Secret Reading Weapon: Your Textbook’s TOC

The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, Available from Stylus Publishers

The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, Available from Stylus Publishers

Terry Doyle, author of The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, encourages teachers to think about the conversations we have with students related to student reading.

For example, when asking students to read for homework, do we ask them to simply “read the chapter”? Or do we discuss reading strategies that can help make reading a more active process?

Mr. Doyle emphasizes practices such as questioning and annotation. Questioning involves students writing questions about the headlines they see in the passage, before they read the passage.

One way to facilitate this kind of active reading is for us to consider our textbook’s Table of Contents, assuming we rely on our text for a substantial portion of our teaching.



Here are some steps the CFC identified to help create a formative assignment related to reading and comprehension:

  1. Search Google for your textbook’s table of contents.
  2. If you are able to find them on the web, copy and paste them into a Word document.
  3. Create smaller Word documents from the large document, such as a separate document for each chapter you’ll ask them to read.
  4. Post the documents to your course in the LMS:

a) as a discussion board prompt. Ask them to discuss the topics you post. What do they know about the topic, if anything? Where/how did they learn it? (Then assign the reading).

b) as an online assignment. If you want the reading to count for a more significant portion of their grade, a more substantial activity/assignment could be developed.

You might have seen this kind of practice in a textbook you use or have used before. Have you ever seen a short set of discussion questions in the opening pages of a chapter? They might have been written as reflective questions or questions intended to stimulate prior knowledge.

Creating minor, formative assignments centered around reading supports several principles for improving student learning, namely activating prior knowledge, and an opportunity to clarify prior misconceptions that students hold, which can be a barrier to them applying what they’ve learned in later stages of the course.  

The stepsheet Encourage Active Reading can walk you through the process for a course you teach.

Your Brain on Writing

What happens in the brain when we write?

A recent New York Times article profiled the work of Martin Lotze, a researcher at the University of Griefswald in Germany. He discovered through a functional magnetic resonance imaging study (fMRI) that different regions of the brain may become active for novice writers and expert writers when faced with the same task. The study may be of interest for us and our students.

Using Open-Note Quizzes to Facilitate Listening, Encoding and Retrieval

Open-note quizzes may seem like a practice too juvenile for university students, but consider how the open-note quiz facilitates student learning practices that faculty are fond of:


  • stronger listening skills
  • student elaboration when writing/encoding—which can facilitate future retrieval
  • student retrieval of a memory that involves multiple “paved roads” through the brain (the “paved road” of hand to paper, of visual-perception processes, of letter and symbol formation and arrangement on the page)
  • stronger note-taking (without good notes, the student doesn’t do well on the open-notes quiz)

Example of Open-Notes Quizzes Syllabus Statement (feel free to copy or modify): 


Why We Will Have Open Notes Quizzes:

I want to know that you’re learning what we go over in class, and one of the best ones to encourage this is for me to use open notes quizzes. This does a number of things. It helps you become a stronger listener, because the quality of your notes determines how well you will do later on the quizzes or tests. It also encourages you to learn the material better when you first hear it, because you usually write in your own words what you are hearing.