The Engaged Student: Reading with Purpose

by Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

Educational research has consistently found that if students are engaged in the learning process, they are more likely to be successful in developing the identified competencies. For the last 10 years or so, nursing educators have focused on strategies to encourage nursing students to be engaged in their own learning process, moving from long lectures with many, many power-point slides designed to mimic the materials in the assigned text, to a more interactive approach in class, where students have the opportunity to apply the concepts under discussion in some way.

While most of us agree that the interactive approach to teaching-learning, sometimes known as “Flipping the Classroom,” should be the norm in nursing classes, as I work with schools across the country, I frequently hear,  “But the students don’t prepare for class by reading. How can they apply a concept that they don’t know anything about?”  So this month I would like to suggest some strategies we might use to encourage students to prepare for class by reading, so that they are ready for interactive and collaborative activities during class time.

Research into reading processes finds that there are two styles of reading that most of us employ.  The first is reading for entertainment; the second is reading with purpose.  Comprehension when we read for pleasure is usually shallow—and we may not remember particular details or be able to synthesize what we have read.  (This may be why, after I have killed time reading in an airport, several hours after getting off the plane, I often can’t remember the plot of the book.)  In contrast, when we read with purpose, we seem better able to concentrate to make connections among ideas necessary for critical thinking.

Given that the ability to think critically is central to nursing practice, how can we help nursing students read with purpose in an efficient way in order to prepare for class experiences? Here are some suggestions drawn from the literature related to reading with purpose that should help faculty provide the necessary structure for this type of reading.

  1. Choose student reading assignments wisely.  Ask yourself, ‘what is the core knowledge that the student must have to participate in the next classroom learning process?  What knowledge will students gain from class discussion and other assigned learning or homework?’  It may be necessary to choose “small chunks” of material for pre-class reading and plan other ways to integrate the material into their learning process.
  2. Provide instructions for students to follow when reading material. Some suggestions might be asking students to:
    • Summarize the main points of the assignment or identify the themes presented in the reading.
    • Answer one or two questions that cover the important points.
    • Generate 1-2 questions from the reading.
    • Prepare a 1-2 minute explanation of a process highlighted in the reading.
  3. To encourage students to read with purpose, nursing faculty may want to ask students to use an index card to complete the assignment related to the reading, so they can turn this in during the next class.  It is likely that turning in their work won’t be necessary as students become used to studying in this way, but it does provide some incentive to develop this habit.
  4. Ask students to prepare a short (1 minute) explanation for a chosen process and then ask them to provide this explanation to a partner at the beginning of the class.

Not only can these strategies increase students’ comprehension as they implement them, but they also provide an opportunity for students to incorporate these approaches into their independent study plan.  The faculty must also help students understand the difference between reading for entertainment and reading with purpose and help them integrate purposeful reading into their scholarly activities.  Most of us have had students say to us, “I should have done better on this test—I committed my whole week-end to studying.”  This is a perfect time to begin the discussion about ways to read with purpose.  For those of you who are intrigued with this approach, I would recommend you read “Reading with Purpose” by Tracy Linderholm.

Here’s to helping students engage in their learning.  Have a good month!


2 thoughts on “The Engaged Student: Reading with Purpose”

  1. Thank you for the suggestions on reading for purpose…I do have those students that do not read their text, with an assumed expectation I will tell them everything they need to know for the exam! Could you offer some suggestions in your next blog about the importance of learning related to reviewing an exam? I feel it important to understand the questions missed on an exam, as much as the learning to prepare for the exam! Thanks!

    1. Jennifer—thank you for your response and your suggestion related to the learning that should take place in test reviews. You are right on target to be thinking about how to effectively remediate students on an ongoing basis, so that they can make corrections in their thinking immediately. I will address some of those issues in this blog over the next several months. We always need to be thinking about ways to help students learn!


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