*title from "Judging the Book by its Cover" by Jeanne Beaumont

Too often, especially in higher grades/levels, and definitely in college and university, teachers assign books that students must immediately delve into.

What is wrong with this? It overlooks context, and at the expense of sounding like a broken record of the Charlie Brown teacher ("Wah wah wah"), I tell my students, "Context is everything."

Not examining the books and materials also overlooks schema (prior knowledge), and tapping prior knowledge — making connections — is essential for authentic learning. While teachers may teach how to use context clues for vocabulary learning or making meaning from reading, for example, how many of us begin by tapping prior knowledge and using context clues for establishing the audience for and purpose of the books and materials we’ve assigned?

Overwhelming neuroscience research demonstrates that our brains learn by forming connections; in fact, our brains seek connections in order to make sense of the world around us. "Good readers draw on prior knowledge and experience to help them understand what they are reading and are thus able to use that knowledge to make connections. Struggling readers often move directly through a text without stopping to consider whether the text makes sense based on their own background knowledge, or whether their knowledge can be used to help them understand confusing or challenging materials. By teaching students how to connect to text they are able to better understand what they are reading (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000)."

Therefore, it makes sense to frame learning — whatever the content — as holistic and to encourage curiosity about and help students make personal connections to their materials even before they have assignments.

As I’ve seen firsthand in my domestic and international teaching, authentic curricula and learning strategies (not test taking skills) are atypical. It is also atypical to find learning strategies taught across the curriculum after high school, which is particularly distressing given that, "The vast majority of public two- and four-year colleges report enrolling students — more than half a million of them — who are not ready for college-level work, a Hechinger Report investigation of 44 states has found."

Another Hechinger Report found that, "Students pass state tests that say they’re good enough to graduate from high school but colleges consider them unprepared to do higher-level work." ELLs account for nearly 20% of all college students in American colleges and 24% of American community college students.

There’s no shortage of evidence that proves even college and university students need learning support: According to the Center for Postsecondary Readiness at Teachers College, Columbia University, "68% of (U.S. community college) students who began in 2003-04 took one or more remedial courses by 2009. 48% took two or more. 35% took a remedial course in their first year 2011-12."

The statistics for U.S. four-year college students are equally troubling, "40% of students who began in 2003-04 took one or more remedial courses by 2009. 21% took two or more." However, learning to learn and learning how to learn strategies are typically geared to K-12 students despite the fact that, "After 12th grade, individuals with learning and attention issues will only receive accommodations in college or the workplace if they disclose their disabilities. But many students leave high school without the self-awareness, self-advocacy skills or self-confidence to successfully navigate their new independence and seek out support when needed."

Likewise, only about one-third of (U.S.) students identified as learning disabled graduate from college or university within eight years and 41% graduate from two-year colleges. What about students and teachers outside of the U.S.? Many (most) countries do not have resources for learning disabled students in mainstream classrooms, especially in higher education.

While I am not a learning disability specialist or special education teacher, I have worked for years with students who have learning disabilities and need support; those in the U.S. whose challenges have been identified and are familiar with and are receiving the available supports know who to reach out to when they matriculate in higher education. However, students in countries that do not offer such support are at high risk of unnecessary failure, and sadly, I’ve witnessed such failure too often.

Although we cannot replace the valuable work of learning disability specialists and special education teachers, we can do our part, however small (but not insignificant), to teach our students strategies to support their learning. There is no question that whomever our students are, all can benefit from teachers incorporating learning strategies into their courses.

College and university professors — especially those who are not trained teachers and regardless of content area--may be overwhelmed by the suggestion that they must provide students with learning strategies, and some professors may be dismayed that college students do not know the strategies.

However, the facts, as demonstrated from the research noted above, present greater consternation than your own. You need not be overwhelmed, though, when you employ a lively activity that serves multiple purposes to encourage students’ access to learning. There’s no need to continue to bang your head against the locked door when you can use the key.

Let’s begin with a physically small but content-rich book, "Live and Learn and Pass It On: Volume One" by H. Jackson Brown, Jr., which was the basis for my July 2019 article. Although this particular activity is designed for either or both volume one or two of Brown’s books, it is an example of how to introduce any text in any course, regardless of content or level.

As you’ll see, it is also a vehicle for introducing and/or reviewing text features as well as key critical thinking vocabulary, is an excellent introduction to audience and purpose, prompts multiple intelligences (see Ideas for MI Activities in the Classroom; see also https://www.multipleintelligencesoasis.org/), and is a fresh and welcome approach to the well-used “getting to know you” activities to which many of our students have become accustomed and are even bored by.

Before assigning anything, have students examine the book and respond to these questions. Students can do this individually, in pairs, or in small groups, and then share in a large (whole class) group.

1. What is on the book cover? Identify everything.

2. Is there artwork on the cover? What is it?

3. If there isn’t any artwork, why do you think there isn’t any?

4. Is the back cover the same as the front? Why/why not?

5. What is the title? What do you think the title means/what does the title suggest?

6. Look through the book: How is the book arranged? Is there a table of contents? An index? Chapters? Sections? A vocabulary list? Internal artwork: photos, drawings, paintings, graphs? What do all of these suggest to you? What can you infer from this information?

7. Is there a subtitle? What is it? What does it mean/suggest to you?

8. What do you think about the font and type size?

9. What can we learn from the book before we use the book’s content? For example, "Live and Learn and Pass It On" has a subtitle: "People ages 5 to 95 share what they’ve discovered about life, love, and other good stuff." One of the questions I have for students is, "What about those who are under five and over 95?"

10. As a critical thinking activity, ask students to create a list of the reasons those under five and over 95 are not included. Then ask, “Do you think they can be included? Should they be included? Do they have lessons to share?”

11. Another question is “Who is this book for? Who isn’t this book for?” (E.g., This book is for people who can understand and read English at XXX level; it’s not for babies because they can’t read yet. If they’re looking at an advanced chemistry book, for example, students might offer, “It’s not for children unless they’re chemistry prodigies. It’s probably for students majoring in chemistry or medicine. It’s not for chemists or scientists because they already know the information.”)

12. Ask about the volume of the book: What volume is it? What do you think is different about volumes one and two (or any of the volumes)?

13. When was the book published? Does the date of publication matter? Explain.

14. Look at the final page of the book (this is particular to “Live and Learn,” but it may be applicable to others). Would you be willing to make a submission? Why/why not?

15. For a bit of a cultural introduction, you can use the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," and ask: Is the book too XXX, too XXX, or just right? Too easy, too hard, too silly, too confusing, too childish, etc. Have students explain their responses. What makes it too easy? Too hard? Too complicated? How would you improve it?

Have your students — in pairs, small groups, or as a class — create a new cover and title and have them explain what they’ve chosen. One approach I’ve used when creating class publications is to have students work first individually, and after they have a design and title, to write their rationale.

Then, students are partnered to share their work after which students move around the room to see others’ titles and designs and discuss rationales. You can also have students create a subtitle. Finally, as a large group, they discuss everything they’ve seen and learned about the designs, titles, subtitles, and anything else they’ve created and choose one, explaining their choices.

Once your students have completed this activity or as an introduction to the activity, you can suggest that students do the same thing with their other textbooks. If you choose to have students complete this activity with a textbook for another course, they can do it outside of class and/or as an activity that they present in class.

A particularly engaging activity that you can include — either before or after you use the textbook for your course — is to have students compare two or three texts on the same topic. Find such texts online and create a simple slideshow (Powerpoint, Prezi, Keynote, Google Slides) showing the texts side by side.

Though students won’t have the opportunity to review more than the front (and perhaps back) cover, this activity is a good introduction. ReadWriteThink has a book cover activity (although designed for K-12, you can adapt it to college and university level).

I’ve used an adapted version of this activity when I’ve taught journalism courses and activities in assessing credibility, having students compare tabloids and established credible newspapers. In whatever way you choose to adapt and use the activity, it taps students’ prior knowledge and multiple intelligences, encourages problem based learning and critical thinking, introduces or reiterates critical analysis vocabulary, provides transferable learning to learn skills, and gives students a refreshing "getting to know you" activity.