Engaging Students in Readings and Microlectures

In the wake of higher education’s unprecedented migration to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for guidance on delivering quality teaching online has never been more urgent. 

“I’d like to cheer for the heroic effort faculty across the country have made to support students in online learning in a very short time,” said Susan Cates, CEO of ACUE. The final installment of our Effective Online Instruction webinar series, Engaging Students in Readings and Microlectures, took place on April 20, 2020, and featured experts Ludwika Goodson, Catherine Haras, and Flower Darby. ACUE’s Kevin Kelly moderated the webinar.

Presented in collaboration with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU), the National Association of System Heads (NASH), the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), and the American Council on Education (ACE), each webinar in the series examined a different facet of delivering online instruction effectively. 

Focusing on microlectures, Goodson told the story of an engineering instructor who complained that students were asking questions that were answered in an 18-minute presentation he’d created. He realized that the microlecture simply wasn’t holding their attention, so he began creating shorter presentations and giving students more guidance on why the information in it was important.

In fact, Goodson advised delivering content in “short bursts,” with each microlecture lasting 1-6 minutes. “How long can you walk and talk?” she asked, referencing Michael Wesch and explaining that students often gravitate toward the “micro” version of anything.

Attention spans, she continued, just aren’t what they used to be, thanks to the distractions present today. She was reminded of longtime educator Linda Nilson, who told her that when she taught in the 1970s, students faithfully completed all the assigned readings, but later on, this was no longer the case. Nilson began using “reading wrappers” containing the most salient points in the readings to assess what — and whether — students had learned from them. Goodson suggested having students respond to questions before and after microlectures and readings, including “What was the most important point?” and “What did you find most difficult?”

“The learning improves,” Goodson said. “This may be the spark they need for feeling good about the material they’re studying.”

“Folks are very distracted now,” Haras agreed. “It’s a very good time to read. It’s a destresser and improves attention spans.”

“Even unsupervised reading is very effective,” she noted. “How do we supervise reading so it’s even more effective?”

Haras described reading as:








She encouraged instructors to think of it as “a way to have a social presence online,” while noting the importance of discussing the readings they assign. “Think about golden lines,” she said. “Interact with reading in a personal way.”

Ultimately, Haras explained, instructors need to show students how to think. She suggested asking students to share what they didn’t understand and floated the possibility of giving quizzes on assigned readings, too.

“If you want students to dig in, you need accountability and structure,” Darby added. She showed an example of a Eukaryotic Cell Component Worksheet and a fill-in-the-blank concept map created by her colleagues at Northern Arizona University, which students complete for points. While the assignments don’t need to significantly affect students’ grades, they should carry some sort of incentive for completion.

“Give students small pieces of content they can meaningfully engage with,” Darby said.

As the semester wears on, she continued, students might no longer need a points system to complete the assignments. However, instructors should include some sort of messaging about the value of the work even if they’re not required to do it — such as how the strategies can be applied to all their courses. 

In the Q and A portion of the webinar, the experts addressed how to work with students who find reading unpleasant and challenging.

“It’s a deeply metacognitive act,” Haras said. “The secret sauce is helping students draw connections. 

“It’s important to take a step back and realize the students may not be like us,” Darby added. She pointed to José Bowen, who noted that “we’re the weird ones” as people who made learning their careers. 

“Finding meaning in whatever they’re reading is very important,” added Goodson. “Find ways for them to look for meaning.”

You can watch the complete webinar, read a transcript from the event, access resources, and join the discussion via the Engaging Students in Readings and Microlectures page. Don’t forget to check out recordings of our previous webinars, too!

For faculty looking to delve further into online learning strategies, check out ACUE’s micro-credential courses.

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