Writing (Teaching) Tip: Teaching Students to SCROL

Yes, with one L.

I’ve been reading about teaching reading to second-language students, and this little exercise using headings and subheads in a text might benefit any student.  It’s quick to teach and focuses on the organization of a text in a way that’s useful to both readers and writers.

It’s called SCROL (Grant 1993, as described in Tricia Hedge, Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom, 196-197).

S–Survey the headings before reading.  Ask for each one: What do I know about this topic already?   What information might this section contain?

This draws on students’ background knowledge and gets them actively engaged in reading through prediction.

C–Connect the ideas in the headings.  Ask: How do they relate?

Students begin to see skeleton of the text.


Students are not approaching the text cold.  Encourage marking.

O–Outline.  Outline major ideas and supporting details in each segment.  To check how well you remember the article, write the headings on a separate page and try to recreate the outline without looking at the text.

L–Look back.  Check remembered outline against text and fill in gaps.


Teaching Tip: Avoiding academic drift

In their new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report their findings on learning in college classrooms.  Using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an essay-format critical thinking measure,  Arum & Roksa assessed the writing, critical thinking and problem solving skills of over 2,000 students from 24 institutions of varying size and selectivity.  Student scores on the CLA administered at the beginning of their first year were compared to their scores at the end of the second year.

Results from the study are sobering, but probably not surprising to anyone who has worked in higher education recently.  Approximately 45% of the sample made no progress in their skills in the first two years of college.   The authors consider many variables in their analysis of the data including ethnicity, prior preparation, gender, student attitudes and more.  While students don’t make as much progress as we would wish for many reasons, one of the encouraging findings of this study was that faculty choices made a difference.  Arum & Roksa reported two faculty-controlled variables associated with student improvement:  high faculty expectations and rigorous amounts of reading and writing.  All well and good you say, but what does that mean and how can we do it?  This week I’ll write a bit about reading and writing, while next week we’ll look at other ways of demonstrating high expectations.

In Arum & Roksa’s study, a course with rigorous amounts of reading and writing was defined as 40 pages per week of reading and 20 pages of writing over the course of a semester.  Students who reported taking courses that required both rigorous reading and writing showed more positive change.  Students who reported that their courses had only one or neither of those requirements did not show positive change.   Recall that these were freshman and sophomore level courses, not upper-level major courses.    And of course, this definition of rigor (as well as the CLA itself) tends to privilege humanities and social science courses that are naturally highly verbal.  So, rather than take these numbers as a standard to be met,  think about the kind of reading and writing that occurs in your discipline and then think about helping students learn to do it.  Reading a dense philosophy article or a detailed mathematical example would take easily as much time as reading 40 pages of a novel or a textbook.  And in studio courses, “reading” may not use words at all, but the concept of studying the works of professionals in the field to learn from them remains.

Reading: I believe that reading (both amount and skill levels) is one of the biggest problems we encounter with students at all levels.  Many students across  America don’t regularly do assigned course reading – one of Arum & Roksa’s findings was the low level of outside work students put into their courses overall.  But, in courses with higher levels of assigned reading and writing, students did put in more hours of study.  So, try to avoid the vicious circle i.e. students don’t read and so we assign less reading because they don’t read.  Also, realize that you will need to teach your students, especially at the lower level, how to read the material you give them.  Most do not come into college having encountered difficult reading.  One way to combine increased reading and writing is to ask students to keep a reading journal, produce a summary or a list of questions that show they have completed course readings.  These assignments also provide you with a check on whether students are reading, and the difficulty level of the assignment.  They could form the basis of a self-made study guide for future examinations or the basis for a longer writing piece, perhaps comparing two items.  Some professors use reading quizzes to check on reading compliance as well.  You may prefer the summary or journal approach since it takes more time to make up a reading quiz.  Another way to check on reading AND stimulate class discussion is to have a group reading quiz.  Students could take the quiz as a small group OR (my favorite) students take the quiz individually first and then re-take it in the group.  I like this approach because it combines individual and group accountability and stimulates students to talk about the reading material.  It also shows them that their peers really can be helpful sources of information.

Think beyond the text book, even in lower level courses.   Having to struggle with “real” disciplinary texts requires students to stretch their skills and develop them.  Just don’t assume that students can read such texts (or even some textbooks) without support.  Spending class time actually reading in small groups and then discussing the material can both model deep reading and get students started on a homework assignment to finish the article themselves.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to make sure that your reading assignments meet the “rigorous” standard:

  • Do you assign readings but then cover them in lecture?  I have a friend with many unread college texts because he could get everything he needed to do well in the course from lecture alone.  At least he bought the books; some our students don’t bother.
  • Is there any downside to not completing readings?  In the example above, there was never anything on exams that was only in the readings, and there was no other way of assessing whether he had read anything.   So why bother?
  • Can students get an A or a B in your class if they are not reading?  According to Arum & Roksa’s work, many students across the country apparently are having this experience.  If you really want students to do the readings, you need to structure your course so that students not only can’t get A’s or B’s but cannot pass the course without reading.

Writing: Writing is for all courses, not just WI!  One of my biggest concerns about the WI requirement is that students will not expect extensive writing in any course not labeled WI.  But if you think of writing as “thinking on paper” and assign multiple shorter summaries, annotated bibliographies, critiques or reflections, you will be pushing your students to interact with course concepts more deeply.

Extensive writing does not mean a long term paper, turned in at the end of the course.  While I believe that extended, long-form writing can be a useful format, it isn’t appropriate for every course.  You may choose to keep most of your writing assignments short and/or low stakes (e.g.  marked as done or not done).  Like reading, writing assignments will only be done if students see a positive reason to do them, and unfortunately the argument that they enhance learning tends to fall on deaf ears.  So, if you’re using low stakes assignments, you will need to figure out some way to include them in your grading scheme.  For example, a short essay or reflection can be used as an “entry to class” ticket, but you have to be willing to keep students who don’t have the “ticket” out of class.  You could require them to go off and complete the assignment or do something else before coming back to class, but understand that this approach requires a strong belief that coming to class without having done the assignment is pointless for the student and detracts from the class experience for everyone else.   If this approach does not work for you, consider counting the writing as all or part of a daily class participation grade – students can still attend class if they have not done the assignment, but won’t receive much or any credit.   Another way to use lower stakes writing is to have students create a portfolio of their low stakes work and then choose one or more low stakes pieces as the basis for a graded assignment.  Does this take more faculty time?  Yes of course it does but less than you might think.  And you get insights into your students’ thinking and understanding that it’s hard to get any other way.

Higher stakes written assignments should count for enough of the grade that students cannot get A’s without completing them in an acceptable manner.   If your class doesn’t ordinarily include a lot of writing, e.g. math, nursing or design, but you want to incorporate a rigorous amount of writing, you might consider contract grading (also known as the Chinese menu approach).  Students who successfully complete requirements in a variety of areas achieve a pre-determined grade.  For example, to get a grade of C, students would need to complete requirements 1, 2 and 3 while to get a B they would need to complete all of the C grade elements plus requirement  4, which could be a writing assignment or a certain number of reflections.  To achieve an A students would need to complete all of the C and B requirements plus additional work of your choice.  Devising a contract grading system has the added and interesting benefit of really forcing you to decide what is foundational to your course.  What elements should be required for a C but not for a B or an A?  What really constitutes higher level, rigorous work that earns an A?  It is also important that “completion” has clearly defined criteria – handing in all required work does not result in a passing grade if it is done poorly.

Of course, the other issue with incorporating more reading and writing into your courses is the culture in your school and department.  Can your department establish departmental standards that are rigorous so that students can’t pick and choose faculty based on their expectations, and so that no one is unfairly penalized with low student evaluations?  Talk to your peers and your chairperson about how your expectations fit with the aspirations of the school and the department.  One strong point made in the Arum & Roksa book was the need for higher education to step up and deal with this issue before we are subject to increased scrutiny and outside regulation.  But beyond that, we want our students to be strong thinkers and writers, and right now many of them are not.  We need to share what works and talk honestly about what is not working to achieve our goals.


Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2011).   Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Teaching Tip #13: Summertime and the living is EZ (er)

Can you see the light yet?  Right now, it may feel like that last big Light where your dear departed await, but it’s really just the end of the spring semester tunnel.  So, let’s look forward to planning your summer.   I hope you are including large dose of fun and relaxation; could some of that fun relate to your teaching?  Here are some ideas from the CTE:

Read: Not exactly beach reading, but if you’d like to stretch your thinking about teaching, here are some excellent choices.  The CTE has copies of all of these if you’d like to borrow one.

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer

Not a “how-to” book, but a reflection on the spirit, art, pain and passion of teaching.  We have multiple copies if several folks would like to read this together and discuss it.

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen Brookfield

Brookfield encourages us to examine our work in the classroom critically through the four key “lenses” of self, students, colleagues, and theory.  Great examples and a sense of humor.

Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok

Bok’s critique of current higher education will raise questions and make you uncomfortable at times.  Isn’t that what a good challenge is all about?  Another good group read!

The Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull

Neuroscience for all, as applied to teaching.  Clear, interesting and helps you understand how to apply what we know to your teaching.

Learner Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

What are the ramifications of focusing closely on what students learn as opposed to what teachers teach?  Maryellen Weimer lays it out for you clearly and compellingly.

And one more book that I can’t recommend yet but plan to read this summer:

Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham.  Although this book is not specifically for higher education settings, it’s gotten rave reviews and I’m looking forward to it.  Care to join me?

Talk: It’s a good time to stop by the CTE and chat about including more inquiry in your courses, using technology, course design or other topics.  We have lots of information as well as suggestions taken from classroom practice, and we’re around pretty much all summer.  Stop by, call or email!

Write: Join a summer writing group.  Peer review isn’t just for students! Start working on a grant proposal or your application for sabbatical.  Finish up that article or start a new one.  We’re happy to host writing groups and help you get organized.  Email teaching@marymount.edu to express interest.

Play with Tech Toys: The CTE has clickers you can check out and Sympodia you can play with.  E-learning services will be offering BB 9 training regularly.  Go to https://www.marymount.edu/itstraining/ to check for group training or contact elearning services if you need individual training.

Take a workshop: WI workshops will be offered through the summer; even if you’re not teaching a WI courses you will learn how to incorporate writing into ANY course in ANY discipline!  Contact Sylvia Whitman at Sylvia.whitman@marymount.edu for more information and to sign up.

Plan a course portfolio: Join a few colleagues and plan to design a course portfolio for one of your classes next year.  Why would you want to do that?  A course portfolio can help you improve the course for yourself and your students, it can provide evidence of your teaching skills and your commitment to teaching excellence and you can hang out with like-minded colleagues and share ideas.

We will have an organizational lunch meeting on May 26th at noon on the Main Campus.  Please email Carolyn.oxenford@marymount.edu or teaching@marymount.edu if you are interested (whether or not you can make it on May 26).

So, what are you doing this summer?  What would you like to try? Share the fun!

Note: This will be the last regular teaching tip post until August.  I would love to hear suggestions for topics you like and things you’re bored with.  Guest bloggers are also welcome!

We’ve Had Writing Day–Now It’s Reading Day

March 2 is reading day.  Unlike the National Day on Writing, this celebration centers on K-12 readers.  But these readers–and nonreaders–grow up to be MU students, and it’s sobering to note that the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress indentified only 34% of 12th-graders as reading proficient.

On a happier note, Reading Rockets invites your to send free e-cards designed by noted children’s book illustrators.

Teaching Tip #5: Homework Blues?

It’s only February 2nd and already some students are behind in their reading or other assignments.  If you mention the standard Carnegie definition of a credit hour (one hour in class plus two hours outside of class for each credit) many students look at you with horror or incredulity (the ones who don’t just laugh).  What’s a dedicated professor to do?   There are a number of strategies to try, but they all come down to one basic principle: make it matter.

  • Do NOT “cover” reading assignments during a lecture.  This makes reading completely unnecessary, and time-pressed students figure this out immediately.
  • Use class time to elaborate on the assignment, give additional examples, clarify difficult points or apply material to different problems.  Try to incorporate reading assignments and other homework into the structure of the class. Students who see their work being used, or who share it with peers, are more likely to stay current.
  • Ask students to write: a summary of their assigned reading; a question they have about an assignment; the most difficult part about the homework problem; or any question of your choice, and bring this response to class before you talk about it.  Such responses give you a sense of where students are struggling, and you can target your comments accordingly.  These types of writing assignments also can form the basis for discussion, and they are a great way to infuse “writing to learn” into any classroom.  Grading is optional.  You might choose to use these assignments as part of a class participation grade, or they can be used to document attendance.  Have students fully attended the class if they haven’t done their preparation?
  • Use technology!  Ask students to respond to questions or post the types of responses described above on the Blackboard discussion board.  You will want to have a deadline for these that allows you to review their responses in a timely manner, so you can use them as part of the class.  Students can respond to each others’ posts as well.  (Structuring this type of online activity usually needs to be worked into your course syllabus prior to the semester starting in order to be most effective.)
  • If you find that you are assigning readings or other homework that you aren’t really using in class or asking students to apply in their work, consider whether that assignment is really necessary.  Perhaps changing the reading or the task will make it more effective, or maybe it’s time to come up with something new, or spend the time on something else.
  • Make sure that you allow enough time for students to complete your assignments and really master them  –  you might ask your students how long they are spending on readings or problems and adjust your assignments accordingly.  Asking for this information can also let you know whether students are using a very superficial approach to their work or really getting into it. This is an excellent clicker question by the way – students don’t have to be embarrassed about their own answer and can see what the rest of the class is doing.
  • Discuss with students why you chose particular readings or designed particular assignments, so they have some idea of the benefits you expect them to reap from doing the work.  Then, let them know how to approach assignments effectively.  For example, students do not automatically know how to read college level texts, and they benefit from instructions that help them read more deeply.  Consider a reading guide with higher level questions that ask them to consider the author’s intention, questions they expect the author to address, their reactions to the reading, identification of the main points, etc.  Questions obviously will depend on the students’ level and your teaching goals.   For problem sets or design assignments, discuss how to attack a new problem and consider asking students to keep a journal where they record their attempts.  Reviewing students’ descriptions of their attempts to complete an assignment can give you tremendous insight into where students are going wrong.
  • Sometimes students seem to think that you just won’t notice (or care) that they are not keeping up. Then they get so far behind they become the “disappearing student”. Nip this in the bud now!  Contact students in whatever way you feel comfortable and let them know that you ARE paying attention, you HAVE noticed their absence or lack of preparation and what needs to happen NOW.  You can’t turn every student around, but research on early warning systems indicates that direct, personal intervention can be effective.  Generalized statements to the class and/or assuming the student will notice the problem and turn him or herself around generally do not work!

How do you help students stay on track in your classes?

Adam Kovach on Critical Reading Problems

Adam Kovach (philosophy) presented on “critical reading problems” at fall 2009 Innovations.  He finds students are not reading and/or not engaging with their texts.

He likens philosophical writing to a jungle.  Students need to bushwhack their way through texts but too often give up.  If professors pull out the key ideas and present them as potted plants, students can make sense of them. “But if we do everything for students,” he says, “then they can’t do it for themselves.”

After getting a grant and doing some research, he identified what he wanted students to do and then developed aids to specific texts, sort of readers’ field guides.  The goal: make students independent learners. The struggle: how to model critical reading without “giving away more than I have to.”

Here’s an excerpt from his presentation.  For the entire PowerPoint or examples of aids to specific texts, e-mail him or Sylvia in DISCOVER.

Reading Philosophy Actively (what students should do)

(a) Identify the main questions that motivate the text.

(b) Identify the main claims put forward in the text.

(c) Paraphrase the main arguments presented in support of (or against) the main claims.

(d) Define any special terms used to express the main claims and arguments.

(e) Formulate criticisms of the main claims and arguments.

(f) Formulate focused questions about the text to help fill gaps in your understanding.

Reader’s Aid (to help students do what they should do)

1. Locate and cite relevant passages in the text.
2. Look up terms background information to the text in a dictionary or encyclopedia.
3. Put significant non-transparent claims into your own words.
4. Explain the meaning of a longer passage in your own words.
5. Create new examples to illustrate a general principle or rule.
6. Paraphrase or outline an argument.
7. Compare different parts of a text and identify the logical connection.
8. Compare texts with previous readings to recognize how ideas are reused, developed and modified.
9. Explore some parts of the text independently and formulate questions as needed.
10. Answer open-ended critical thinking questions.