Assisting Students in Reading Difficult Texts Through Writing

It’s on the syllabus: Read Chapters 2 and 4 for next’s week’s discussion. Next week comes and less than half the class has read the assigned textAfter the sigh, there is the impromptu lecture filler. Besides the busy lives of college students, there may be another reason why students have not read the text—it may be too difficult for them. Even so, the goal is not to “lecture over the assigned text” (Bean, 2011, p. 163). There are ways to support students in becoming stronger readers and empower them to encounter difficult texts.

One of the basic principles of WAC is that writing promotes learning and develops critical thinking skills. Part of this is the ability to anchor one’s arguments in text, which necessitates an understanding of disciplinary text.

Many students approach reading in the same way and fail to adjust their reading strategies. They may not realize that there are various reading strategies available to them. Because of this, students need help determining when a deep, slow reading is required, when to chunk information and when they can skim a text (Bean, 2011).

The following suggestions will support students who are struggling through text and hopefully, encourage more students to complete assigned readings.

1. Be explicit with students about your own reading process and allow students to share their own. When do you skim texts? When do you read carefully? Do you write notes in the column? Do you use a color coding system? Do you useĀ  post-its? What do you underline and why? How do you distinguish between what the author is saying and your own reflections? “The fifteen or twenty minutes it takes for such discussions can sometimes have a powerful on students’ reading strategies” (Bean, 2011, p. 169).

2. Help students get into the dictionary habit.Ā  Encourage students to look up unfamiliar words. “One strategy is to make small ticks in the margins next to the words they are unsure of and to look them later when they come to an appropriate resting place in the text” (Bean, 2011, p. 170).

3. Attach a low-stakes assignment to the reading: “What it Says” and “What it Does.”Ā To encourage a careful and deep reading of a scholarly article that you anticipate to be a difficult reading, you can teach and assign students the “what it says” and “what it does” strategy. For each paragraph, students can write a “what it says” and a “what it does” statement. A “what is says” statement is a summary of the paragraph’s content or the paragraph’s stated or implied topic sentence. A “what it does” statement describes the purpose or the function of the paragraph. An example can be “summarizes an opposing view” “uses an analogy to clarify the previous paragraph” (Bean, 2011).

4. Create text-based free-write prompts.Ā  An example of a text-based free-write supports students in recognizing that many texts have a specific point of view. A closer read or even a re-read of the text can be promoted if you ask students to identify the ways the text attempted to change their point of view. Bean (2011) suggests the following prompts: 1) Before I read this text the author assumed I believed [fill in] 2) After I finished reading the text, the author wanted me to believe[fill in] 3) The author was/was not successful in chnging my point of view. How so? Why or Why Not?

5. Use Graphic Organizers. Some students may find it more powerful to “visually represent a text than through marginal notations, traditional outlining, or even summary writing” (Bean, 2011, p. 179). If students find this to be useful, the following PDF is filled with 36 pages of graphic organizers for reading strategies.

Remember, there is no need to lecture over the readings. Assign the reading with confidence and give the students the tools they need to decipher the text and embed low stakes writing assignments, then enjoy facilitating critical and deep class discussions.

Notetaking by Hand, Writing-to-learn

A few weeks ago, this articleĀ crossed my social media feeds, and it initially piqued my interest because I ban the use of laptops in my classroom.

I ban phones, tablets, and laptops in class because I find them distracting as an instructor, and I know from some of my students that they find it distracting to see other students surfing the web or using social media during class. For some classes, this is obviously impractical, especially for those in technology, science, engineering, math, or design that rely on student access to a computer and collaborative work. Of course, we must also accmmodate students with learning disabilities who use adaptive technologies to learn. And as this article makes clear, “laptops do in fact allow students to do more.”

However, as theĀ scientific study cited in this article shows, there is perhaps a practical reason to ban or, at the very least, limit the general use of laptops in the classroom. And this is because

those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

Our WAC experience certainly reinforces this concept. We know that usingĀ low-stakes writing assignments helpsĀ students learn through the very act of writing. When we askĀ our students to write short, informal assignments based on course content, they must synthesize a variety of different types of learning—what they’ve read, what they’ve learned through lecture, what they’ve learned through experience—into generating an original product. Even if students are just asked to summarize the day’s lecture, they must still find a way to processĀ all the information, pick out the salient points, and describeĀ them using their own language.

Notetaking is another kind of informal writing. It requires the same type of cognitive processing as low-stakes writing assignments, that is, students must “listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.” It requires active reading (or for lectures, active listening) in which students are being asked to question and process information, rather than passively take it all in. Ā Students are certainly capable of doing this on laptops.

The trouble is, because students can type much faster than they write, theyĀ often copy classroom content verbatim, and they can “easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning.” Many of our students think that the best way to study is to review the lecture as it was given, or that the more notes they take, the better off they are, as though the content will magically transfer from a transcription of lecture into their knowledge base.

The same speedĀ limitation means that studentsĀ taking notes by hand are forced to do the same things that we ask when we give low-stakes, informal writing assignments: they summarize, they pick out the most important points, and they put concepts into their own words that they can understand. They are creating new neural pathways through writing, learning the content in a more holistic way that by simply transcribing a lecture.Ā In this case, it really is quality over quantity.

The other major impediment to our students taking notes by hand is thatĀ many of them have never done it! This may come as a shock to those of usĀ for whom taking notes by hand was the norm, but many students are terrified of the idea that they might “miss something important” by handwriting their notes rather than transcribing everything verbatim. As instructors, it is our responsibility to make sure students have these skills, even if we don’t think it’s “our job” to teach this.

A few notetaking tricks can help ease students into the new habit of taking notes. Some ideas include:

  1. Introduce a notetaking method, such as the double column method or the three-section “Cornell method.” These formats requireĀ reflection, summarization, and questioning, all forms of informal writing that better reinforce course content.
  2. Require students to turn in their notes, or do an occasional in-class “notebook check.” This can beĀ graded, not for content, but simply whether the students did it or not, giving the students an incentive. Many will be relieved, in fact, to learn that they can earn points towards their grade simply by taking notes!

Let us know – do your students take notes by hand? Do you banĀ laptops in class for notetaking? What do your students think?