Common Reading Initiatives: Strategies That Work

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Common Reading Initiatives: Strategies That Work

  • Catherine Andersen, Vice Provost
  • University of Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland USA
  • Fellow at the John.N.Gardner Institute
  • European First Year Conference
  • June, 2018


  • Introductions
  • Common/Summer Reading: what, why
  • Steps in the process
    • Book selection
    • PR and planning
    • Activities and events
    • Budget
    • Assessment

University of Baltimore

  • Enrollment: 5,336
  • 2,825 undergraduate, 1,841 graduate and 670 Law
  • Four Colleges
  • College of Public Affairs
  • College of Business
  • College of Arts and Sciences
  • School of Law


Common Reading: What is it?

  • Book chosen for all entering students or select group of students
  • Faculty, staff & extended community can participate
  • Series of events to promote a common intellectual experience

Common Reading: Why?

  • Establishes academic expectations before arrival
    • Establishes a culture of readers
  • Connects to institution’s mission and First-Year Experience goals
  • Provides academic and social integration opportunities
  • Provides a springboard for community conversation

Why Common Reading?

  • Common reading supports two key theoretical principles of student retention and learning:
    • Active involvement (Astin 1985)
    • Social integration (Tinto, l975, l993).

Why Common Reading?

  • “A common reading may simulate, on a smaller scale, the advantages associated with a core curriculum by providing a “core” learning experience…”
  • (Cuseo, FYE listserv 2004)
  • Kuh (2005) stressed the importance of offering ways for students to spend time with each other. Peers are essential to student learning and motivation.
  • (Laufgraben, 2006)

Steps in the process

  • Book selection
  • PR and planning
  • Activities and events: curricular and co-curricular
  • Budget
  • Assessment

Step 1: Book Selection

  • Criteria for choosing a book
  • Who sets the criteria? Who reads the books, narrows the field of choices?
    • Committees
    • Faculty
    • Director of The First Year
    • Students
  • Who funds the program?
  • Process and timelines

Book Selection Continued

    • Book selection
      • Readable and engaging
      • Literary quality
      • Contemporary
      • Relevancy to issues related to first-year students
      • Appealing to males and females
      • Possibilities for additional programming
      • Interdisciplinary
      • Rich in content/themes
      • Cost (paperback vs. hardback)
      • Length
      • Likelihood students read the book in high school
      • Potential to use the book in other classes or in other areas of the curriculum
          • (Laufgraben 2006)

Example book selection process

    • Furthers one or more college initiatives and mission
    • Meaningful and relevant to current society
    • Applicable to college divisions
    • Has an audio version (film version possible)
    • Short- to fit in 10 week syllabus
    • Good read and well written
    • Accurate portrayal of individuals (accurately and fairly)
    • Author availability

Where to find a book?

  • Electronic sources
    • First Year websites
      • Example: Summer Reading at Appalachian State
    • Commercial websites, bestseller lists, book club selections
  • College publications
  • Colleagues
  • Students and Faculty

You can also access electronic resources E-Source, NRC's electronic newsletter on College Transitions, has published numerous articles on common reading programs, in ARCHIVES

  •  2015 – Vol. 12, No. 2, Page 14-15 – Good for the gander: Why common reading programs are good for faculty
  • 2012 – Vol. 10, No. 1, Page 5 – Building a fully integrated university common reading program
  • 2009 – Vol. 6, No. 6, Page 11 – Wofford’s novel experience: Taking a common reading program to dinner
  • 2008 – Vol. 5, No. 5, Page 6 – Connecting common reading and study abroad
  • 2007 – Vol. 5, No. 1, Page 1 – One book, one campus: Exploring common reading programs
  • 2007 – Vol. 4, No. 4, Page 8 – Lafayette’s first-year students analyze a film for their common reading
  • 2005 – Vol. 3, No. 3, Page 5 – The novel experience: An uncommon summer reading program
  • 2005 – Vol. 3, No. 2, Page 1 – Mountains beyond mountains: Campus and community apply summer reading to Katrina aftermath

Step 2: PR and Planning

  • Contact agents, publishers
    • Consider
    • Author’s availability & cost
    • Author’s presentation style
    • Alternatives to author

Step 2: PR and Planning

  • Begin campus-wide advertising to engage faculty/staff
  • Update your website
  • Announce selection on new student portal
  • Send letter & guided reading questions to newly admitted students
  • Stock your bookstore
  • Plan coming semester events

Step 3: Activities & Events

    • New Student Orientation & Convocation
    • Semester events prior to author visit
      • Panel Discussions
      • Essay Contest (to have lunch with author)
      • Movie Nights
      • Programs in residence halls
      • Reading recognition buttons
    • Author visit to campus
      • Public presentation
      • Book signing
      • Class discussions

Example Curriculum Connections

  • Quote of the week/words of wisdom
  • Connections to issues throughout the semester
  • Visiting presenters’ connections
  • Weekly journals
  • Interdisciplinary – in or across courses
  • Reflective writing at midterm, final

Step 4: Budget

  • Develop a budget
  • Establish funding options
    • Administrators may be looking for return on investment (ROI) so you have to go in prepared
  • Share costs across campus – link with existing events
  • Biggest costs is author visit – there are other options
    • Virtual, partnering with other institutions or community events

Step 5: Assessment

  • What is Assessment?
  • -”Any effort to gather, analyze or interpret evidence to describe effectiveness” (Upcraft & Schuh 1996)
  • Why Assess?
    • Justify continuation of program and expense
    • Link goals to outcomes that measure student success

Characteristics of Effective Assessment (Swing 2004)

  • Focuses on what matters
  • Focuses on something you can change
  • Is built on goodwill of participants and stakeholders
  • Is multidimensional
  • Includes input from stakeholders
  • Places findings in appropriate context
  • Produces comprehensible results
  • Is disseminated and used

Assessment: Planned and Cyclical Adapted from Ward (2002) –Cycle of Intentionality

  • Learning
  • Opportunities
  • Assess
  • Re-define
  • Outcomes
  • Define
  • Needs & Outcomes

Example: Assessing Interaction

  • Learning
  • Opportunities
  • Web based discussions
  • Luncheon talks
  • Connected to curriculum
  • Assess
  • Re-define
  • Outcomes
  • Define
  • Needs & Outcomes
  • Faculty/student interaction
  • 50% of Faculty interact with
  • 80% of new class

Why do you have a Common Reading Program?

  • What are your proposed outcomes and did they connect with you First-Year Experience goals ?
  • Do you want to expose students to rigorous academic work?
  • Do you want to build community?
      • With other students?
      • With faculty?

Program Outcomes Was it worth the time and money? You might do a survey or count participation at events

  • Did all students know about the summer reading program? How?
  • How many students (faculty/staff) read the book?
  • How was the book selected?
  • Did this event increase awareness on the campus about FYE?
  • Did they read the book before or after they arrived on campus?
  • Did students attend or participate in any events connected to the common reading (essay contest, book discussions, author’s visit)?
  • Which of the events were most popular?
  • If they attended the author’s visit, did they enjoy it? Why or why not?
  • What did students like best/least about the book? Were faculty/staff opinions the same?
  • Was the book used in other classes
  • What books do students recommend for future common reading?
  • Would students recommend a common reading program for next year’s students?

Student Outcomes

  • Did students see any benefit from reading the book? What were the benefits? Did it apply to their lives?
  • Did reading the book encourage them to read more?
  • Is there a relationship between common reading and higher GPA’s?
  • Did students who read the book want to know more about the theme (ex. the environment)

Personal Development Outcomes

  • If families were encouraged to read the book were there higher levels of family involvement?
  • Was there any connection between declaring a major or choice of major and the book content?

Specific Forms/Measures of Development

  • Was there any change in attitudes/behaviors about a theme that was emphasized in the book?
  • Did students who participated in common reading do more community service?
  • If the book is connected to university goal did students who participated in summer reading respond more favorably to such questions?

Additional Assessment Ideas (Laufgraben 2006)

  • Bowling Green State University
  • Objective:
  • “To assess the effectiveness of using Into the Forest in generating class discussion, facilitating socialization, assisting students in making connections, and intellectual stimulation”
  • How?
  • A student survey

Cal Poly Assessment (Laufgraben 2006)

  • Survey students and facilitators at the end of the book discussion
  • Examples:
    • How many students brought their books to the session
    • Did breakfast work well
    • Where was your meeting
    • Would you volunteer to lead next year
    • What suggestions do you have

Student survey Example results:

  • I read Tuesdays With Morrie 92%
  • I attended an event 61%
  • Summer reading is a good idea 76%
  • Reading this book made me want to read more 63%
  • I want more events like Tuesdays With Morrie 50%

Results continued

  • After reading Tuesdays With Morrie I
      • Appreciated life more 63%
      • Appreciated friends more 49%
      • Appreciate family more 49%
      • Appreciated teachers more 40%
      • Was more focused on academics 22%

More results

  • Selected student journals
  • “My father had ALS... I never knew how he felt”
  • “I am curious about last year’s book and what will you choose for next year?”
  • “Do you think Mitch follows his own message?”


  • Barefoot, B.O., Griffin, B.Q., & Koch, A.K. (2012). Enhancing student success and retention throughout undergraduate education. Brevard, NC: The John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.
  • Ferguson, M. (2006). Creating common ground: Common reading and the first year of college. Peer Review, 8-10.
  • Jaschik, S. (2014, February 21). South Carolina lawmakers question books on gay topics. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from
  • Koch, S.S., Griffin, B.Q., & Barefoot, B.O. (2014). National Survey of Student Success Initiatives at Two-Year Colleges. Brevard, NC: The John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.
  • Kuh, G.D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).
  • Kuh, G.D. & O’Donnell, K. (2013). Ensuring quality & taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).
  • Lass, A.H. & Wilson, E.S. (1965). The college student’s handbook. New York, NY: D. White.
  • Laufgraben, J.L. (2006). Common reading programs: Going beyond the book. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
  • Skipper, T.L. (2014, July 23). The spring of our discontent: What’s so bad about common reading? [Web log post]. Retrieved from
  • Skipper, T.L., Latino, J.A., Rideout, B.M., & Weigel, D. (2013). Extensions of traditional orientation programs. IN J.A. Ward-Roof (Ed.), Designing successful transitions: A guide for orientting students to college (Monograph No., 13, 3rd ed., pp. 95-115). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
  • Thorn, A., Wood, P.W., Plum, C., & Carter, T. (2013). Beach books: 2012-2013 What do colleges and universities want students to read outside of class? New York, NY: National Association of Scholars (NAS).  
  • Young, D.G. & Hopp, J.M. (2014). 2012-2013 National Survey of First-Year Seminars: Exploring high-impact practices in the first college year (Research Report No. 4). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition.

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