One of my departmental colleagues recently expressed some frustration about his students' reading abilities, and I thought that it might be useful to air the source of his frustration here. To paraphrase my colleague: he finds that at all levels of his Philosophy courses, many students have a very difficult time either identifying or following the dialectic thread of an essay, article, book chapter, etc. I have noticed this difficulty in most of my Philosophy courses, as well.
There is already a challenge to get some students to recognize something as an argument when they're reading a text. Spending some time with those students on identifying indicator terms -- by which I mean, the words and phrases that indicate (likely) premises, intermediate conclusions, and main conclusions of arguments -- can help quite a bit. However, there is a second, probably larger challenge, and this is the one that my colleague was talking about: even when students can recognize that an argument is being presented, they often have real trouble recognizing what the author is doing with that argument in the context in which it appears.
For example -- you might ask your students: What seems to be the author's relationship to this argument in this section? Is the author setting it out "simply" to present it, without either endorsing it or criticizing it? Is the author setting it out so that, one paragraph later, they can begin to criticize it or to present someone else's criticism of it? Is the author presenting it and endorsing its conclusion, but not all of its premises? And so on. (I don't mean to suggest that those possibilities are mutually exclusive, of course.) In my experience -- and in my colleague's experience -- students overwhelmingly treat arguments that the author discusses as ones that the author is endorsing; the results for their understanding of what they read are easily predictable. I have sometimes assigned "guided reading questions" to accompany the assignments, in which I ask, e.g., ""What seems to be the author's relationship to this argument, and how can you tell?" But even when I've thereby alerted them to the need to ask that sort of meta-level question as they're doing the readings, I find that many students still struggle to figure out how to do it.
(Assuming that I've described it correctly,) Is this a challenge that others of you regularly face in your courses? What are some of your favorite ways to meet that challenge?