college-level reading skills February 12

Reading Reframed for the Community College Classroom

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When people hear I’m a professor of reading at a local community college, I’m often met with some variation of, “Really? You teach reading…in college?”

The assumption implied, of course, is that college students should already know how to read, that reading as a focus of study belongs in the elementary classroom. For most people reading this article, the fact that students struggle with collegiate-level text is not revelatory. Indeed, the office-doorway concerns swapped amongst faculty are confirmed by various reports, such as the one cited in the U.S. Department of Education’s recent review of developmental education, which noted that approximately 40% of first-year community college students enrolled in at least one developmental course in the 2011-2012 year (2017).


getting your students to read February 1

Reading to Learn

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For some time now, students in my first-year biology course have been protesting that I’m assigning too much pre-class reading. I use the flipped classroom structure in most of my courses and that means students prepare for class by reading assigned pages in the textbook. To hold students accountable for completing the reading, I administer a two-stage reading quiz before we discuss the content and apply the concepts to problems during class. Those who complain tell me that reading is not part of their learning style and I’m putting them at a disadvantage.

The research on learning styles is inconclusive and contradictory (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). The theory behind them proposes that students learn best when teaching matches their learning preference, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. The research, however, does not support this theory in very convincing ways.

What the research does suggest is that learning occurs best when the teaching method matches the content and the learning task. Thus, if problem-solving is the skill to be learned, then practicing problem-solving is the best way to learn it. If concepts are what’s being learned, then various explanations of the concepts and practice explaining them is the best way to learn them. Learning can be approached in many different ways, and we each have our preferences about how we like to learn. But our preferences do not, indeed should not, prevent us from learning in different ways. If we find it difficult to learn by listening to a lecture, that does not mean we must live with poor listening skills. It means we need more practice at listening for meaning when we find the content challenging. If we have difficulties understanding the written material that appears in texts, that does not prevent us from becoming more skillful readers of text. It means we need a better understanding of the skills involved in reading textbook material and repeated practice in applying those skills.

What troubles me about learning styles is that they promote a fixed mindset and that evolves into a perceived learning disability where none exists. Certainly, learning disabilities are real and experienced by some students, but many of my students conflate having a particular learning style with the inability to learn any other mode. They treat their difficulty with learning from texts as an incurable problem and ask to be excused from ever having to do it. I can’t think of any profession where people are excused from reading. Rather, poor reading comprehension comes with consequences.

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college students reading as a group September 15, 2017

A Method for Deep Reading

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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.


students reading June 1, 2017

Reading Assignments, Activities, and Approaches to Promote Learning

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A collection of resources on getting students to read what's assigned and strategies for developing college-level reading skills

Many students do not arrive in our courses with college-level reading skills. That usually ends up meaning a couple of things. First off, they don’t like to read and will challenge (usually quietly and covertly) teacher announcements and syllabus admonitions telling them they must do the reading. They’ll come to class, sit quietly, take a few notes, and see what happens if they aren’t prepared. If there are no negative consequences, they decide maybe they don’t have to do the reading or they can put it off until just before the exam. In the Relevant Research section below you’ll find a study that documents the number of students who come to class not having done the reading as well as what they say is the most effective tactic for encouraging them to read what’s assigned.

Getting students to read “boring” textbooks is especially challenging. To them, what’s in the reading is complicated, unfamiliar information that doesn’t seem all that relevant. What’s most important? What do they need to know? Why won’t the teacher just tell them what they need to know? After all, isn’t that the teacher’s job?

Without good reading skills, students often resort to dubious approaches when tackling their reading assignments. With brightly colored markers, they underline entire paragraphs, if not whole pages. They attempt the reading while attending to numerous distractions; TV, music, and electronic devices of various sorts. Their eyes glance across the words on the page, skipping over unfamiliar vocabulary and without stopping when they don’t understand something. The idea of interacting with the text—thinking about the contents, relating the content to what’s been talked about in class, trying more than once to understand a passage, keeping mental track of what they’ve just read in light of what they’re reading now—all of these close reading strategies necessary to understanding text material are not used at all or only modestly.

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student with pile of books April 17, 2017

Literacy Levels Among College Students

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When I confront “problems of practice” in my teaching, I like to turn to my smart friends for advice. About a year ago, I was really confounded by my students’ trouble with reading for deep understanding. While I could see that the students were completing assigned readings, they weren’t always able to process the information deeply to analyze the concepts or apply the content to new situations. Since I don’t have much experience teaching reading, I turned to my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Shettel. Jen is a literacy professor and has run several tremendously successful close-reading workshops in our area. I figured she could give some advice. Our conversations prompted some pedagogical experimentation with different literacy-based strategies which Jen and I will be sharing in a preconference workshop at The Teaching Professor Conference this June.


yellow highlighted text May 6, 2015

Lost in a Sea of Yellow: Teaching Students a Better Way to Highlight

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A lot of students are in love with their highlighters, especially those bright, fluorescent-colored ones. They use them to highlight course materials, sometimes underlining whole pages of text. When I first saw a text so fluorescent that it all but glowed, I wondered why in the world somebody would spend that much time underlining. Later I understood it was really a cry for help. “I can’t tell what’s important, so I’ll just highlight the entire section so I don’t miss something.” Highlighting can be a useful way of interacting with text, but it needs to be done in a thoughtful way.




May 14, 2010

Is There a Place for Reading Lists in Today’s Curriculum?

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Given the difficulty most faculty have getting students to read for courses, even assigned reading in required textbooks, reading lists may not be used as extensively now as they were 20 years ago. Nonetheless, they still figure prominently in the delivery of independent studies, special topics courses, and senior and graduate seminars.


April 13, 2010

Helping Students Understand What They Read

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Many college students struggle with their reading assignments. As a teacher educator with expertise in reading development and disability, I find it useful to model effective reading strategies and provide immediate feedback on those strategies frequently used by students. One versatile method I use with undergraduates involves examination of what they underline (or highlight). Throughout the semester, I ask students to refer to their assigned readings and share with the class passages they underlined and reasons for their selection. In this way, the types of thinking that accompanies purposeful, active reading become more apparent.