Helping students read (aka “Magic ink” activity)

NOTE: This is a reading-focused activity; for a similar activity focused on video lectures or documentaries, see my earlier Total Recall activity post. 

Reading complex, information-packed content that includes many completely new concepts is often challenging: students may be tempted to breeze-through the text too fast, say, half an hour before class meeting for which it was assigned, or late at night, twenty minutes before the submission deadline in an online discussion. They – and their instructors – are later frustrated when they discover (for example, on a pop quiz), that little of what students speed-read actually stuck: the expression “easy come, easy go,” aptly describes this all too frequent scenario.

This becomes particularly problematic when the new concepts such readings introduce are a foundation for future important assignments, or capstone projects, or licensure exams, and the fact that at some earlier point they had not “stuck,” risks putting success out of students’ reach.

The easiest and fastest way to deal with it is to give students a low-stakes multiple choice quiz: include 10-20 questions, and let students take the quiz as many times as they want to, with the quiz score being the average of all attempts (trust me, this works really well!). But another, perhaps less “anxiety producing” way to effectively reduce the chances of students speed-reading your assignments, is to slow down students’ reading, simultaneously making it more focused and intentional.

This structured approach to reading complex, important texts may also have an additional benefit that is not clearly demonstrated by any research, so it remains only hypothetical: it offers students the opportunity to develop, through practice, an effective approach to complex readings they can use on their own later, in their professional lives.


  1. Based on the length of the reading you assigned, estimate the time it will take the student to read the text carefully – use the Rice U workload estimator to figure this out.
  2. Next, divide the text into sensible sections that form logical chunks (if the text already has chapters or other sub-divisions, use these), and are no longer than 1-1.5 page. Count how many such sections your assigned text has, and add 3 minutes for each section, then add this to the estimated time from the previous step.
    This is the approximate time students will need to complete this – we will add this info to student instructions.
  3. Use pre-made worksheet (this worksheet is non-text specific: you can download it here in either Ms Word or Apple Pages format) and add the appropriate number of sections, depending on the reading you assigned. Make it available to students as a part 1 of a 2-part., upload-a-file assignment you will set up in your LMS (Canvas, D2L, etc.).

Student Instructions:
This assignment uses a simple worksheet (download it before you start), and has 2 parts (part A and part B). You must complete each part on a separate, designated day to get credit. Read all instructions in this part 1 of the assignment BEFORE you start reading the assigned text. You will need a quiet place where you can focus. Part 1 (on day 1) of this assignment takes approximately [instructor – copy from your calculation, above] . Part two (on day 2) takes less than 15 minutes.

Part 1 (day 1)

  1. While reading the text for the first time, pause briefly at each indicated (numbered) point throughout the text.
  2. When you pause, in the left column (titled Brain Dump) of the provided worksheet, write down in 3-5 brief but complete sentences all things that you remember from the section of the text you just read. Don’t look/ refer back to the text / reading to check things – only write what you remember; can’t remember something – leave it out. And don’t try to remember or use the exact phrasing of the original – your own words work best here. Don’t worry about grammar or style; don’t edit; don’t re-write; don’t hesitate. Don’t spend more than one minute per section (two, if you’re a slow typist). Repeat this process for each numbered section of the text.
  3. After you have completed the process for the whole reading assignment, go through the worksheet again. This time, looking at what you wrote on the left (but with your reading text closed), in the right column, write a single word or short phrase that would be a good reminder that somehow summarizes or refers to the ideas you jotted down in the left column.
  4. Submit the completed sheet as an assignment “Part A” in your learning management system (for example, Canvas).
  5. Finally – and this makes this a “magic ink” assignment, after submitting your worksheet select the left column of text (with notes from the reading), and change the color of the text to white (yes, that will make it invisible!).
  6. Save the file. You are done for the day.

Part 2 (day 2)

  1. Open the file you saved yesterday.
  2. Look at the “signal” word or phrase you wrote for each section of your reading, and in 2-3 brief sentences write as much as you can recall about this particular section of your reading. Go through the whole worksheet without taking too much time to dwell on things you do not remember.
  3. Once you are done, select the left column on the worksheet (it is presently invisible because yesterday we changed the ink to white!), and change the ink to any legible color of your preference.
  4. Scan each section of the worksheet, comparing the left side (your notes taken during the reading yesterday) and your 2-3 sentences from today. On the original notes (on the left) highlight (with electronic highlighter) any key ideas you think are important, that you missed in your 2-3 sentences on the right.
  5. Submit your completed worksheet to your LMS (Canvas) assignment, Part B.

The science behind this activity

The second part of this activity (Part 2/ Day 2, above), scheduled very deliberately a day after the first day recall-activity, is the simplest, classic use of encouraging spaced practice.

The first half (PArt 1) is equally uncomplicated but solid application of basic retrieval practice activity (Roediger & Karpicke 2008Dunlosky et al. 2013 , Weinstein & Sumeracki 2018, and many, many others) so rather than re-invent the wheel, I will repeat here (verbatim) what I said earlier in reference to a similar, but video-focused Total Recall activity:

As it turns out, this type of “brain drain” or “brain dump’ exercise, as it’s sometimes called, is – surprisingly – one of the most effective ways to remember and organize lecture content.

There is consistent, substantial research that shows it works remarkably well. In their recent book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning (2019) Agarwal and Bain point out “Yes, it’s that simple! Simply ask students to Brain Dump and write down what they remember individually, then move on. How do we know that Brain Dumps improve learning? Research, of course!” (55). Numerous studies have show this actually works for improving your retention and organization of knowledge (Zaromb and Roediger, 2010), and even improves inferential thinking (Karpicke and Blunt, 2011)! 

Other similar “activity” posts: