Many students struggle with college-level reading and writing assignments. Part of it is simply not knowing how to get the essentials from a text. I have been experimenting with a simple method I call GSSW: Gather, Sort, Shrink, and Wrap.
The goal of using this method is that students learn to write an essay, based on the readings, that is exemplary of organized, clear, accurate, and critical thinking.
During the Gather stage, the students pair up and read through the text out loud together, looking for ideas that seem to stand out or lead to other ideas. We have also experimented with me reading the text aloud in class and stopping for questions and discussion of a passage, with the students taking notes as we work through the text. While the students enjoyed reading together, their preference was for the instructor to read aloud because it made possible a class-wide discussion on the text.
In the Sort stage, we cluster the ideas into chunks, both for retention and for understanding the general themes that run through the text. There are a couple of ways this can be done. One is for the students to list the themes together on the board. When they work in teams of three or four there is often a lively discussion between teams over the differences in the lists. This leads to further discussion about the criteria used to find the themes. Another way is for the students to come up with the themes by working in pairs. Both ways seem to work: going to the board opens the class up for more discussion and gets them acquainted with each other; working with a partner sometimes makes for a more concentrated effort.
During the Shrink stage, the students further refine the chunks of important ideas and themes down to essential thoughts that can be expressed through their own words in several complete sentences. This is done with the understanding that each sentence represents a depth of knowledge and understanding, rather than a superficial skimming of the surface. By this stage the students have a much deeper understanding of the text and could probably explain their findings to another audience.
The Shrink stage thus provides a skeletal outline of the deep reading of the text which can now be used in several different ways. This segues into the last stage of the exercise.
In the Wrap phase, students summarize and prepare to “ship” the essentials out, perhaps in an outline form, a mind map, an if-then diagram, or a simple, clear, and visual Keynote or PowerPoint presentation.
I have used this GSSW approach in an introductory ethics course in which several readings of moderate complexity are assigned each week. I’ve also used it in a course on social and political philosophy in which we read primary sources like Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The students paired up for the first two phases of Gather and Sort, and then as a class we took the important ideas and “shrunk” them to the essentials.
This is an exercise that can occur early in the semester, maybe during the second or third week, to provide the students a method through which they can work on their own to produce essays based on primary sources. It elongates and slows down the process that skilled readers use instinctively from years of experience. I have found that I should not take for granted that students know such methods, but once they are able to walk through the process as a group, they have a much clearer understanding of what they can do on their own.
After this initial experience, the students are generally optimistic that the technique can work for them on an individual basis. What seems a formidable wall of text becomes permeable through this technique. To change the metaphor slightly, we see through the walls to the foundation, beams, and struts that frame the house.
Barry Casey teaches philosophy and ethics at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC. He also teaches public speaking at Stevenson University in Maryland.