Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Getting students to do their reading, think about it and share their ideas and responses

Carol Hogan
Language Arts Education
Edith Cowan University


In his little book Unriddling the World, Terry Johnson (1988) points out one of the major problems of institutionalised learning; a problem so large and pervasive that it can be as invisible as the air around us:

It was decided long ago that the appropriate way to educate the young was to relieve them of most responsibilities required for subsistence and place them in buildings called "schools" and boxes called "classrooms". ... Isolation from the rest of the community engenders a sense of irrelevance. A lack of responsibility causes the participants to focus too heavily on learning. In many other aspects of society learning is not the central purpose for any given activity, but a by-product of attempts to solve problems that arise when trying to conduct that activity.
By the time I read this I had already reached a similar conclusion through critical reflection on my own long-established instructional practices. I was struck by the irony that I did an enormous amount of reading and thinking about education in order to prepare my lectures, plan effective workshops and select readings and texts for my students, while the students did relatively little. I was the most active learner in my classes - because I had almost total responsibility for what was learned and how it was presented for consumption.

It is very difficult to move out of a powerful, controlling role like this and I certainly don't claim to have relinquished it completely. I still feel that it is my job to locate at least some of the appropriate literature and to do my best to encourage students to engage with it. There are obvious reasons why students need to read: to access a wider range of information than is available in lectures, for example, and to hear other views and other voices than those of their teachers. In professional courses it is also important to establish habits of professional literacy, including the following:

My task was to develop a new approach which would foster these habits. The following strategy is one small example of a range of new practices through which I have attempted to extend the range of roles available to my students and to "share around" the challenges, satisfactions and deepened understandings that derive from increased responsibility.

Students as teachers

In this strategy, half the class is assigned one reading or set of related readings, while the other half has a different set of material to read.

The Task

Become familiar with the key themes, ideas and arguments in the article(s) so you will be able to:
  1. Represent them in a diagram, table or other visual format;
  2. Using this as an aid, explain the article(s) to your partner so s/he will have a good understanding of its content and direction.

When the students meet for a tutorial, they are paired with someone who has prepared different readings and are given a certain period of time to "teach" one another about their material. The "learners" are encouraged to ask questions and both students can spend some time connecting and comparing their readings (which have, of course, been chosen accordingly). I usually then suggest that they exchange readings so that they can later confirm or challenge their partner's interpretation. I sometimes then combine the pairs into groups of four to extend the discussion, or open out into a class discussion of, for example, the implications that the readings might have for classroom practice.

Several important beliefs and understandings underpin this very simple strategy, among them:

My own experience of using this technique and others based on similar understandings has been that almost all students complete the course reading and are much more positive about texts and readings in their course evaluations. I have also noted a marked improvement in participation in class discussions and a more thoughtful and integrated use of professional and research literature in students' assignments. An interesting benefit that I had not anticipated is the improvement in my own responses to students who fail to do their reading. This extract from my journal gives an insight into this issue:
When I was helping the students to organise their groups I noticed M. had no notes or diagrams and he admitted he hadn't read the articles. In the past I think I probably pretended not to notice when a number of students hadn't done the work - I'd just feel really pissed off but continue - probably try to tell them all the information they hadn't bothered to find out for themselves! Sometimes I used to do the "Talk" about how important it was to read blah blah blah - to no effect of course. What happened this time was interesting. I made quite a big deal of it - "You must feel pretty bad that you've let your partner down like that. Perhaps she could join this group while you go to the library and see if you can get some sense of what this is about." Another girl admitted she'd better do the same. I felt much better in the role of reminding them of their responsibilities than I had as "wimp" or "authority figure" - and hardly anyone failed to do their reading after that!
I have tried to build on this simple strategy in a number of ways. Some of the following ideas may be of interest to those looking for a greater degree of engagement and participation from their students: And of course there are many more possibilities, all of them based on the transformative premise that students learn more effectively when their roles and responsibilities encompass more than learning alone, but extend to curriculum designer, advocate and teacher.

Notes

  1. Nias (1987) notes that the culture of teaching tends to be one of agreement, where challenge is perceived as uncomfortable. Pleasant as this may be it can serve to preserve poor practices, inequity and entrenched attitudes.

References

Anderson, R. B. (1977). The Notion of Schemata and the Educational Enterprise. In Anderson, R., Spiro, R. & Montague, W. (Eds), Schooling and the Acquisition of Knowledge. New Jersey: Erlbaum & Associates.

Johnson, T. (1988). Unriddling the World. Perth: Wesley Foundation.

Morris, A. & Stewart-Dore (1985). Learning to Learn From Text: Effective reading in the content areas. North Ryde: Addison-Wesley.

Nias, J. (1987). Seeing Anew: Teachers' Theories of Action. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Reid, J., Forrestal, P. & Cook, J. (1987). Small Group Work in the Classroom. Perth: Education Dept of WA.

Please cite as: Hogan, Carol (1996). Getting students to do their reading, think about it and share their ideas and responses. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p79-81. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/hoganca.html


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