily incorporated into another class


Some other ways to guide students in their preparation are:

  1. Skip the multimedia part and just record your own lectures (using, for example, Panopto).  See some examples of this in physics here and here.
  2. Use pre-existing lectures such as MIT Open Courseware, or other lectures available on iTunesU.
  3. Ask students a pre-lecture quiz, to encourage and guide the reading, or simply ask them what was confusing or what they don’t understand.  This can also guide you as the instructor as to what students are struggling with.  This is called Just in Time Teaching, or JiTT. The quiz can be multiple choice and graded in your course management system to reduce grading burden.
  4. Have students write a brief summary of the reading, and a question that they have about the reading.


The research.

Of course, the big question is, does this stuff work? The answer is probably, as always, “it depends.”  There are few, if any, plug-and-play solutions in education.  How an instructor uses these resources, and coordinates them with the class time, is essential.  That said, here are the results of a few studies.

The UIUC multimedia modules have been studied for several years.  One way to look at the effectiveness is to look at a particular topic, and show students either the multimedia modules, or let them read the traditional textbook.  When they did this (Am. J. Phys, 2009), students did better on a subsequent test on their learning of that topic than with the text-based presentation alone.  That’s not too surprising, since using multiple modes of presentation is typically better than only one mode.  The UIUC folks have also used the multimedia modules in several courses — students watch the modules, and then take a short quiz on their understanding before class.  In another publication (Phys. Rev. ST, 2010), they found that students overall performed better on these “preflight” questions than did students in traditional lectures.  However, they have also reported that students don’t do much better, if at all, on course exams (Am. J. Phys, 2010).  Their interpretation of these results are that students are masters of efficiency.  If they’re aiming for a “B”,  then they’re going to get that “B” with as little work as possible.  So, by guiding students, the modules might have helped them to be more efficient in their studying practices.

Another study in Biology (Lents and Cifuentes, Web-based learning enhancements, J. College Sci. Teach., Nov/Dec 2009), some lecture attendance was replaced with video lectures that consisted of the visual of a powerpoint slide presentation enhanced with audio voiceover.  They found no effect (negative or positive) on student learning from this substitution.  While these authors were aiming to reduce student time-on-task for their largely commuter college, this does suggest the next step — having students engage in video-based learning at home and using lecture time for additional engagement — could be beneficial.

So, it certainly doesn’t seem to hurt to add some sort of pre-class preparation, and if you find some way to guide your students through the topic in a way that is more suited to novice learners than a dense textbook — it could help free up some of your class time to do more in-depth learning.

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Categories: Engagement, Formative Assessment, Higher Education, Lecture Capture
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5 Responses to “Do they do the reading? Helping students prepare for lecture”

  1. Andrew Dell'Antonio, UT Austin Says:

    Stephanie – this is great – do you know if there are resources/studies/models for those of us teaching in the arts/humanities?

  2. Derek Bruff Says:

    Great post, Stephanie. There’s a lot of merit in the inverted (flipped) classroom approach, but it hinges on making sure students have meaningful pre-class first exposures to course material. And that’s not easy! According to Eric Hobson’s IDEA paper on getting students to read (, if you ask students to read before class without holding them accountable, only 20-30% of them will do so. So alternative strategies are needed.

    I’m a fan of the pre-class reading quiz, useful for just-in-time teaching as you mentioned. Just yesterday I finished a draft of a paper on this topic, drawing on my 2006-07 study of pre-class reading quizzes, seen here in a non-peer-reviewed form: I tried to figure out what kinds of pre-class reading quiz questions helped students get more out of the reading. The result surprised me: more computational questions led to better student performance on in-class quizzes than conceptual pre-class reading questions. I believe that’s because students learn best when they move from the concrete (like a computational exercise) to the abstract (like a conceptual question).

    Thanks again for the post! Lots of great ideas and resources here.

  3. Stephanie Chasteen Says:

    Derek, thank you for leaving those resources! Accountability is a big focus of Joe Redish’s work (see Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite). But then I’ve talked lately with Ian Beatty about accountability for work (in particular with regards to assigning clicker points) and he feels strongly about creating a classroom culture where the rewards are intrinsic rather than extrinsic. What do you say to that?

    *Very* interesting finding regarding the computational questions, quite counter-intuitive. So, you’re suggesting that perhaps we want to give students concrete exercises first, almost as a scaffolding tool, to help them understand the reading, before we move to conceptual exercises?

    Andrew, I’m afraid that your question is outside of my expertise. If you find something, please let us know. Best of luck!


  4. Roger Freedman Says:

    Stephanie, thanks for the great post and the link to my intro physics video lectures!

    In my flipped class, I ask the students to (i) do the reading, then (ii) watch the video lecture (which concentrates on problem-solving), then (iii) solve two mid-level computational problems (chosen so they must do the reading to solve them) using the online homework system, and then (iv) submit a question to me online about something that was unclear from the reading and/or the video lecture.

    When we meet in class, the first thing I do is to discuss the answers to a selection of the students’ questions. They come up with some great ones! The rest of the “lecture” period is spent on clicker questions, worksheets, and physics demonstrations (with a clicker question before each demo in which the students are asked to predict the outcome of the experiment).

    As an aside, my classes are 75 minutes long, so always stop in the middle for a couple of minutes of physical exercise. I have them do the same exercises that are suitable for airline passengers sitting in coach, which is comparable to sitting in a lecture hall:,0

  5. Evan Halstead, Union College Says:

    If you are interested in flip teaching, you may find this blog entry useful:

    The author has been experimenting with flip teaching for 5 years. Here is a good excerpt:

    “While class-time was opened up for student problem-solving, and the video responses and reflections were amplified via the use of a google form as a tracking device, students seemed to be passively learning the material, at best. For all the benefits of flip teaching with respect to class-time, I now realize the HUGE negative was not flip teaching as a pedagogy, but simply the order of learning activities. Students come to my class with a rich and diverse prior knowledge, derived form 17 years of living “in” the subject. In the previous model, while my focus was on using class-time effectively, I failed at giving my students an opportunity to access their prior knowledge, tackle their misconceptions actively, and work to construct their own meaning FIRST. Derek Muller explains this extremely well in his video Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos.

    To address this issue, my first step was to RE-ORDER the way my class is structured and give students an opportunity to construct their own ideas and models BEFORE learning anything directly from me.”

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