Thursday, May 17, 2012

The rational, non-expert student reader

Last week, I had a terrific teaching-related experience: At Becko's invitation, I gave a pair of teaching-related workshops at Lewis and Clark College. The first, for the faculty teaching in the college's first-year Exploration and Discovery program, addressed motivating students to read, improving their reading skills, and using assigned readings as platforms for in-class discussion and inquiry. The second discussed ways of gathering information about student learning so that we don't have to rely solely on numerical student evaluations for insight into how effective our teaching is.

A number of important themes were explored in the workshops, but I wanted to share some research and insights on two matters that seemed to strike a chord with the participants. They concern an old teaching bugaboo: student reading.
First, I tried to underscore to the workshop participants that while some students are lazy and unmotivated, students who do not read assigned material are often responding rationally to their own experience as academic readers and to how they are sometimes taught at the college and university level. This excellent summary from the University of New Mexico cites a number of reasons why students don't read:

  • They lack the background knowledge needed to understand assigned reading.
  • Their instructors give them little or no preparation for the assigned reading. (We've all had that teacher whose 'preparation' for the coming reading amounts to announcing, as students file out of the class, "We'll be discussing chapter 5 on Monday!")
  • Students don't have strategies for dealing with difficult texts in unfamiliar genres or styles.
  • The prospect of reading reminds them of past experiences where academic reading has been frustrating.
  • They do not see any causal link between reading, or reading carefully, and subsequent performance on academic tasks.
  • Last, and not only least but perhaps the biggest factor of all: We'll do their work for them, summarizing or analyzing assigned reading in class. 

Given these facts, students not reading is a rational response to their situation (which doesn't excuse not reading of course). Reading is perceived as a bad investment of their intellectual time and energy. From an instructional perspective, we thus need to think about how to make reading a rational activity from the students' point of view. 

This brings me to the second theme from this workshop: Faculty tend not to understand how dramatically their experience of reading differs from students'. Faculty are expert academic readers, armed with a huge body of experience and an arsenal of reading techniques and strategies that are so ingrained as to be second nature to them. I tried to illustrate this for workshop participants by having them read an unfamiliar text (here's what I chose) and then explain the strategies they used to tackle it. Not surprisingly, their strategies exemplify the habits of expert readers and stand in stark contrast to how our non-expert novice student readers approach such texts:

Novice student readers
Expert academic readers
Read once in a linear way at an invariant speed
Read multiple times, in a staggered, ‘many-geared’ way
Little interior monologue about what is being read
Make an ongoing, revisable mental draft of what is read
Easily discouraged by difficult texts, feel helpless; at most, ‘push through’ when frustrated
Have some strategies for difficult texts, ‘suspend and await clarity’
Aim is informational; focus on parts
Aim is ‘deep’ (meaning, significance); focus on whole
Do not adapt tactics to texts
Have different tactics for different texts
Tend to overmark (underline or highlight)
Light marking, annotations
Do not ‘chunk’ or give roles to parts of texts
‘Chunk,’ assign argumentative/evidential/rhetorical roles to parts of texts
Think about author questioning them
Ask questions of authors, talk back to the text
Treat authors as authorities
Treat authors as contributors to a body of knowledge or understanding

That's the second challenge: figuring out how to make our students more expert as readers. If we can motivate them to read, and help them acquire expert habits and dispositions, we would be doing them a great service. So: How can we meet these challenges readers?


  1. This is very helpful Michael. Your workshops at LC were a big hit! It is great to see institutions begin to take pedagogical development seriously.

    I think the most important thing you point out here is this: that our students are making a rational choice when they choose not to read. They aren't getting anything out of it. You give some very helpful tips about how to making reading a rational choice. I'm curious to hear ideas from others.

  2. Hello, both! Great post.

    I've started to assign a series of worksheets in courses attended by philosophical newcomers. I assign one per day, starting on the first day. They are meant to build both reading and writing skills simultaneously.

    Before I assign the first worksheet, I begin with an exercise: I hand everyone a slip of paper containing a paragraph of middling difficulty from a philosophical work. I tell the students that they have three minutes to determine how many words in the paragraph contain an A, how many contain a B, and how many contain a C. They are to write the answers elsewhere and then turn their slips face down. When the time is up, I ask them for the counts. Then I ask: What was the main point of the paragraph? Of course, more or less nobody has any idea.

    The point, which I then underscore, is that it's possible to read something carefully and take correct notes without getting anything at all from it. To succeed in philosophical reading, it is not enough to do these things. You need to read in the right way, and look for the right things. And, I explain, reading the right way will often involve stopping and thinking. But, stopping and thinking about what? Cue my lecture on what arguments are and why they are essential to figuring things out and resolving certain kinds of disputes. I really stress the fact that, if they do a reading but don't finish a reading with a clear picture of the argumentative outline and how everything fits into it, they have missed everything they needed to get out of it.

    That day, they get the first worksheet in the following sequence. I spend about ten minutes at the start of each class going over the answers.

    First worksheet: "Here is a paragraph from a recent newspaper editorial. What, in your own words, is the author's main point?" (I make this one fairly easy)

    Second worksheet: "Here are two opposing letters from the letters page of our local newspaper. What, in your own words, is the main point of each letter? What exactly is the issue on which the writers disagree? Be as precise as possible."

    Third worksheet: "What is the main point of the reading for next class? What is the author's main argument for her conclusion? Please sketch out the main argument in standard premise/conclusion form."

    Fourth worksheet: "a) What is the main point of the reading for next class? b) What is the main point of the second paragraph of page 34? c) What significance does that paragraph have for the reading overall?"

    Fifth worksheet: "The readings for next class are an article by Smith and an opposing article by Jones. What is the main issue in dispute between Smith and Jones? The first new paragraph on the third page of the Jones reading is intended as an objection against a certain argument in the Smith reading. What, in standard premise/conclusion form, is that argument from Smith, and how does the indicated paragraph in Jones constitute an objection against it?"

    Sixth worksheet: "Brown presents three different arguments against View Y. Which of these do you think is the weakest? Please write it out in premise/conclusion form, and explain how you think a defender of View Y could best object to the argument."

    If they can do the sixth worksheet, they are ready to understand the instructions for writing a good philosophy paper.


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