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Strategies for improving reading comprehension among college students.

Comprehension in textbooks, scholarly books, and research journal articles, along with identification of important information can be problematic for college students. Reading is fundamental in all academic disciplines. Many college instructors do not see that teaching students reading skills as part of their job, and that reading required college-level textbooks and scholarly books are not different from reading general (non-academic) materials. These instructors also assume that students have developed proper reading skills from previous academic years. However, instructors do not realize that students may often experience difficulty in reading academic subject matter and in comprehending what they have read, resulting in low rates of student success and retention, along with lowered academic standards. This article reviews various strategies for improving student comprehension of required reading materials. These strategies may include providing students with background knowledge or experience, providing practical homework and class work, providing learning aids, using the SQ3R and peer teaching methods, practicing encoding, as well as teaching reading flexibility.


Reading is basic in all academic disciplines (White, 2004). Good comprehenders are knowledgeable and strategic readers (Anmarkrud and Braten, 2007). College student graduates are not necessarily good readers. Even though college students are reading advanced academic material, it does not mean that they always comprehend the information (Taraban, et al., 2000). In most public schools, reading instruction often ends in the fifth or sixth grade (White, 2004).

Although students spend the majority of their time reading and studying, college-level courses do not put an emphasis on reading comprehension (Shaw, 1999). Many instructors believe that students already possess the skills needed to succeed, and those who do not believe it is possible to teach the required skills at the college level (Sherfield et al., 2005). In addition, instructors may not believe that there is much more difficulty involved in reading college level materials. In the United States, freshman college students typically finish the end of their first year with little reading comprehension skills (White, 2004).

These students then need to attend reading classes as well as enroll in assistance labs. There are many strategies, both in class and at home, to improve reading comprehension (White, 2004). Instructors can improve comprehension through non-reading related information such as background knowledge or experiences, homework and class work, and learning aides (Table 1). Instructors can also teach students how to use other strategies including the SQ3R method, peer teaching, encoding, and reading flexibility (Table 1).

Background Knowledge or Experiences

Background knowledge or experiences are non-reading experiences that college instructors can use to facilitate and maximize student learning new materials. Lectures are one of the primary teaching modes and have been in existence for a long time. Although there seems to be conflicting ideas about whether lectures are a successful method in improving reading comprehension, it has been argued that a "good" lecture can improve comprehension (Parker, 1993). A good lecture facilitates information processing in listeners. In order to give a good lecture, instructors must be familiar with and know how each of the components in the information processing model functions (Parker, 1993). The information-processing model, which was developed by psychologists, gives us the insight into how human beings process and store information (Parker, 1993). Knowing those components then gives instructors the ability to transmit information to the student's long-term memory (Parker, 1993). Lectures can be important when students are being introduced to a fairly large and cohesive body of knowledge (Parker, 1993). Students can get overwhelmed easily with text-based material. Instructor's lectures are an overview of important information taken out of the text. They are a direct and precise layout of what they want students to focus on.

Another type of background knowledge or experiences is classroom discussions, which encourage instructors to engage students in interactions to promote analysis, reflection and critical thinking (Goldenberg, 1992). Class discussions demand participation from students and get them involved in what they are learning. Class discussions encourage thinking, reasoning, and comprehension of important ideas (Goldenberg, 1992). Class discussions stimulate students to listen and evaluate the material being discussed, giving them the opportunity to bring up their own thoughts and ideas, which get all students involved and building on each other's input. These discussions lay the foundation for what students will be reading, giving them the background knowledge and concepts to have a clear understanding of what's in the textbook chapter. Class discussions are such a valuable part of the learning experience that many instructors have advocated for more frequent use of them (Goldenberg, 1992). Although this is not a new strategy in aiding reading comprehension, class discussions have been a successful and widely used method in giving students the skills that are required (Little et al., 2000). Little et al. (2000) use the reciprocal teaching method, concluding that classroom discussions are an important and clear way to enhance comprehension skills and strategies.

Although there are many types of instructional media, video instruction is thought to be important in problem-based learning. Video instruction is able to convey characters, settings, and action in a more interesting way, as well as can portray more complex and interconnected problems (Choi and Johnson, 2005). Among various tools, the use of instructional technology has been rapidly adopted for the enhancement of interactions and activities. Choi and Johnson (2005) investigate the potential of a constructivist approach to context-based video instruction for the purpose of enhancing learning, such as comprehension. There was a significant difference in learners' motivation in terms of attention between the video-based instruction and traditional text-based instruction (Choi and Johnson, 2005). Video instruction is more memorable than the text-based instruction. Video-based instruction has the ability to transmit information in a way that is more stimulating to students (Choi and Johnson, 2005). Instructional videos are able to break down difficult contexts making the material relatively easy to comprehend (Choi and Johnson, 2005). A critical attribute of video is the ability to use both auditory and visual symbol systems (Choi and Johnson, 2005). Videos get students involved by acting out real situations that students can relate to, and therefore give a clear picture of what they are trying to convey. Videos have a precise way of describing what could be confusing or difficult to understand in text alone.

Computer programs seem to be the least explored type of the background knowledge or experiences. Stephens and Konvalina (1999) use computer algebra software to teach intermediate and college algebra, revealing that the experimental group achieved substantially higher mean scores than the control group. Many instructors in the science and math fields use computer programs. Computer programs can aide in the process of learning by showing a detailed way of solving a problem. Computer programs may provide teachers with a tool for enhancing teaching and learning in their classrooms (Kim et al., 2006). These programs have the ability to teach students at their own pace, provide choices in learning paths, reading passages, reading level options, and encourage a variety of practice exercises to be used (Kim et al., 2006). Thus, computer-assisted programs provide students with an interactive learning environment intended to maintain their interest, while teaching them how to apply comprehension strategies as they read expository text passages (Kim, et al., 2006). Many students with learning disabilities have not developed the ability to skillfully apply comprehension strategies (Kim et al., 2006). Students have expressed positive results, and felt their reading skills and comprehension have improved with the assistance of the program (Kim et al., 2006). There is a significant improvement in their reading comprehension, and computer-assisted comprehension can be used in aiding to improve reading comprehension in college courses (Kim et al., 2006).

Providing Homework and Class work

College students should be provided with sufficient homework and class work in order to help improve reading comprehension in their courses. Critical reading and thinking skills require active reading (White, 2004). Being active readers mean students have to engage with the text, both mentally and physically. Students should do the following: skim ahead, jump back, and highlight the text when they are studying (Sheffield et al., 2005). They should make specific observations about the text (Sheffield et al., 2005). Students should skim and scan homework and class work assignments to get the general idea of its contents (Sherfield et al, 2005). They should pre-view the material prior to actually reading it. Students should get an overview by getting the "big picture" and by getting the overall sense of the content of the book.

Instructors should provide class-related topics that are exciting and interesting. The best instructors tell stories related to topic; when students are taking a quiz or exam, they will remember the story associated with the lecture to recall the information. Practice exercises are also essential to improve reading comprehension in college courses. Practice exercises in class and homework help students to remember the information for quizzes and final exams. New words appearing in the scripted materials are printed on a flipchart. In this way, students could see and take careful notice during the discussion of each new word as it is used in a textbook illustration, and is identified and printed on a chalkboard. These new words are referred to in the reading activity (Ediger, 2007).

Providing Learning Aide by Instructors

What is the best method of assisting college course material comprehension? The use of study guides or learning aides have widely been utilized with the general course lecture to facilitate and maximize student understanding of the course material (Khogali, 2004). Some of these study guides include quizzes, textbook pedagogical aides, handouts, and learning packets. However, there are conflicting research studies on the effectiveness of such aides in helping college students comprehend course material. The structure of learning aides should be similar to the course exams for students to show a significant increase in their exam scores. Also, the use and completion of learning aides provided to students for course material comprehension should be of a voluntary nature (Gurung, 2003).

Study guides are instructional tools that are used to aide students in the acquisition of content information (Hudson, 1994). Study guides, however, are an independent review by students of the academic material. Khogali (2004) states that study guides serve as a powerful tool to help students manage their own learning. Hudson (1994) states that many students have difficulty reading textbooks and understanding concepts presenting in the class. In order for these students to comprehend reading material effectively and efficiently, lecturers should provide guidance with the concepts presented in the assigned text readings. These learning aides can be used to introduce new content vocabulary, guide content-specific reading, review newly introduced content concepts, integrate new content with previously learned content, and practice specific unit skills (Khogali, 2004). Thus, Study guides assist college students with comprehension of course material.

However, Gurung (2003) has shown that there is no significant positive correlation between the use of study guides and performance on exams. The study guides contain outlines, chapter reviews, key terms, practice test questions, online quizzes, group exercises, and paper assignments (Gurung, 2003). Balch (2001) yields similar results of low correlations between study aides and course performance. Gurung (2003) concludes that the outcome is due to assessment methods that do not test the other forms of learning that study aides provided. Brothen and Wambach (2001) also confirm that online textbook material and quizzes help students comprehend and master the lecture material do not result in any significant improvement on student exam scores. Collectively, these researchers believe that many students have used the quizzes as a quick way to learn the material or perceived the quizzes simply as a task to complete, rather than an opportunity to guide their learning.

Despite no significant positive correlation with the use of study guides and student exam performances, none of the researchers have ruled out study guides as being completely useless in improving material comprehension. Gurung (2003) have advised that instructors should provide explicit guidelines on how to use different pedagogical aides because some students may simply misuse the study guides. Gurung (2003) has cautioned students from spending too much time on some aides at the expense of studying other important material or working on understanding the material. Brothen and Wambach (2001) explain that their research outcome is due to students focused too much on earning a favorable grade on quizzes, not on actually learning the material. Brothen and Wambach (2001) advise a quiz set-up where students are proctored and encouraged to prepare, gather feedback from the quiz, and then restudy the material. The Prepare-Gather Freedback-Restudy theory focuses on the individual learning aspects of students; this voluntary study focus directs attention away from simply earning grades for the college course to actually comprehending the reading material (Brothen and Wambach, 2001).

Voluntary study tactics involving textbook quizzes, contrary to a situation in which students complete a quiz just for credit, have shown positive correlations to higher exam scores (Grimstad and Grabe, 2004). Students who have taken advantage of the quizzes as a voluntary study tool have performed consistently better than non-users of the course examination. Grimstad and Grabe (2004) account the positive correlation to the decrease in the maladaptive behavior of simply looking up quiz question information in the text to avoid having to retake quizzes. The voluntary aspects of quizzes have allowed students to use quizzes as a guide to assist in academic material comprehension and exam. Dickson et al.'s (2005) study supports the effectiveness of study guides in an introductory psychology course that use multiple-choice exams. Study guides used for the research include activities for learning objectives, vocabulary, fill-in-the-blank concepts, matching, multiple-choice questions, short essay questions, and language enhancement (Dickenson et al., 2005). Students who focus 75% or more of the time on study guide material do not show significant improvements than those who focus 25% or less (Dickson et al., 2005). Only selected study guide materials have benefited students in achieving higher exam scores. The multiple-choice study guide accounted for the improved exam performance due to the "transfer-appropriate processing theory" (Herrmann, 1993). This theory infers that retrieval of specific information is improved if the same kind of mental processing is used during the study of the information (Herrmann, 1993).

Moreover, Dickson et al.'s (2005) study greatly emphasizes the importance of providing study guides for academic material comprehension. Study guides offer students an opportunity to use effort in processing and manipulating course material. Completing study guide exercises also encourage students to apply the information to reality, and to focus their study efforts on actually understanding the meaning of the material, rather than mere memorization. Study guides also promote student understanding by providing written explanations to answers and by providing immediate feedback.

Using the SQ3R Method

In the mid-1940's, Francis Robinson developed the SQ3R method of self-regulated reading (Sheffield, 2005). College students and professionals need a method to help them become proficient in reading in order to help them learn more effectively. Proficient reading skills give students the potential to be better selfdirected learners, and therefore acquire more expertise within their professional fields (Artis, 2008). There are four items that proficient readers partake of. First, students have a reason for why they are reading and how they will read. Second, students know their skill process when they read. Third, students keep track of their reading comprehension. Finally, students use a large assortment of reading methods for different reading passages (Artis, 2008).

The SQ3R method includes survey, question, read, recite and review (Feldt and Moore, 1999). To survey the reading material, students need to quickly overview the text and understand the main points and how this information is structured. Using the survey part of this reading method, students will skim the textbook chapter to see the overall structure, decide which reading method will be best based upon the headings and view the larger image of the chapter to understand the reading (Artis, 2008). By knowing what the textbook chapters are about, students can provide questions to promote critical thinking skills (Artis, 2008).

During the question phase of the SQ3R reading method, students build questions based on the surveying they did previously (Feldt and Moore, 1999). These questions are provided with the intention that they will be answered later on in the reading (Artis, 2008). Through this phase, students should make judgments or predictions at what the author is trying to convey and understand why this reading segment is relevant to the overall course purpose. After completing the question phase, student will read the text actively (Sheffield et al., 2005).

Reading is the most important part of the SQ3R method (Artis, 2008). Students will use the reading techniques previously chosen through the survey step in order to gain the most understanding. During the reading step, students must understand each section of the textbook chapter before moving onto the next portion, and answer questions throughout the entire reading step (Artis, 2008). Students must also be able to comprehend the reading assignment and understand the purpose of the reading in the overall course (Artis, 2008). Students can record notes in the book margins or use a separate notebook. Recording notes will help students to understand the authors' ideas and concepts (Artis, 2008).

Understanding these concepts throughout textbook chapters is also justified through the recite phase (Feldt and Moore, 1999). Immediately, students should reflect on what they have read, including reciting answers to questions they asked during the survey portion (Artis, 2008). Students can write their responses by reading review questions and summary statement, which will help to check their comprehension better (Artis, 2008).

Through review, students can reflect on their reading comprehension and retention (Artis, 2008). Review forces students to reorganize the reading in a way that will make sense to them personally (Artis, 2008). Students are also able to return to the reading assignment at a later time, and have the knowledge of the comprehension they have gained from the reading (Sherfield et al., 2005). They are able to pick up where they left off much easier. Students reflect on their answers to questions in the reading in the review step of the SQ3R method (Artis, 2008).

Since the SQ3R method was developed, many similar reading methods have stemmed from this self-regulated reading method (Artis, 2008). These include, PQ4R (preview, question, read, reflect, recite, and review), FAIRER (facts, ask questions, identify major and minor details, read, evaluate your comprehension, and review), SQ10R (survey, question, read, reflect, review, repeat, rethink, reintegrate, rehash, rewrite, rehearse, and reread), and SQ6R (survey, question, read, reflect, review, rehash, rethink, and reevaluate) (Artis, 2008). Although the SQ3R has remained the most popular method, students can also use some of the other similar techniques during their reading (Artis, 2008).

Using Peer Teaching

Using peer teaching, a small group of college students take turn being the teacher. Peer teaching has also been called cooperative learning (Gourgey, 1998). First, the group reads a portion of textbook chapter silently, and then the peer teacher asks a question that may be asked by the actual teacher about what they just read (Gourgey, 1998). The group discusses the reading and assists each other with any questions or clarification if needed (Gourgey, 1998). The peer teacher makes a guess about what could be happening next in the text. This process can help students to gain better understanding of their reading (Ormrod, 2008). The actual teacher of the class starts off the group discussion and offers much help. Through time, the teacher reduces the assistance that is given to the group until the group is guiding the entire discussion on their own.

Cooperative learning is designed to help students bring up their own questions about the reading. They are also distinguishing the more important content of the passage and not necessarily focusing on the less important and more trivial details (Gourgey, 1998). Through cooperative learning, students are also able to look at the reading and make future predictions about what comes next. Cooperative learning has been demonstrated to be an effective method for improving comprehension (Ormrod, 2008).

Another approach is peer-assisted instruction. This procedure involves two students taking part in reading and understanding together, bringing about more opportunities for each student to ask questions they have and to answer questions the other student has (Ezell et al, 1997). They are able to learn together for understanding the reading assignment. Students were paired with another student based upon level of achievement (Ezell et al, 1997). Higher or average performing students are paired with a student who achieves lower results based upon a pretest performance (Ezell et al, 1997). This approach allows students to ask questions about the assigned reading together in a group (Ezell et al, 1997).


The last of the seven major methods in improving reading comprehension in college courses involves improving the encoding process while reading academic material. In this article, the two major techniques of improving encoding are the use of outlines and concept mapping. Both techniques involve the use of meaningful learning that interrelate existing relevant knowledge in the mental structure to the acquisition of new information. Research studies have shown that the use of an outline and the implementation of concept mapping have shown positive correlations to improved reading comprehension (Ormrod, 2008).

Outlining or concept mapping material reveals significant positive correlations with reading comprehension (White, 2004). Glynn and DiVesta (1977) explain that what is learned from textual materials depends upon students' acquired knowledge, the organization of this knowledge in the knowledge structure, and the manner and degree of processing the new material. Structurally, the use of an outline presents the visual organization of a textbook that function to prepare readers for identification of major topics and relevant information within the text. This identification leads to meaningful storage of new material in long-term memory (Glynn and DiVesta, 1977). The outline serves as a guide for facilitating information retrieval by providing specific cues that are applied during the learning experience (Ormrod, 2008). Instructors are, therefore, recommended to provide chapter outlines with main and subheadings of the academic text material. Students should be assigned the duty of completing the outline, filling the headings with notes and detailing information to further connect the outline to the main text (Glynn and DiVesta, 1977).

Concept mapping is a schematic tool that allows college students to graphically represent their knowledge (Hill, 2004; Ormrod, 2008). The concept map graphically depicts an inclusive main concept to which connections to several other general concepts are shown by overarching and lines of direct and indirect relationships (Hill, 2004). Chiou (2008) explains that concept mapping also shows hierarchical relationships (Fig. 1). The ideas and concepts include several graphic branches to which hierarchical structures are formed. The network of concepts moves downward to show differences in main to more specific concepts (Chiou, 2008). Concept mapping helps students diagram their knowledge of key concepts, and demonstrates their understanding of relationships among them (Fig. 1). Cross-links are also formed to connect two distinct segments of the concept hierarchy (Fig. 1). The use of cross-links serves as an important integrative function on the concept map (Choiu, 2008). The concept mapping technique encourages learning in an active method that effectively improves long-term retention of new knowledge (Ormrod, 2008). Concept mapping effectively encodes new information to long-term cognitive structures by integrating new information to prior knowledge structures (Hill, 2004). The "Cognitive Learning Theory" emphasizes that the brain learns most effectively by relating new knowledge to prior knowledge, and that meaningful learning requires effort to link new knowledge with more inclusive concepts in a person's cognitive structure (Hill, 2004). In this regard, concept mapping is an effective learning tool for college students who have more complex experiences and more accumulations of knowledge than much younger-aged students who are juvenile in their academic endeavors (Hill, 2004). The concept mapping technique can reveal reading comprehension by students in college courses by the organization of their knowledge, understanding of the relationships of various concepts and propositions, and the display of creativity used to integrate additional concepts (Hill, 2004).

Hill (2004) explains that the concept mapping assignment has helped many college students to appreciate the breath and depth of their learning. However, Hill (2004) notes that over 50% of the college students have enjoyed the assignment and have found it useful in organizing their ideas, retaining information and relating course material to other knowledge. However, other students have reported the technique challenging and have showed uncertainty in using a new learning tool. Concept mapping introduces a different way for students to learn that can be time-consuming, and can bring uneasiness and unfamiliarity to some. However, rewards of a concept mapping are that it can help college students comprehend abstract material, integrate other learning with new material, and engage them in understanding conceptual material, so that students are challenged to move beyond straight memorization to meaningful learning (Hill, 2004).

Moreover, concept mapping can also benefit college instructors in identifying any student misconceptions and improvements in student understanding of course material (Chiou, 2008). Since the concept map allows learning concepts of students to be drawn graphically, the concept map can be an insightful tool for instructors to use in assisting students in evaluation and application of concept comprehension.

Teaching Reading Flexibility

College students need to be guided through the course information. Students must be given a purpose for reading the passage of information, their thinking needs to be stimulated, their curiosity needs to be aroused, and they need to be assisted with major concepts and vocabulary (White, 2004). Students must learn to adjust their speed and style of reading to their reading objectives and the type of materials to be read (White, 2004). Some reading materials can be scanned, skimmed through, and read lightly, while others must read closely and critically. Frequently, a combination of various reading methods is desirable or necessary. College instructors can give students insight on how to identify which materials to use for different types or reading speeds and styles (White, 2004).

Educational Implications

College instructors have noticed that modern computer technology is starting to affect different reading methods, and providing new means for improving reading comprehension. Modern technology will have a large impact on student learning and how instructors provide enhancement materials. Many textbooks are starting to offer pedagogical and learning aides online. Some educational companies and organizations have begun to integrate the textbook material with online resources and applications to facilitate student learning. This advancement in providing methods of improving reading comprehension will need research and experiments for relationship studies.

In addition, instructors found that many recent research studies have shown the importance of possessing a large vocabulary in order to understand college-level textbooks. Many professional journal articles dealing with reading comprehension discuss how helpful it is to understand the meaning of many words. Because vocabulary is crucial in relating to what college students are reading, future research studies are required to further investigate this interesting and practical topic.



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Department of Educational Psychology

University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Table 1. An overview of major strategies of improving
reading comprehension among college students.

Major strategy

Background Knowledge and Experience
 Class discussions
 Instructional videos
 Computer programs

Homework and Class Work
 Class-related topics
 Practice exercises

Learning Aide
 Study guide from textbook
 Learning packet
 Chapter or section review questions
 Chapter or section summary statements
 Further or suggested readings

The SQ3R Method

 Cooperative learning
 Peer-assisted instruction

 Concept Mapping

Reading Flexibility
 Focus on new materials
 Browse through already-known materials
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Author:Lei, Simon A.; Rhinehart, Patricia J.; Howard, Holly A.; Cho, Jonathan K.
Publication:Reading Improvement
Date:Mar 16, 2010
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