A Guided Approach to Reading in Core Biology

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

Like in all core classes, students in Core Biology read scholarly literature rather than textbooks or popular literature. The goal is to read for enlightenment rather than simply information. Taken together, this means every text should be an opportunity for the reader to think critically and reflect on their beliefs. As described in the previous post, this was not what we observed when the students were left to their own devices.

In light of this, we developed a short guide to reading and writing Core Biology based on what we in the department personally do and what other scholars describe doing while reading. The entire guide is within the context of the broad goal of the class: to get students to be aware of, and critical of, their own thinking on topics they generally do not think about in ways they ordinarily do not think. The reading guide provides a way for them to become aware of how they read versus how scholars read. None of these steps or ideas we describe is novel, but for most students this is their first exposure to a formalized reading process.

The guide outlines a four-step reading process: (1) a very short scan of the text to identify the structure and topic; (2) a single read-through of the text at the reader’s normal speed to identify the main point and annotate key ideas and areas of confusion; (3) a deep, thorough reading to annotate the structure of the text in relation to its meaning; and (4) an evaluation of the reading’s ideas and relation to the course. The guide also presents tips for annotating texts, including a list of suggested notations. Altogether, this reading process ensures that the reader has read the reading at least two times in its entirety and has annotated the text for meaning and structure.

At the beginning of the semester, the reading and writing process is highly structured to instigate the start of a paradigm shift about how to read. Highlighters are banned because most students struggle to use them responsibly.

Each weekly reading assignment includes their annotated text, a draft summary of the text, peer review, and subsequent revision, primarily so students have the opportunity to see how others are thinking about the reading and re-evaluate their own. Each assignment also includes a description of their reading process, including what they did differently from the previous reading and how they thought it worked.

This is a lot of work for them (and also a lot of work for us to grade), but provides ample practice and feedback about their reading process and its products. As the semester progresses and students show evidence of developing their own scholarly reading process, only the products (i.e., their summary and evaluation) are evaluated and students are given complete autonomy with their process.

Student “buy in” to this reading process is a very important component of the process itself.  Initially, students are more in compliance mode and do as they have been instructed to do. To date, we have seen students come to the conclusion by the second or third reading assignment that they can see the reading process has application to not only Core Biology, but also to other classes where reading is an expectation.

Students also seem to be comforted with the understanding that multiple readings of the same text is a standard technique for understanding and not a sign of poor reading skills. Eventually, they become encouraged by the higher level of understanding they are able to achieve with texts they would have (with old habit intact) given up on before they even read them.

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