November 17th, 2014

Why You Read Like an Expert – and Why Your Students Probably Don’t


A recent experience in class left me a bit rattled, and made me wonder if I’ve long been trying to teach an impossible skill. It confronted me with a fundamental question: What’s teachable, and what do students simply have to figure out on their own with the passage of time?

We were just beginning discussion of a new book in an intermediate-level historical methods course. Before plunging into the book’s content, I asked students to describe to me the exact procedure they employed when they began to read it. (Utter silence. They feared I was trying to trick them somehow.)

I tried to clarify: “Tell me the precise steps you took. The book was sitting there, right? And you had to read it. So, what exactly did you do?”

One brave soul finally weighed in, though with trepidation. “I picked the book up, opened it to page one, and… began reading it.” (A collective exhale emanated from his classmates, as they realized they’d all done the same. Strength in numbers.)

“Yes, but why should we believe this book, or even take it seriously?” I asked. “Are those important things to know at the outset?” (Of course, they agreed.) “How would we go about answering such questions?”

The responses started coming, slowly at first but then in a torrent. (It’s published by a well-known university press. The author is a professor at Prestigious Institution Y. There are extensive endnotes indicating where his information came from.) “Okay, now take out your smartphones.” (Yippee!) “Can you find out what the author’s been up to since he published this?” (Quite a bit, and it all looks impressive.) “If you Google the book’s title, what do you find?” (References everywhere, and the title even has its own Wikipedia page!) “Has it been reviewed a lot and in a variety of journals across disciplines?” (Yes and yes.)

What we’d just done is known as the “sourcing heuristic,” that is, determining the origin and legitimacy of a text before reading the text itself. According to history education specialist Sam Wineburg, professional historians naturally source their readings this way, whereas only a small minority of students do so. And it’s not just historians: give a book to just about any academic and ask her what she makes of it. The most important “tell” is that she’ll flip the text over and “read” it from the back: Who’s the author and publisher? Who wrote the endorsement blurbs? What does the bibliography look like? Who’s mentioned in the acknowledgements? A strange thing is that academics do this automatically (and I’ve run this experiment successfully many times; try it yourself sometime with an audience of professors). Perhaps even more strangely, no one can ever remember precisely when they started to do it or even being taught the technique. It just happened at some point in our training or careers and we don’t seem to notice doing it anymore.

I begin instructing my classes in the sourcing heuristic in their freshman year, and this group of students – some of whom I’d already taught – was well beyond that. Moreover, as our in-class inquiry above indicates, the task of rudimentary sourcing is far from impossible. Yet, no one had scrutinized this text on their own, even though some of them had already been trained explicitly in the technique, and even though all of them readily agreed that knowing such information was crucial. So, I pressed my luck a bit.

“What will you do when you have to read the next book for class?”

(Utter silence. It was as if the previous fifteen minutes had never happened.)

“No, seriously. We just went through all this. You proved you can do it and you agree it’s important. So, will you do it on your own next time?”

Finally, a nervous voice: “No. I mean, you assigned us the book, so it has to be legitimate and important, right?” (Heads nod all around.)

Therein lies the conundrum. The sourcing task itself is straightforward, but if I’m perceived as a gatekeeper to reliable scholarship, why should they bother? More importantly, if the students have to be prodded into doing the task every time, have they actually learned anything?

In this vein, I’m reminded of a story told by Randy Bass, a leader in the scholarship of teaching and learning movement. Overhearing some of his English students say that they couldn’t believe the professor thought Oregon Trail was a good book, Bass couldn’t resist intervening. “I think it is a horrible book,” he explained. But, he added, “I think it is an important book.”

I can take solace that my group of students at least recognizes the importance of the books we read for class. But the reason for the texts’ perceived status is a far cry from what I hoped to instill. If a transcendent goal is to make these students independent learners, they may be doomed when they leave my classroom and have to navigate texts on their own. Indeed, I’ve had ostensibly well-trained seniors submit research paper bibliographies replete with dubious sources that were clearly not scrutinized. They had been able to replicate a skill perfectly, but had never really comprehended or found value in it. In the parlance of Ken Bain, they are likely “strategic learners” who can mimic a technique, but who “understand little of the ideas behind [a concept] because they never intend to do so.”

I’ve long issued a question-based protocol for students to apply to historical texts. I routinely have classes do comparative analyses of primary and secondary sources, in which the provenance and authority of the texts matter, and I can easily imagine devising additional exercises that would reinforce the necessity of sourcing. Readers will undoubtedly weigh in with tips on how to address the problems I describe, and I’ll consider them seriously.

But, as much as I hate to say it, I wonder if much of these efforts will be in vain. Wineburg demonstrates that historians not only source their documents automatically, but read them in a manner their students do not – a fact more broadly applicable to the divergent ways experts and non-experts organize knowledge, as illustrated by Susan Ambrose.

Daniel Willingham, a renowned cognitive psychologist, writes that genuine proficiency in a subject area is partly a function of what’s called the “ten-year rule”: expertise can develop (if it develops at all) only after roughly a decade of specialized and intensive training. If true, this helps explain why we academics internalized the sourcing heuristic probably sometime in graduate school or in our early careers. But the ten-year rule might equally explain why the process fails to have a meaningful and lasting impact on most undergraduates.

For my part, I’ll keep trying, because what other choice is there? And I’ll dream of the day when I ask my students to take out that new book and they all instinctively flip it over to the back.

Dr. Pete Burkholder is an associate professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he is also founding chair of the faculty teaching development committee.

Susan Ambrose et al., How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Ken Bain, What the Best College Students Do (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).

Randy Bass, “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem?” Inventio 1/1 (February 1999) (link to PDF).

Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

  • Perry Shaw

    The tendency to unquestioning acceptance of anything in print is even stronger in vertical (high power-distance) societies, where students have grown up with highly authoritarian and directive structures in every element of society – and especially in education. I teach in the Middle East and at our school we are currently developing a strategy whereby students are introduced to critical reading step by step:
    1. In their first months they are given a series of exercises in which there are two short texts (500-1000 words each) that disagree with each other. The students work in groups to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each text, coming to some critical solution to the difference.
    2. Once they have mastered the basic process we ask students to do a comparable exercise with longer articles.
    3. We then introduce the students to the process of studying the author's background and qualification, and how this might influence what he or she is saying.
    In other words, we work towards the "sourcing heuristic" slowly.

  • DrPyrate

    It's so refreshing to see conversations like this! These are conversations not only to have with student but also among ourselves. This heuristic nature goes so far beyond an approach to history.There's a linguistic and literary balance to this exploration, too, and so much more. My bias and subject focus is about to become patently clear from the examples below representing historical pirates in conjunction with their literary transformation in children's and young adult literature.

    I've approached this issue a bit differently in genre classes to tackle the presuppositions of nonfiction, historical nonfiction, fiction, (even sea shanties) etc., and come through a view of emplotment (Hayden White) as a battle against "critical dispersion." Tied into popular culture and even breaking down the rhetoric of how they talk about their weekend, language becomes that mechanism of organizing, omitting, selecting, etc. How CAN the same story be told again and again, and how does the repetition make things legitimate, when it could be legitimately wrong? (e.g. believing that 9 Golden age male, white, anglo pirates in the Caribbean who met grisly deaths were the end-all be all of piratical history, when the most successful pirate ever was a Southeast Asian female prostitute who had 80,000 sailors sailing between 1600-1800 ships and who retired with her own gambling hall on good terms with her government). The allies of the author aren't just contextually in the moment, but asynchronously railroading into unquestioned authority in "factual" information. That kind of critical dispersion is dangerous. The tripartite text-context-subtext (Trites, Coats, & Cadden, Adolescent Fiction: Context, Text, Subtext) approach to any kind of can strengthen that heuristic.

    You nail something that's so much more important in here, too: I love that you talk about the assumption the student says "you assigned the book, so it has to be legitimate and important, right?" I'm allowed to reference a statement I make to every single class I teach on the very first day: "I will not lie to you, but never trust me." I am not my title (Dr.) or my career (Assistant Professor), and my integrity must always remain in question where I present the truth as far as I can synthesize from my own standpoint. I also teach books I abhor based on their importance – even as I judge them in relation to their historical "allies." And that 10-year rule is horrifying to me.

    I'm also not sure if all of this is in vain when classes discover erroneous sourcing in how 19th century legal documents were convicting people while simply riding on the coattails of sources citing sources citing sources from antiquity that never used the term pirate in any such manner. I share your fear of these lessons doing no good on the grounds that such lessons meet disruptive moments to long-held beliefs students have about their own agency and the overwhelming nature of being in an age of information with exponential technological growth (Kuzweil).

    It's as important for these students to understand what resting on one's laurels really is, even for themselves. We read of Louisa Baker, Eliza Bowen, and Lucy Brewer, who purportedly wrote accounts of one another and represented prostitution and cross-dressing female marines, using details of actual ships and battles for curious contextually synchronous readers to puzzle out the authors' authenticity. Then, the class finds out it was a marketing ploy to push such books as nonfiction (Cordingly, Seafaring Women). Written from the standpoint of a businessman, the students start to break down that critical dispersion for every person they encounter who supposedly has a position of power, as much as any text they read.

    And yet, this whole post is why they can't trust me: I'm very direct about the paradox that even in asking them to challenge such mechanisms, I , too, use them: I throw out sourcing as allies while trying to prove my worth because that is the moment we are always in to psychologically make sense of ourselves (Lacan) [Irony]. Our educational ideologies are a paradox, saying each of these students' voices are important, but they only mean as much as the allies they can recruit to their writing. Confusing much? It's no wonder we're all so tired.

    The genre-based expectations we've been taught to "normalize" and take things for granted, they expand perspectives to see the fiction in the nonfiction and the nonfiction in the fiction. How could I even possibly overlook the true tale of Alexander Selkirk taken on by Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe; and Defoe himself possibly the real author of the most often referred-to book of Golden Age piracy, The General History of Pyrates (credited to Captain Charles Johnson, an identity without any verification) .

    We're battling a lot of fears, and one of the most primary fears is the hope each of us has for self-authorization, not needing the validation of any "Other" to be taken seriously while knowing it's just not possible. That heuristic sourcing is also finding a source of the self.

    Thanks for this very important, very relevant post.

    Smooth sailing

  • Kathy Payne

    Many of our students work, have families and numerous other calls on their time. I've had decent success in pointing out that a bit of evaluation (I'd never, ever, use the term "heuristic") before reading a book or article will save them time AND get them better grades. Success is measured by the number of students popping into my office or another class to tell me I was right.

  • Kathleen Hagen

    And some of this difficulty may lie in the students' place on the Perry Scheme. William G. Perry and his colleagues formulated, based upon 15 years of student interviews, a developmental progression of how students' beliefs about knowledge and their responsibilities as students change during their time in college. For students who were raised not to question Authority, questioning whether a source is legitimate is unthinkable. I highly recommend reading some of Perry's work to get a sense of how students' epistemological beliefs develop.

  • Geoff Irvine

    Rhetorical question BUT did you as the professor "model" this behaviour" at any time in front of them prior and explain why you were doing it? Did any other professor? Where they put into groups with a range of texts of obviously varying value and asked based on your model for behaviour which source would they judge to be most trustworthy for some state purpose? Was this exercise repeated with less obvious texts to evaluate as poor or worthy to give them increasingly difficult opportunities to practice?

    The problem is presumptive teaching (the assumption that someone else must have covered this… it's basic to expertise). The fact is that no one is teaching this (or rarely) and even if they do it is not reinforced with the same model and description and practice in different courses and disciplines.

    What is being discussed here (as a history teacher myself) is fundamental to citizenship and one the best reasons to be a History major. The trouble is that no set of outcomes are organized across the discipline or cross-discipline to address the skills for expertise (mostly higher order thinking and processing). Instead, we just "fire hose" students with information all day (ever tried to get a glass of water front fire hose?) and sit in dismay when students do not seem think as critically as we do. Basically, the responsibility is ours alone. Hat's off to Dr. Burkholder for taking the time. Keep on pressing. It should not take 10 years for a learner to pick up expert behaviour by as a result of survival and osmosis. It is achievable in 4 easily, but you might not teach quite as much content. Which is worse?

  • Deborah Dessaso

    Hagen appears to have hit the nail on the head. Unlike college students from times past who came largely from cultures where they grew up surrounded by ideas and where the idea-makers were generally known to the community, many of today's college students arrive, and often remain, "clueless in academe" (to use Gerald Graff's description). Thus, it is critical that professor make every attempt to close this vacuum. I frequently remind my students that one of the role's of higher education is to prepare them to "move their major forward" by becoming experts. One of the primary ways of doing this is to become familiar with the experts–those who write the books, articles, reports, etc. The professor's role is to teach them how to "talk back" to these texts–legitimately challenging their assertions and forming their own. It's no easy task, especially since so many students' are hampered by their limited academic vocabularies, but it's a task that is critical to the scholarly process.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    I think you are making too much of this. The main reason why professors develop the skill is simple: Our time is limited. When I pick up a book I want to know if it will be worth my time reading it. So I go through the routine you advise, more or less automatically. And when the book is in one of my areas of expertise, when I check the bibliography I can't avoid determining whether my name is there (a big motivational factor?). If your students ever become academics, they will do the same, for their time will also be limited. But when taking your class, the question of whether the book will be worth their time does not arise. You assigned it: They have to read it. Period. Moreover, I fear that you are giving them the wrong lesson. I am not a historian, and perhaps in your field there is a greater need than in mine. But with all due respect, it seems to me that you are emphasizing the value of the authority of the source over that of critical reading. A book, or an article, should stand on its own, no matter how many great scholars approve of it. And I greatly favor primary sources; let the students train their minds on them without the distorting "help" of secondary sources. Have them defend their original ideas about the books rather than parrot those of someone else. Indeed, the students, in more advanced courses, and sometimes even in freshman courses, can then test their value of those secondary sources against their own knowledge of the primary sources. That is far more beneficial, as I have seen student after student tear into secondary accounts of Galileo or Machiavelli, for example. That is what happens in my philosophy classes. In teaching neuroscience or psychology, though, my emphasis lies in learning to evaluate experiments and the support they give, or fail to give, to important ideas, no matter how well regarded the holders of those ideas might be.

    • Kathleen

      I agree with you completely. One of the best courses I ever took in graduate school was ostensibly to study the major psychological theories of child development. However, the professor spent the whole semester teaching us how to find the original, primary research publications that made several "experts" famous–and then find the flaws in their research and conclusions and tear them apart. It was critical reading and thinking at its best. Decades later, I still look for the primary source if a secondary report interests me, and have taught my students how to question everything, even in the primary sources.

      • Gonzalo Munevar

        Nice to find a kindred soul. Following in the footsteps of your professor, you are doing your students a lot of good.

  • Catherine Waters

    The reading process itself is a related issue. Students sometimes tend to start at Page One and proceed to Page (whatever). Then, upon arriving on Page (Three), they say they don't remember a word they read so they go back and read it again. I try to remind them of a technique I taught when I as an elementary school teacher: Survey the material – headings, proper names, etc.; Question the relevance of the material perused; Then read. In other words, have a goal for your reading this chapter or this book. At the end, the reader is more likely to have reached a conclusion about the material.

  • JK Middendorf

    The History Learning Project has published several articles about such obstacles to learning and describe the fundamental misunderstandings that lurk beneath the surface of such classroom interactions. They described a series of mismatches between what the college history professors expect of their students and what those students imagine their task to be, created an inventory of basic ways of thinking in history that need to be modeled for students, and experimented with new strategies for teaching. One that will match up with this article is: The History Learning Project: A Department Decodes its Students; Journal of American History, 94(4), 1211-24 by Arlene Diaz, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow (2008).

    • Kathleen

      This article looks very interesting but, when I searched for it online, this is the message I received: "You may access this article for 1 day for US$38.00." Thanks but, I'll pass.

  • Rebecca Pennington

    This is a crucial issue for K-12 and college alike. How does one comprehend complex text and recognize bias, resource reliability, and a host of other factors essential to comprehension? In K-12 we teach strategies for comprehending and the Common Core is moving toward teaching students to evaluate text and find evidence to support claims of all kinds. I think modeling (expert showing the novice how) is a powerful strategy at any age. I would love to see the thinking process of my philosophy professor as he/she reads the text! More modeling, fewer assumptions.

  • Pat Ryan

    I simply love this article! How true it is! As an Anthropology instructor, I wish creationist/Intelligent design advocates would use these same techniques to evaluate their texts…

  • Kathleen

    This article springs from an incident in a historical methods course. So, what’s the big deal? If you want your students to learn historical methods, then teach them historical methods. From a practical standpoint, when you select a textbook that you will require your students to purchase and read, there is absolutely no reason they should waste their time evaluating the book in the manner described. Pressed for time, they have to start reading whether they like the book or not since you will probably test them on its content. On the other hand, most of us reading “experts” possibly developed the habit of reading the back of a book (and flaps, table of contents, etc.) when we had to decide for ourselves which one book of many on a store bookshelf we would buy, or take home from our local libraries–whether for entertainment or learning. I may not remember exactly when I started following that procedure, but I do know it was because I had to make a choice among numerous possibilities that would cost me money or disappointment if I made the wrong decision. That’s what the back of the book is about; it’s a sales pitch. I know; I’ve written hundreds of them. Over time, if you pay any attention to details at all, you realize that you can more readily rely on specific publishers for a good read in specific genres, even if the name of an author may be new to you.

    In undergraduate college, depending very much on the discipline you are studying, you may be taught how to attend to the primary sources of professional journal articles when you are taught how to conduct research and write research reports. This is especially important in studying the sciences and preparing to conduct original laboratory research of your own. The purposes and approach are vastly different from those exercised in, say, English literature. But that’s the heart of the matter: as a student, by definition you are not an expert in any field. You are in the position of having to be taught, and it’s the reason you went to college in the first place–to learn the skills, not because you already have them. Given the extreme diversity of educational backgrounds of incoming college students today, it is foolhardy for professors in any discipline to assume that students have prior knowledge and skills suitable to the college level of learning in their specific fields, some of which students may have never been exposed to before. It would be an oxymoron to say so.

    Never assume prior knowledge, even if your students say they have it. They don’t. We might wish that at least a modicum of Information Literacy was taught in all of our high schools but, evidently, it is not. For that matter, you have no way of knowing what other professors may have taught your various undergraduate students nor, how well. Every professor worth her salt brings something unique to the table. If you want your students to learn something specific to your field, you have to teach it yourself–explicitly–not just hope they’ll acquire it by osmosis, or wish they had pulled it out of the air someplace else. After that, whether or not an individual student absorbs a taught skill as their own is entirely driven by their personal motivation to become an independent learner and, ultimately, independent expert.

  • Darryl Myers

    I teach as an adjunct instructor at a community college. I wish I had the time to deal with metaissues such as this one. The basic problem at this level–and I'm sure it's much worse in K-12–is that we are required to cover so much material in a survey course that there is no time for anything other than course content. As an instructor I receive a checklist from the college–far too long a checklist for the number of weeks the class meets–of topics that have to be covered by the end of the semester. Also, as an adjunct I have no say on what books to use. The department chooses required textbooks for me. (Not to mention that a large portion of every class never even buys the assigned textbook because, they claim, they can't afford it, and a large portion of the ones who do buy it claim they have no time for reading because of other courses, jobs, children, and commute/travel time for jobs or unavoidable family obligations.)

    • Kathleen

      You must be teaching at my community college! Ditto on every word you said. Add to that the "high impact practices" you're forced to fit in at the last minute, and you can be sure you'll never get to cover everything you wanted to teach, let alone "heuristic" schemes.

  • Chris

    Take a page from a time-crunched high school teacher with even lesser-motivated students. Offer five (or three? or six?) sources to your students and have them choose the best one according to the selection criteria. Then, they are not obliged to fall into the trap of "My instructor gave it to me, so it must be good stuff." Students will exercise the skill you wish them to exercise with little impact on their social calendars.

  • Jan

    I work as a Teacher-Librarian in a high school and this is what I do. Every day. And pretty much every period. Whether in a formal lesson or informally as I am walking around the library, I teach students to question the source of the information they are reading. "Who wrote this book that you are reading?" "Are they an expert?" "Is this website sponsored by a company? An organization? What might be their motivation for providing this information to you?" or "Is this the best source of information you could find?"

    Sometimes I feel like, when I am teaching a class, I am also teaching the teacher (especially the young ones) — because they themselves may have never questioned a text.

    Some things that help stem from assignment-design. In some courses, the teachers require the students to hand in an annotated bibliography of the best 2 (or 5, or 10) of the sources they plan to use in their essay prior to writing the essay. In other courses they might have a checklist of types of sources the student must include: 1 peer-reviewed journal article, 1 book by an expert, etc. When these things are done, it forces the student to pay attention to their sources and not to just settle for the most convenient information.

  • Dr. Jim Nichols

    As a 30 year K-12 educator/literacy specialist and 17 year college/university educator I quickly recognized the lack of expert reading at both levels. The solution has been the use of study guides which I design based on how I read the material and what I determine is important. I combine this with teacher candidates' creation of graphic organizers(Inspiration software) and teacher candidates' creation of CBRT's (Curriculum Based Readers' Theater) for each chapter. This three point strategy is highly successful in achieving expert level understanding of text material.
    The study guides,which also emphasizes how to read the material as I have is based on Cunningham's Guide-o-Rama technique, which is described as " The closest thing to looking over a student's shoulder and guiding him through a passage".

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  • Rick Wilcox

    The either/or conversation about eBooks vs "real" books is wrong. To be truly effective it takes both. I engage the real book first by doing all of the things mentioned in this article. I also skim it first at a chapter level and then closer at a subtopical level. The analog of working through a book by turning pages and writing in the margins engages multilevel experiential reinforcements and is much more conducive to conversing with the author. My final step is to rehighlight my notes on a more refined basis into the e-copy (preferably using an expert tool like Logos) which facilitates personal indexing and future reference. Only a good book is worth all of this but the process is highly rewarding.