Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why Freshmen Fail, Part One: Poor Reading Skills

It's the middle of the fall semester at CUA, which means that my days are (or at least, should be) filled with student conferences. Faculty are required to post mid-term grades for freshmen, so that our newest students can get a sense of how they are doing before it's too late to change their study methods or to withdraw from a course. Academic advisors are expected to review their freshmen advisees' grades and meet with any student who has one or more grades below C-. That's about half of my roster, so I've had to prioritize my advisees according to urgency.

This week, I met with most of the students who are currently failing one or more courses. I heard a lot of excuses, from "my computer crashed" to "I've been really sick" to "the professor has a foreign accent that's difficult to understand." But this year I also got some surprisingly thoughtful answers. So I'd like to take my next few posts to explore why freshmen get into trouble academically and what educators can do to help.

I'll start with one of the most common problems: poor reading skills. I'm not talking about basic literacy here but about the ability to read a primary source critically, with attention to argument, context and genre, and to form independent thoughts about the author's ideas and the way he or she has presented them. Reading primary texts in this manner requires a different set of skills than reading a textbook, and most of my students have had little to no exposure to primary texts (eventually, I'll get around to ranting about the problem of standardized tests in this blog...).

Those of us who teach college freshmen have had to devote more class time than we'd like to teaching students how to read a primary text, and some approaches are more successful than others. The typical (traditional) approach is to assign a text or a part of a text for the next class session and ask students to "come prepared to discuss." If you take this approach and you're lucky, a few students will read the text, and maybe one or two of them will have grasped the main points. If you're really lucky, one student will have something intelligent to say about it. There are at least two problems with this approach. First, the non-readers in the class rely on the readers to carry the discussion, and/or they try to steer the instructor toward general topics that can be discussed entirely without reference to the text. There are ways to get around this issue, but a second problem remains: most students will leave your course still lacking the skills to read the texts.

A better--and popular--approach is to assign a text or a part of a text for the next class session but give students one or two questions to think about as they read. I've tried this approach (in connection with the third approach that I will describe below), and the results are better: more students read the text and participate in an on-topic discussion, and most would pass a reading quiz. The problem, though,is that this approach still doesn't teach students how to become independent and critical readers. Essentially you are telling them ahead of time how to interpret the text before they've had a chance to wrestle with the ideas themselves. Students still have no idea how to ask their own good questions, and if you, the teacher, try to take the discussion in a different direction than the prepared questions, you'll encounter the same result described in the "typical approach." Prepared questions can and do become a crutch that some students will never be able to throw away.

The best approach (I think) might be one that I and a few other teaching fellows tried last year: take class time (as much as it pains us to do so) to introduce a variety of reading skills and techniques. In my course sections, we began the semester by talking about the various genres of literature that we'd be reading, and how you can't read all genres the same way. I tried to introduce a new reading skill whenever we switched genres, so for example, when we looked at the Biblical texts (with which most of my students are at least somewhat familiar), we took class time to practice noting repeated and contrasting elements, and to think about what that might mean. When we switched to Athanasius, we did an opening exercise that got us thinking about the various types of appeals one can make in an argument (e.g., appeals to authority, appeals to experience, appeals to aesthetics) before discussing how the author used them to support his teachings. And when we switched to Ambrose's "mystagogical catechesis" on the sacraments, I brought in, to a fair amount of snickering, a big bag of colored pencils and took the class through a mark-up technique that produces a graphic representation of the ways in which Ambrose interweaves some themes and separates others to make his main point.

I found this approach to be effective, although there's still a lot of room for improvement. It was a struggle at first, but I saw a gradual improvement in the reading journals over the course of the semester. In the beginning, most journal entries were either restatements of the main ideas of the text. This is a good start--at least I got a good idea of which students really understood what they were reading--but I had to push them to give me more. What did they agree or disagree with, and why? What ideas were new to them? By the end of the semester, I'm happy to say, most of the class had made the transition.

Of course, no one approach reaches all students. Some students will choose not to read for or participate in class no matter what the teacher does. Part of becoming an adult is learning to prioritize, and some students will decide that my class is low on their priority list. Naturally, I hope that these students have made that choice because they have deemed that getting good grades in their major courses is more important (and some courses, like English 101 and foreign language courses, have higher "passing grade" thresholds than Theology), or because they are doing their best to juggle a full course load with a part-time job, but if some choose to place a higher priority on "recreation," that's their call. They will get the grade that they have chosen.

Next time: (re)teaching students how to think

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