― Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
One of the most fundamental and time-tested strategies to help students build their content knowledge in any discipline is to read. Traditionally, this has meant purchasing backpacks full of textbooks and other printed texts for each course.
Key features of the strategy
Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke remarked, “To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” If students are to make the most from their reading, they must be taught to do so actively and with purpose. To prepare for a class session, faculty can provide students with guiding questions, key features to explore or at least some purpose for their reading. Otherwise, students read passively and may not retain information well. A number of different strategies, techniques and tools can be used to set up a reading experience that will not only prepare students to come to class and engage with ideas, but also to organize their thinking or help them to construct their knowledge in the discipline.
Examples and Variations
Gillette and Gillette (2015) offer a practical strategy to help ensure that students read and prepare prior to coming to class. Rather than assigning readings for homework, they suggest assigning students “class preparation assignments” (CPA). A CPA is a four to eight question assignment that covers the key elements from the required readings to be prepared prior to class. The authors suggest that students bring two copies of their responses to the CPA to class – one that they leave with the professor and the other they use to refer to in class during discussion. The CPA’s are then assessed on a pass/fail basis, according to a “good faith effort” on the part of the student. The grades on these assignments are weighted significantly along with the students’ performance on exams and quizzes. This method of grading helps to ensure that students attend and are prepared for class.
One key strategy in helping students read with purpose is to encourage them to identify what they already know relative to the topic and what they hope to learn from the reading. Zhang (2010) explores a purposeful use of the Know-Want-Learn (KWL) strategy of teaching reading comprehension to non-English majors, specifically in the context of English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. The KWL strategy encourages students to consider what they already know about a topic, what additional information they want to know, and then to reflect on what they have learned. Zhang describes the use of the KWL strategy with 80 students divided into two groups, one control group and one experimental group that used the KWL strategy as part of their reading process. The student work was evaluated by instructors, and a survey was provided for additional evaluation of the effectiveness of the strategy. In comparing the control and experimental groups, Zhang found a positive significant difference in student performance in terms of written responses and comprehension of the material for the group that utilized the KWL strategy to engage with their reading. Seventy-five percent of the students that used the strategy scored their satisfaction with the strategy as either a 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale.
In a blog post, Maryellen Weimer summarizes a study by Roberts & Roberts (2008) on strategies to “make reading experiences meaningful so that students will want to learn via the written word and will develop an appreciation for the various strategies good readers utilize” (p. 127). Specifically, they suggest five different strategies that students can choose from to respond to weekly course readings. Connecting to the text encourages students to mark up the reading through underlining key passages, making comments in the margins, and then asking and answering five “big” questions from the reading. Alternatively, students can summarize and visualize the key ideas from a reading. In this approach students create a visual/graphic organizer or chart for the content of the reading. They can also choose to keep a reading response journal, including questions and comments. They can discuss the reading together as a group, taking notes on the ideas and discussion generated and written up for the professor. Finally, more creative-minded students can choose to create a song or rap about what they have learned from the readings. These options illustrate multiple ways that students can actively engage with the text.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
When structured productively, student reading will engage them in one of the most critical 21st century skills – knowledge construction. Knowledge construction activities require students to generate ideas and understandings that are new to them. Students can do this through interpretation, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation of materials they have read (as well as through lectures and other learning activities). The strongest activities focused on knowledge construction require students to apply the knowledge they constructed in a different context, helping them to deepen their understanding further, and to connect information and ideas from two or more academic disciplines. Course readings can be a key building block in preparing students to leverage their knowledge in a new way.
Technology can support student construction of knowledge through reading in a number of ways. While many students and faculty prefer printed books, there are many other reading forms and media to help students build their knowledge in this way. They can consume digital versions of their books that allow them to highlight, annotate and share their insights in digital format. We can also leverage other types of media like Web-based resources, applications, and digital databases to supplement traditional texts. We can even look beyond texts and consider images, videos, and animations as alternative forms of text. One very efficient and effective tool for students to use to markup online documents is the “Web clipping” and annotation feature built into different digital note taking tools like OneNote or Evernote. With a simple browser plugin, students can quickly highlight and capture a block of text to send to their notebook and then annotate these snippets for further analysis. A strategic use of these different forms of text and digital tools can be very effective in helping students to construct disciplinary knowledge.
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