Explore potential strategies.
Students lack an important component of critical thinking: how to read critically.
To read critically, students need to move beyond reading just for content – the way students typically read in high school – and instead read in a way that goes deeper, addressing questions such as, What was the author's purpose? Who was the intended audience? Who or what was the author responding to? And, why do these questions matter to you as a reader? When students fail to read in a critical way, they are not prepared to engage in other tasks that involve critical thinking. For example, if students take the readings at face value, they will not be prepared to challenge the author's perspective. If students can't analyze an argument’s structure or evaluate evidence as they are reading, they will not be able to identify weaknesses in the argument or critique it. In sum, if you want students to be prepared for the kind of class discussion you expect, you must help prepare them to do more than a superficial reading.
Keep in mind that students may have deeply held misconceptions about what it means to read a document critically. For example, some students see their goal in reading as merely getting the "gist" of an article, and hence they skim all the paragraphs equally rather than analyzing different sections according to their role in the text. Other students may not know that jotting down questions, problems, implications, connections, or gaps as they read an article should be part of their standard procedure; instead they may inappropriately believe that generating questions while reading is only for documenting one’s lack of understanding of the text. Because of misconceptions like these, you need to be all the more explicit in articulating what you expect students to do when reading. Sharing your expectations when you assign a reading is the most straightforward approach.
When it comes to challenging others, students may err by either challenging too much or by challenging too little. Reassure students that it is ok to challenge the reading in appropriate ways and that you value their cogent arguments. If students still don’t challenge the readings enough, you can explicitly assign students to identify a couple strengths and weaknesses for each reading, until this becomes routine. You can also assign students the role of disagreeing with the author or the task of finding a questionable assumption. The key idea here is to give students targeted practice at challenging the readings in your course. In cases where students seem to be challenging unfairly or disrespectfully, explain to them what it means to challenge a position while still taking into account what the author intended as well as the context of the writing. Giving students feedback and modeling the kind of challenging, probing, questioning behavior you expect can be helpful in this regard.
Students can more easily learn how to interrogate a reading if they have a set of questions to start from. Especially for the first few readings of the semester, students can benefit from having a set of prompt questions to answer while they read. More generally, giving students an assignment (i.e., something to bring to class) that is tied to the readings forces a deeper, more thoughtful reading and makes them accountable. For example, to help beginning students, you could ask them, for each reading, to identify the main point and the author’s assumptions. As students gain experience or with more advanced students, you could assign them more challenging tasks to incorporate into their reading: outlining the paper’s argument and evidence, explaining how a given reading fits into the literature, or researching the author’s background and position.
Even though you may not recognize it, there is likely a set of steps you systematically take when reading texts in your field. Because of your experience, you may take these steps automatically, almost without a thought. Students, on the other hand, likely have no idea of how to approach a reading effectively. So, identifying and sharing some of the common steps you take (e.g., don't skip the introduction; glance at the section/chapter titles to get a sense of the structure; read the footnotes to evaluate the source of information) can be very helpful to students. In addition, you may engage in critical reading differently across different contexts. However, because of your expertise, you may do this automatically and not even notice that you are varying your approach (e.g., for original research articles versus literature reviews, for academic articles versus popular pieces, or for historical documents versus. current write-ups). So, sharing with students some key aspects of your disciplinary approach to reading can help them learn the ropes.
Remember that reading an article is a task usually done alone, so find ways to reveal and share your process of critical reading with students. If you write comments in the margins when you read an article (e.g., "But where is the evidence for this claim?" "This point relates to Smith’s 1994 work"), consider whether they would be revealing of your thought process while reading and, if so, share them with students. Some faculty give students an annotated copy of a text they have read as a starting point for a class discussion on what is involved in critical reading. This is often particularly important for first year undergraduate students and students in the first course or two of your discipline. Even going through a portion of a reading and "thinking aloud" as you read – i.e., articulating the questions or issues that come to your mind as you read – can give students a window onto what it means to read critically in your discipline. Finally, you can give students guidelines for how long they should take for each reading, how much they should write down as they read, and what they should be prepared to say next class. Keep in mind that your students generally take 2 – 4 times as long as instructors do, so be sure to make your time estimates reasonable for what a students will likely need.
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