Tuesday, February 12, 2008

College Reading Strategies

Today I taught a workshop in Idaho State University's Center for Teaching and Learning, which focused on reading strategies students can adopt to improve their reading skills. At the end of the workshop I encouraged participants to answer two questions as a form of feedback; in the future, I would like to improve the workshop. These questions come from Classroom Assessment Techniques by Tom Angelo and Patricia Cross.

Question 1: What was the most important thing you learned today?
  • Exchange of ideas helps facilitate learning.
  • It is important to address how to read efficiently.
  • Most important thing is to be aware of what's going on in the world.
  • The most important thing I learned was that I'm not the only one who has difficulty understanding text. I am glad there are suggestions on ways to improve problem areas.
  • I am not the only one who struggles with this.
  • Margin notes.
Question 2: What important question remains unanswered?
  • How to get people to read.
  • Reading technical material (math included) takes a different method. What is it?
  • None.
  • How do I know what is fluff?
  • How do I know what the author wants me to really know?
  • How do I apply all these tools?
  • Make the workshop longer.
  • Talk more about how to complete process.
  • More detail, examples of different strategies. I'm more of a visual learner and you could make the presentation longer--maybe do a series in a time frame.
It sounds like the participants learned something, which is always the objective of a workshop. A previous supervisor used to tell me that each workshop participant needs to come away with two or three practical things he/she can do that he/she didn't know how to do previously, or at least be able to do something better than they have previously been able to do it. It seems that participants should also come away with an increased desire to do the thing discussed and practiced in the workshop.

Looking at the answers to question two, a few left with more questions than they came with. One individual wrote down three challenging questions, and I would like to attempt to answer them the best I can. Before I do that, though, I would like to say that I agree with a few of the comments. People do tend to learn more easily in a setting that involves an exchange of ideas. Many teachers understand this and endeavor to invite participation to mixed results, for many different reasons. Recently, I heard a good reason why the think-pair-share method works. Most persons feel more comfortable testing their ideas out with one or two others before sharing them with a larger group. So, as long as teachers stand in front of a classroom, they act as authority figures, which causes students to hesitate, thinking that there's only one right answer for which the teacher is looking, which, admittedly, is true in some circumstances.

One positive result of this workshop was that a few learned that they are not the only people who struggle with reading. There are many texts of varying difficulties. With that said, it seems appropriate to say that with practice, reading becomes easier. The more a person reads in a discipline, the more likely they will understand the material. Of course, submersing oneself in different types of reading may advance learning more quickly than just reading in one area.

Now for those three questions.

How do I apply all these tools?
In the workshop, several handouts were given to the participants, and many different strategies for improving reading skills were offered. Not all strategies will work for every person, especially when you consider that individuals in different fields of expertise read and write differently. Participants need to look at the strategies and decide which ones they will try, then after a period of time they can begin to assess whether or not it works for them. The handout titled "Identifying the Problem" can streamline this process, because it suggests specific strategies for specific reading problems. Therefore, not all the tools should be adopted, rather individuals should select a few to start with and if they do not seem to do the trick, try some of the other ones.

How do I know what the author wants me to really know?
Sometimes authors use buzz words that indicate an important idea is coming up. Words like "therefore," "however," "additionally," "consequently," etc. might be considered as such signposts. Sometimes the most lucid authors will come right out and say upfront what their most important ideas are. Typically, authors like to say what's most important in their introductions and conclusion, yet there are many exceptions to this. Understanding the author's audience can really be useful in identifying what they are saying and why as can the context in which they are writing. Karl Marx wrote his "Communist Manifesto" in England during some of the ugliest times of the Industrial Revolution--the same time period in which Charles Dickens wrote many of his novels that painted scenes of poverty, debauchery, and the like.

One of the strategies in the handouts describes a mock interview with the author. With a classmate you might ask the author what he/she thought most important about the text in question. Sometimes activities like this really make the text come alive.

In the end it may be most relevant to ask yourself what you think is the most important thing for you to take away from the reading. Answering this question may open up vistas and increase your horizons, making the text relevant to you personally.

How do I know what is fluff?
I saved my favorite question for last. This question probably does not have any single answer, and it is one that I struggle with myself. With that said, I believe it is important to know your author. What are their credentials? Where did they go to school? What qualifies them to speak on the subject? Do they have relevant experience in that field of study? If the author is your neighbor down the street, do you trust their views over someone from Oxford University?

Do they back up their claims? If they do not give any supporting evidence or reasons, then this should pull up some red flags of warning for you. Along these same lines, what does their "Works Cited" or "Bibliography" look like? Some people privilege scholarly and professional sources over newspaper and non-scholarly sources.

Are they appealing to your emotions? What is their intent? Are they affiliated with a political organization of any kind? What is their agenda? We all need to be critical thinkers and not just accept everything on face value. On the internet you can find dozens of bogus website, claiming to give valid information. One such site claims that cats react differently to men with beards than to those who do not. A look at the bibliography reveals some of the sources to be Yul Brynner, Synead O'Conner, A. Schwarznegger, et al. Knowing who these individuals makes one want to start laughing, which is the purpose of the website. Notice some of the links on the right side of this blog, and you will see a few other examples of bogus sites.

According to popular tradition, the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, used to say "The unexamined life is not worth living." Asking questions begins the process of critical thinking, which may be the essential tool for identifying fluff from substantive argument. In fact many people fear that our younger generation, even the whole of our society, does not spend enough time reflecting on important questions. I believe that books can act as a vehicle to prompt meditation; only after we have ruminated on an issue will we know what we think. Writing also facilitates the process of thinking to a degree that few other activities will.

Forgive me for being a bit trite if I conclude this post with one of the biggest cliches of western civilization, and yet one of the most philosophically profound, "I think, therefore I am." Rene Descartes would have rendered it in the Latin: "Cogito, ergo sum." If people do less thinking, does that mean fewer people exist? To a certain extent, yes, they are not opening themselves to the multiple horizons of existence available to them--a richer, more fulfilling intellectual and social life. They may not be living a complete life.

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