You Can Lead a Student to the Library, But You Can’t Make Them Read, or Can You?

This is the first post in a series on developing close reading habits in a freshmen Core Biology course.

Student at His Desk-Melancholy (1633) by Pieter CoddeWhen we started doing original text reading in freshmen Core Biology, students had a devil of a time trying to understand a text like Summa Theologica.  In fact, students were having a difficult time reading and understanding just about any original text we threw at them (e.g., Plato’s Meno, Chapter 1 in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Darwin’s Origin of Species, etc.). Granted, the texts they struggled with were not easy texts to read, but comprehension was being replaced by full retreat from attempting to understand even after the first reading assignment was given. Students did not know how to tackle a text that did not have the 3 characteristics they look for in a book: short, simple, and shocking. After a long period of time we finally started to realize what the problem was.

At first we thought that with enough coaching before the text was assigned, compliance would be achieved and understanding would follow. Shockingly, that did not work. We then tried a discussion format in which students would have an arena to discuss their misunderstandings of the assigned text and, in tandem with the professor’s guidance, understanding would be achieved. Wrong again. The assumption then devolved into “we just need better students.” Again, wrong!

Finally, we began to understand that the problem was not one of laziness, or lack of a desire to do well; the problem was that they honestly did not know how to read texts of the caliber we had assigned.

As we observed students struggling to discuss the readings in class, we noticed many were hindered by unfamiliarity with the structure of the text in addition to its meaning. Most students couldn’t pull out the main ideas versus the evidence for them or ascribe ideas to the proper point of view. Most students would bring no materials for discussion—certainly no notes beyond assigned questions and rarely the reading itself. When we dug into the text, some would try to read off phones or other unsuitable devices. (This was the easiest problem to solve as we simply began providing printed copies instead of posting them digitally on Blackboard.) The students described discussions as painful and we had to agree.

In an anonymous survey, we asked students how much time they committed to the readings and found the average student spent minutes, not hours. We asked how many times they read each reading and found the average student read once, not several times. We asked if they took notes and the average student did not. The comparison between our own reading habits and theirs was stark. The solution to better understanding and better discussion seemed to hinge on the reading taking place outside of the classroom. Our new goal was to teach them the reading skills educated people use to read scholarly texts so that new habits—and deeper discussions—could develop.

Roderick Soper is Professor of Biology and Sarah Karam is Assistant Professor of Biology at Concordia University Irvine