Monday, December 26, 2011

'Divide and conquer' student reading

Sarah Clark at the Faculty Focus blog has a few tips on how to motivate students to read by making reading assignments more meaningful. A strategy she called 'divide and conquer' caught my attention:

Divide and Conquer - Divide up the next reading chapter among small groups of students. Student A reads the first section in the chapter, Student B reads the next section, and so forth. The next day, students meet in small groups and report on the section they read. Or you can have groups of students that read the same section meet with students who read different sections. Students become dependent on one another to create the full picture of what was in the reading material. My students seem to enjoy these group discussions, which are a way to become familiar with the material before being graded on it.

I could see this strategy being very effective in philosophy courses, particularly with a few tweaks and additions. 

For instance: Your students are required to read Garrett Hardin and Peter Singer on our duties to aid the poor. You assign half the students to read Hardin for the next meeting, half to read Singer. You tell the students that everyone will be responsible for understanding both author's points of view. Assemble the students in small groups and give them some sort of evaluative task (a true-false quiz, a compare/contrast, agree/disagree, etc.) that requires knowledge of both authors. Then tell the students to read the source they didn't read for the next meeting.

I could see some advantages of this 'divide and conquer' strategy:

  • It might encourage some genuine intellectual collaboration among the students.
  • Having to explain an author's views to other students could reinforce understanding.
  • The collaborative task could, in effect, amount to 'pre-reading'. In other words, the students responsible for reading Singer first are providing some intellectual scaffolding for the students who read Hardin first, and vice versa. A student who finds one author's view very plausible might learn that the other author has an objection to that view and be motivated to understand the objection better, etc.
Anyway, has anyone tried a strategy like this? How could you imagine implementing it? 


  1. I never trust my fellow students.

  2. I'm dubious about the idea as presented, which (if I understand it correctly) has students reading only a part of the assigned paper or chapter. That seems to risk encouraging a tendency I already find rampant amongst my students, which is to fail to take the meaning of the sentence or paragraph or section that they are _currently_ reading in the context of the sentences or paragraphs or sections that come before or after it. (The most egregious kind of case of this tendency is when students attribute view X to the author on the basis that the author lays out view X in a paragraph, but fail to note that the paragraph has been expressly introduced as one in which the author will lay out a view that s/he disagrees with.)

    But I have had some success with using a somewhat similar task in class. With a text that has been assigned (and thus should have been read, in full, by all students) which is notably dense and/or difficult for the class, I break them into groups and assign each group a paragraph or a few paragraphs, and have them analyze that paragraph (/those paragraphs) in detail. Each group then presents its findings to the class.

  3. Gazza, I think the idea is not that students would only read half of the assigned material. Rather, they'd all read the same material but in different sequences.

  4. Michael, I'm not sure your interpretation is right. Why does she say that "Students become dependent on one another to create the full picture of what was in the reading material"? I also don't see any remarks about sequencing. Still, I admit to some uncertainty about exactly how the exercise works, based on Clark's description.

  5. Like Gazza, I've tried dividing the assigned reading material into sections, selected different groups to cover each section, and then present their analysis to each other. I usually have a few questions that each group has to answer about the philosophical content, but what I have found most useful is asking them questions about how the argument of that section fits into the overall plan of the paper, why this part of the argument appears now as opposed to earlier or later, and why that section is crucial to the overall structure and argument of the paper. This helps students think about what the point of each section of the paper is in contributing to the overall argument of the paper, which is something they often don't do when they are just trying to understand the paper on a first reading. And, after each group's presentation, we get an overall picture of how the different parts of the paper work together to create the overall argument.

  6. It reminds me of a project undertaken by Sarah Honeychurch and Steve Draper in Glasgow, which resembles Gaza's suggestion. The value seems to me to lie in students becoming teachers of each other.
    See also:

  7. I've done something somewhat similar in class, after all students had done the assigned reading (let's assume--and since this was an honors class the assumption is slightly more plausible): groups of two to three were given a specific question to answer dealing with one part of the reading, with 5 or 6 groups altogether. Those 5 or 6 points were the main ideas to be discussed for the day, and so each point was introduced by a contribution/discussion from the relevant group. This worked pretty well when I did it (and I don't know why I haven't done it more often). Wouldn't work as well, I don't think, in a shorter class period (less than an hour--we had 75 mins...), and these were relatively small classes.


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