There are two complaints that cross the lips of university educators more often than others. The first is that students are unprepared for class each week. The second is that students are unprepared for university when they leave high school. I think the two are related.
The problem starts with the gap between what high schools teach and what universities expect. While it would be nice for high schools to do all the work bridging the gap, it's unlikely. The gap encompasses the set of basic skills that university students need to survive: taking notes in lectures, handling the condensed workload of a university term (aka time management), reading critically and writing (or problem solving for the sciences, maths and engineering). Some students arrive with these skills mostly developed, some arrive with partially developed skills and some arrive with nothing but a gleam in their eyes. This depends largely on the abilities of the students and the high schools they attended; there is also a bit of a range in what universities expect from frosh.
Some high school teachers take it upon themselves to go through some of these skills, some do not. It has not been a rigorous part of the high school curriculum, so several generations of us learned to sink or swim when we first arrived at university. Universities offer lessons in these valuable learning skills, but I do not have any clue how often students use these services.
What I'd like to cover in today's Teaching Tip is critical reading for historians (of science). In future Teaching Tips I'll return to the topic of critical writing for historians (of science) and some of the other skills needed to survive and excel at university. I believe that putting in some basic groundwork in teaching critical reading skills puts all the students on the same plane, and if it's done properly it can go a long way to solving the problem of students being unprepared for each week of the course.
In a first or second year history, or history of science, course, you may have students who have only ever learned the five paragraph essay, and have only read novels, poems and Shakespeare in an academic setting. In some history classes, especially history of science, this is the one and only exposure some of our students will get to critical reading and writing. Reading a history textbook, an argumentative piece like an essay, or a primary source are all very different skills, and not particularly similar to basic reading comprehension in English literature. History and history of science courses assign somewhere between dozens and hundreds of pages of reading for each week and offer no real guidance on how to do it; students either sink or swim on their own.
I contend that the skill set we develop is more valuable than the content knowledge we attain through an undergraduate course or degree in history. I believe this because one of the skills attained through undergraduate history is the ability to research and find ideas on your own, which can replace any reductions or alterations in content knowledge over the years. Another valuable skill is critical reading, which leads to the ability to succinctly summarize ideas and the ability persuasive argue for a position in writing or in speech.
So if we assume that everyone in our class has an idea how to read Shakespeare, how do we get them to read E.P. Thompson, Galileo or Donald Creighton? There is nothing like practice, of course, to really learn how to read all these different materials, and we all have different preferred methods for handling these materials ourselves.
What I like to do for the first assigned reading of the term is walk through the basic reading comprehension questions: who wrote this, when, what is the topic, what is the thesis, what are the sub-arguments, what evidence is used to support the arguments, etc. Then I like to move onto the critical part: how convincing is the evidence, does the evidence support the arguments, do the arguments support the thesis, why or why not, how does this situate with the other things we've read this week/term/year, based on everything you've read what are the causes or consequences of _____, etc.
Some students will be able to answer all these questions, but most will struggle with everything more detailed than the topic of the reading. In some cases this is merely a deliberate lack of preparation, but for the most part it is a result of the lack of adequate exposure to this kind of reading and scrutiny. So, assuming you believe that university educators have a responsibility to develop this basic skill, how do we go about teaching it?
I use a two-part strategy. For the first half of a session (maybe a little more), I go through the basic and critical reading question list. While we're doing this I emphasize that I expect them to have the basic comprehension for every reading, because I can ask these questions at any time (I usually only ask this mundane stuff for the very first reading). I also explain that my preference is to focus on the critical questions that generally have no correct answer, because this tends to lead to real discussion of historical issues and opinions and allows us to work on the other valuable historical skills. I suggest that they manage their time accordingly. The answers to the basic reading comprehension should account for a very small fraction of their preparation time, something like 1/10 to 1/4; the remainder should be devoted to critically engaging the piece(s) that they are reading each week. This activity can be done in small groups with a full-class summary.
Second, I work through an exercise to get them thinking of ways that they can most effectively manage their time and come to class prepared. This consists of a few questions and some brainstorming on the board.
- What do you read on a regular basis?
- Answers: textbooks, articles, newspaper, blogs, bulletin boards, novels, poems, txts, emails, etc.
- Do you read all of these things the same way?
- Answer: no
- How do you read these different materials?
- Newspaper - skip to favourite section (sports), skim the headlines, read stories that appeal in greater detail
- Novel - front to back (or ending first, then story)
- Textbooks - (in its entirety, and then) review certain sections when cramming
- Poems - all the way through, then stanza by stanza, line by line, then abandon the effort and find Coles Notes / Wikipedia entry
- What do you expect to read in this class (for lectures or tutorials)?
- Answers: textbooks or essays for lectures, secondary and/or primary sources for tutorials
- What information are you trying to get out of each of these types of readings, and what do you think is the most efficient way of getting that information?
- Lecture material is complementary and will give an introduction to a topic if read before lecture and/or a summary if read after lecture
- Can skim for basic comprehension and then read in detail for interesting or important ideas and facts
- Tutorial material requires analysis
- Could skim once for basic comprehension, might skim a second time for basic outline of thesis and arguments and then in-depth reading of parts that are interesting/important/problematic
Once all of the students understand your expectation for preparation, the rest of the term will usually unfold smoothly with intelligent and insightful weekly discussions. This doesn't mean the second week of covering readings will be smooth, since some students never seem to find their way, but the average and above-average students usually catch on by the end of the course.
Unfortunately, the applicability of this Teaching Tip hinges entirely on your teaching philosophy. I think the skills we impart have a greater long-term value than the content, and I think those skills are shared fairly broadly across the humanities. If you agree with me, then hopefully you will find some value in this Teaching Tip and some of the subsequent installments. On the other hand, if you think content trumps all, then hopefully you will keep reading and I will be able to persuade you that the skills have to be there before you can meaningfully attack the content, and the skills will be there long after the historical content has been rewritten or forgotten.
For the next Teaching Tip, hopefully to come in about a week, I plan to cover some ideas on how to get students pointed in the right direction in terms of finding resources. I may bundle this with some thoughts on assessing the reliability of these resources, or I may leave that for a future installment.