Increasing students' comprehension of assigned readings and participation in class discussions through QRS, an active reading strategy

James R. Ebert
State University of New York College at Oneonta
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Students seldom achieve the level of learning that we intend with assigned readings. Likewise, they do not participate in class discussions of these readings as extensively as we would like. Through QRS, an active reading strategy, students' reading comprehension is improved and they come to class with written material that facilitates greater participation in classroom discourse. Written QRS assignments also function as formative assessments which enable faculty to diagnose gaps in student understanding and effectively target subsequent instruction.

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I have successfully used the QRS active reading strategy in the undergraduate courses in Sedimentary Geology (required course for undergraduate geology majors (typically juniors and seniors)) and Historical Geology (required course for majors in geology, hydrogeology and earth science education (freshmen through juniors)). QRS assignments also enhance the following graduate courses: Advanced Stratigraphy, Advanced Sedimentology, Sedimentary Petrology, and Seminar in Sedimentology and Stratigraphy.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

QRS active reading is a foundational skill. Therefore, no specific concepts or skills must be mastered before its use. However, for undergraduate students, it is beneficial to outline additional strategies for reading papers from the primary literature. I typically recommend that students preview the title, abstract, captions to illustrations (and look at the illustrations) and summary/conclusions in a paper before actually reading the entire paper and implementing the QRS strategy.

How the activity is situated in the course

Students are assigned to complete QRS reports from the first day of class in Sedimentary Geology. QRS assignments are given for an essay on the importance of observation, selected chapters in the textbook and selected papers from the primary literature.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

QRS is an active reading strategy that can be used with any topic. Therefore, specific content/concept goals are related directly to the assigned reading.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Through QRS, students should be able to read papers from the primary literature and extract central concepts (synthesis), recognize areas where their understanding of a reading is weak (metacognition), formulate specific questions to raise in class discussion (questioning and evaluation), critically analyze the data supporting central concepts in papers in the primary literature (evaluate), relate content from assigned reading to previous readings, class discussions, lectures and field experiences (synthesis).

Other skills goals for this activity

Through QRS, students should be able to read and comprehend geological papers from the primary literature, summarize essential points from papers, and use information from assigned readings to participate actively in class discussions.

Description of the activity/assignment

QRS is an active reading strategy that is designed to get students to think more carefully about what they are reading. The strategy consists of three parts. Q stands for questions. These are questions that occur to students as they read. Students should write down these questions as they arise. R represents Reaction. This is the student's emotional response to the reading. Did they like it or dislike it? Was it confusing or easy to understand? Cognitive scientists have documented a significant link between emotion and memory. Having the students think about their emotional reaction to a reading is intended to promote retention of the material. S signifies summary. Students write a brief summary of what they think are the most important points in the reading. The ability to summarize is an important skill for students to acquire. However, in the QRS context, it enables them to focus more clearly on the central points of the reading and thus promotes comprehension of the material. Student QRS reports are on the order of 2-3 double spaced pages in length. I generally allow one week between assignment of the reading and the due date for the written QRS. The due date is also the date on which the reading is discussed in class.

QRS is a modification of the QRC strategy developed by Dr. Clark Presson in the Psychology Department at Arizona State University. Dr. Presson invented the strategy for use with graduate students in a seminar setting. In QRC, the C signifies comments that student have. I have modified QRC to QRS for several reasons. First, the student summaries of readings provide an important formative assessment of their understanding of the reading. Second, the summaries provide a convenient means of assessing students' engagement with the reading. Discrepancies between student questions, reactions and summaries (e.g., very few questions (indicating a high level of understanding), an indication of liking the reading but only a cursory summary (students fail to identify most important points)) commonly indicate students were less than fully engaged with the reading. Finally, under the QRC format, undergraduate students do not fully distinguish between reaction and comment. QRC has worked well for Dr. Presson's graduate students, but the QRS format is more effective with undergraduates.

Determining whether students have met the goals

I use a 5 point scale in evaluating QRS submissions. Scores of 5 are awarded for assignments that include insightful questions, a thorough and honest description of the student's emotional reaction to the reading, and a detailed summary in which the most salient points of the reading are identified. Scores of 4 are awarded for assignments that may have excellent questions, but the reaction section lacks depth of self evaluation or the summary section does not include one or more major ideas from the reading. Scores of 3 result from cursory questions that clearly represent a lack of depth of thought. Generally such submissions also have weak summaries. The reaction section may range from strong to nearly absent. Thus far, I have not yet had to assign a score of less than 3. Because evaluation of the QRS assignment is somewhat subjective, I also recognize intermediate levels of achievement and therefore assign intermediate grades such as 3.8, 4.7, etc.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Clark Presson has not published the QRC strategy, nor have I for the QRS strategy. The related technique of reading the abstract, figure captions, examining the figures and reading the summary or conclusions is a loose paraphrase of the SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) active reading strategy developed by Frank P. Robinson (1941, Effective Behavior: New York, Harper and Row) which is widely promoted in numerous books on study skills for college students. However, it should be noted that many students find the full SQ3R strategy to be too cumbersome to use.

A poster (PowerPoint 54kB Aug12 06) based on this activity was presented at the Teaching Sedimentary Geology Workshop. See other posters from this workshop.