Teaching Reading through Writing

You hear this a lot around MU: our students don’t read.

Or, our students don’t read enough.

Or, our students don’t understand what they read.

Or, our students don’t like to read.

Like it or not, we often find ourselves teachers–or at least cheerleaders–of reading.  Reading?!  Didn’t they learn that in first grade?

You hear this around MU, too: how can I teach them to write when they can’t even read?

Obviously reading and writing are the yin and yan of literacy.  Students need both.

K-12 educators talk about this more than college professors.  David Pearson, dean of the UC-Berkeley graduate school of education, told the National Writing Project that writing “slows thing down so you can examine them.” Writing about a text produces a more critical reader.

Pearson is also a fan of peer workshops because readers there ask their peers the kinds of questions that they should be asking the authors of assigned texts.  “Questions like, ‘Okay, what was it you really wanted to say?'” get at a writer’s “intentions and motives.”

Reading specialist Mark Pennington points out the importance of prior knowledge in both reading and writing. Journals and other informal writing exercises can help students make connections between new material and what they know from experience or previous classes.

A well-sourced 2010 Carnegie Corporation report–“Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading,” by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert, of Vanderbilt–parades some sad statistics (p. 7) proving what you already know: many students graduate from high school unprepared for college work.

• Forty percent of high school graduates lack the literacy skills employers seek (National Governors Association, 2005).
• Lack of basic skills costs universities and businesses as much as $16 billion annually (Greene, 2000).
• Poor writing skills cost businesses $3.1 billion annually (National Commission on Writing, 2004).
• Only one out of three students is a proficient reader (Lee, Grigg, and Donahue, 2007).
• Only one out of four twelfth-grade students is a proficient writer (Salahu-Din, Persky, and Miller, 2008).
• One out of every five college freshman must take a remedial reading course (SREB, 2006).
• Nearly one third of high school graduates are not ready for college-level English composition courses (ACT, 2005).

Graham and Hebert conclude that students need more instruction in reading, but writing is an essential component for improvement.  They make three recommendations for boosting students’ reading skills (p. 5):

  1. “Have students write about the texts they read.”  These responses might take the form of summaries, journals, answers to questions, etc.
  2. Teach the building blocks of writing, from spelling words to to constructing paragraphs to organizing arguments.
  3. “Increase how much students write.”
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Teaching Tip: Why aren’t you teaching us?

If you are using active learning methods in your classes, you may have gotten negative comments from your students along the lines of  “s/he should do her job and teach instead of just making us (fill in whatever active learning methods you are using here).”   Helping students understand WHY you are asking them to engage in activities that they may not think of as “teaching” during class time can improve their attitudes and willingness to engage in class activities.  Thinking about the brain processes behind active learning can help you plan more effective activities too.  Here’s an explanation you can share with students and use to think about how you incorporate activity into your classes.

As it turns out, both listening/reading and doing are important for you to learn something new. Your brain, like all human brains, learns in four processes if it is to learn deeply so that you will remember and use what you have learned throughout your life.  Here is a very simple overview of how the brain works (Zull, 2002).

Process 1:  In classes you may get important information (for example, concepts about history, biology, or sociology) when you are listening and seeing.  Often listening comes to you through lecture and seeing comes through the written word on the board or screen.  Your outside reading assignments also are part of Process 1.  This kind of content input is important, but it is just the beginning of the learning process.

Process 2:  Next in your brain’s cycle of learning, you need to think (also called reflecting) about the information.  One way to do this is to think about your own experiences that are connected to the lecture or reading so that you can make sense of it personally.  In class you may be asked to free write or discuss the information you have received with your peers.   This process helps move information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory because it is repetitious, more active, and more personal (Zull, p. 21).

Process 3:  Next, your brain needs to make plans to use the information in some purposeful way.  This is not unlike what you do in your everyday life when you make plans for a party, road trip, or another event.  Now you may be asked to figure out how to apply information to a problem or question, analyze a case using the new information, or plan an inquiry project or an essay.

Process 4:  Last, your brain needs to actually take action, which is to do it, to implement the plan to see how it works.  This is the heart of inquiry learning.  If you are successful, GREAT!  But don’t be surprised if you fall short the first time.  Learning takes practice, and rarely do any of us achieve one-shot success on our initial actions. That’s why practicing problem solving techniques, writing drafts, trying different approaches and taking risks is so important to good learning.

Here are three key points about learning activities that you might think about the next few times you are in class:

Key point #1:  When you are doing a learning activity in class (thinking, discussing, writing, drawing, or performing), you are using more of your whole brain and, therefore, learning more deeply.

Key point #2Deep learning is remembered better than the shallow learning that is typically gained through only listening to a lecture and recording lecture notes.

Key point #3:  Lecture-only learning means that you may be using only one-fourth of your brain’s power.

Reference (available at the CTE):

Zull, J. E. (2002).  The art of changing the brain:  Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Thanks to Dr. Cynthia Desrochers of the Institute for Teaching and Learning at California State University for most of this tip.     http://www.calstate.edu/itl/index.shtml

Writers–Even the Pros–Need Readers

The National Book Festival takes place this weekend on the Mall, with live appearances by literary greats such as Isabel Allende, Jane Smiley, and Scott Turow.

If you head west instead of east, you’ll run into George Mason’s eclectic Fall for the Book Festival, which runs through Friday.  Here’s a snapshot of what’s going on Thursday, for instance:

These happen every year, so maybe we can try to build some of them into MU courses….

Teaching Tip: Studying that works

Those beginning of the semester flutters have subsided for most of us; add-drop is over, rosters are correct (for now anyway), expectations clarified and routines established. This part of the semester always seems to me like the calm before the storm. Students also settle into their routines, but are they good ones for learning? For example, most students will tell you that they are studying, but how does their definition of “study” compare to yours? You won’t be surprised to find out that for many students “study” equals skim over the text, notes or handouts occasionally. Some go so far as to apply highlighters to the page quite liberally. And that’s about it. So, this might be an opportunity to help them get a better understanding of good study routines before the crunch hits.

Just like active learning helps students learn more effectively in class, active studying helps them learn more effectively on their own. Here are some suggestions you can share with your students. For less experienced students, you might want to help them create a sample study schedule using the specific requirements of your course. Or you could ask students to share their study habits and tips with each other and generate a short class discussion on effective studying.

Here are the techniques most supported by research:

  • Study in different places and at different times. We used to think that the most effective way to study was at a desk in a quiet area with few distractions. Generations of dusty desks filled with unopened office supplies support what research now tells us – studying the same material in different environments is better than studying in the same room. Why? Apparently, studying under varied environmental conditions encourages the brain to make multiple associations between the content and external cues, which strengthens the memory. So go ahead and study at Starbucks, but study somewhere else too.
  • Don’t study just one thing at a time. For example, students who switch between quizzing themselves on vocabulary words, outlining or summarizing material in their own words and then checking these against the text or notes and/or solving different types of problems all during the same study session learn more effectively. This type of studying promotes not just deeper learning but also cognitive flexibility. Students must figure out how to choose and switch between different strategies, a skill that will help them on the actual test (not to mention in “real life” situations).
  • Use spaced practice not massed practice. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true! Students who study for less time per session over a longer time period remember more than those who cram. For writing assignments, writing every day is more effective than writing all at once.  This is a hard one to get students to adopt, since it seems less efficient to them than massed practice for hours the night before the test or assignment due date. Maybe you can get a few of them to try it once and see what they think. You can point out that spaced practice also tends to lead to less anxiety, and that students will be more prepared for finals since they will remember material longer. Spaced practice also gives students time to discover what they still don’t understand and get some clarification from you, which is difficult to do at 3 a.m. the night before the exam.
  • Test before the test. Developing and answering questions that might be on the exam, writing paraphrases of concepts in their own words and checking these against the reading or to another student’s interpretation to ensure that the paraphrase captures the intended meaning correctly. Simply reading and re-reading is probably the least efficient method they could use. So just from a time management perspective, using active methods wins out.
  • Form an effective study group – research suggests that good study groups are highly effective (and can be fun). Group members can adopt all of the suggestions above: quiz each other, trade class notes, practice explaining concepts in their own words to each other and/or talk through problems. Groups don’t have to be large – even a partnership is better than studying alone. Good study groups recognize the need to set expectations about focus and concentration e.g. we’ll study for one hour and then socialize. Otherwise all that’s learned is the latest gossip.

Here’s to productive studying!

Material for this tip was drawn from two sources:

Carey, B. (2010). Forget what you know about good study habits. New York    Times, September 6. Retrieved online from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&ref=science

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.

Mistakes Are Good

This excerpt from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion describes how instructors can “normalize” right and wrong answers so that students see both as part of the learning process.

Teaching Tip: Research on learning, or why we have two hands

Making sense of learning research is not for the faint of heart.  This week as I was reviewing the article “25 learning principles to guide pedagogy and the design of learning environments” to find some helpful hints, I realized that some of the principles on that list seemed to be contradicting others on the same list.  Hmmm….so here’s how I tried to make sense of them. Warning: includes occasional cognitive psychology/education jargon.

On the one hand……

Include cognitive challenges and promote cognitive flexibility

Cognitive disequilibrium happens when students encounter obstacles like information that contradicts their current beliefs or competing explanations that lead them to uncertainty and impasse.  This unbalanced state can lead to deeper learning by requiring students to study, critically reason, explore and attempt to resolve conflicts or problems. Presenting students with multiple divergent viewpoints also promotes cognitive flexibility, which is vital to being able to think creatively and deeply about a topic.

But on the other hand:   Know your audience and what they need

Levels of cognitive challenge too far beyond the students’ current stage can induce frustration, confusion, and anger; learning does not occur under those conditions.  We know instinctively that you can’t teach freshmen the same way you teach senior majors or graduate students, but we don’t always pay enough attention to those differences.  You can use a pre-test or knowledge survey to find out where your students are as the semester begins, and then use the Goldilocks principle (more formally known as Zygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development) to find the “just right” balance between challenge and support (aka scaffolding) for your class.  Of course, the ZPD really applies to individual students, and the inevitable differences that exist among students in any classroom mean that even if your class is optimal for most students, some of them will need extra support and some will need more challenge. To me this is one of the greatest challenges we face as instructors, so more on that later.

On the one hand……

Present information using multiple modalities

Information is more readily encoded and remembered when it is presented through multiple modes. Combining lecture/discussion with media clips, audio (e.g. podcasts) and/or pictures is more effective than using only one method.  Providing the same information using multiple modes is one of the foundations of universal course design, which aims to create equitable classrooms for all students.   Universal Course Design

But on the other hand:  Avoid distraction

Plan the order and amount of new information that is to be presented in digestible chunks so you don’t overwhelm students with too much too fast.  When using multiple channels, keep them “congruent” e.g. present similar information over different channels.  Otherwise, students will attempt to process both channels simultaneously, which leads to cognitive overload for many of them.  Avoid distracting elements such as animations, pictures or other add-ons that do not directly connect to the material to be learned; your intent may be to attract attention but the result may be lack of learning.

On the one hand….

Use active methods and deep questioning

There is a robust body of research that indicates that students should be doing things with the information and processes we want them to learn.  What kind of things?

  • Outlining, organizing, synthesizing, re-stating in their own words and/or applying information to new examples rather than just re-reading material or listening.  For example, have students create their own study guides or chapter outlines and give them feedback.
  • Combining information gleaned from texts, lectures, discussions or other resources into a single product.  Try using a different approach or order of topics in class than your text uses, then require students to integrate the two.  Have them combine what they saw in a video with what the text says about the topic in writing. These activities require students to take more time and effort, and lead to better learning.
  • Ask good questions to promote increased comprehension and deeper learning.  Good questions also get students into the mindset of thinking deeply about material as the course progresses, in anticipation of the questions they will be asked.  What are good questions?  The traditional “who, what, where, when” questions do not lead to as much learning as “why, how, what if or what if not” questions.  Students will require more time and thought to answer these questions, especially at the beginning.  They benefit from the opportunity to think or write about questions first, discuss them in small groups and then engage in a whole class exploration.

But on the other hand: Sometimes direct instruction is necessary

Especially for novice learners (including yourself when you are learning something new), unsupported inquiry or totally independent active learning is not the most effective way to go.  Novices need supports which may take the form of worked examples, explanations, and detailed formats and directions (there’s that scaffolding again).  New learners often need direct instruction in metacognitive skills such as how to study, how to tackle difficult reading materials and how to regulate their learning.  When you are assessing student knowledge, it may also be helpful to assess their understanding of how to learn as well.  As students progress through their programs, direct instruction should be less prominent and less support should be necessary, but once again, individual differences play a big role here. .

I’ve really just touched the surface of these principles that are at the core of good learning and teaching.  It would be so helpful to hear about some of the things you are doing in your classrooms that illustrate how you are trying to maintain the balance between challenge, activity and complexity on the one hand, and direct instruction, simplicity and support on the other.  Where is it working for you, and where would you like some new ideas to try?

Principles drawn from:  25 Learning Principles to Guide Pedagogy and the Design of Learning Environments

No Assistant Professor Should Be an Island

Inside HigherEd is beginning a series addressing the writing needs of pretenured faculty.  In the first installment, “Writing for Academe: A Series on Dialogue, Mentoring, and Motivation,” Western Washington University professors Karen Hoelscher and Carmen Werder begin dishing up advice collected from veterans of their support program.

They suggest “aligning writing projects with department expectations” so that service feeds scholarship.  SoTL, anyone?

There’s more good advice in the article–and likely more to come.