More Active Reading: How to Read a Textbook Chapter

A week or so back, I wrote here about exercises in “active reading.” There, I included links to a number of blank worksheets that students could use to help them read actively (Bull’s Eye organizer; Fish-bone organizer; K-W-L sheet; and more).

As an exemplar to the class, I “actively read” a scholarly essay: I wrote a short phrase next to every paragraph in the essay, and also filled in each of the worksheets. I then called attention to this in class and posted it to their Blackboard.

The next weekend, while supervising a local chess tournament, I came upon a kind of “active reading” poster in the middle-school library (Flickr):

THIEVES, an acronym for Title, Heading, Everything I want to know, Visuals, End-of-section material, So what?

This pretty much exactly corresponds to what I tell students about how to read the chapters from their textbook:

  • Read the chapter’s introductory paragraph. List the keywords in the margin of that paragraph.
  • Read the major headings (“Jeremiah and the Deuteronomists”; turn them into questions (“What do the Deuteronomists have to do with Jeremiah?”).
  • Look at the graphics: photographs, tables, timelines, maps. What do they make you think of? What questions do they make you ask? Write these in the margins of the chapter’s first page.
  • Ask yourself: What sorts of things do you already know about the topics coming up in this exercise?
  • Read the concluding paragraph and any study questions or glossaries at the end of the chapter. Plan to search out the answers to these as you read the chapter.
  • Read one (1) major section in the chapter. For each paragraph, jot the main points into the margin, in your own words. At the end of the section, describe aloud what that section communicated to you. Repeat this for each section. This should take several sittings, probably one sitting for each major section.
  • Bring this chapter into conversation with your life. What difference does this information make? How does it challenge things you already knew or believed? How does it help answer or solve questions you have had in the past? What does it make you want to try to discover next?

This may seem time-consuming, but in practice it is an incredible time saver: with interactive reading, you can read the chapter once instead of several times, because you retain the content at a much higher rate than through passive reading. Also, by breaking the reading up over several sittings, the subject matter can “percolate” for you, making unexpected connections to your other studies or activities.

Students, do you already do any of these kinds of things when reading? Profs, do you offer any kind of guidance or instruction in active reading?

[More Active Reading: How to Read a Textbook Chapter was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/03/18. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

What Would You Ask a Prospective Online Student?

Not everyone is equally prepared for online learning, just as not everyone is prepared for a given degree program, or for several aspects of face-to-face learning. What would you ask of a prospective online student in order to help her determine her readiness?

I have been reading through some online quizzes that ask, “Is distance learning really for you?” Here is a sample:

The questions can be clumped into some more-or-less discrete categories:

  1. access to internet and minimal hardware and software
  2. minimal competence with an operating system, manipulating files, relevant applications
  3. comfort and experience with navigating tasks online (email, paying bills, renewing library books, search engines)
  4. comfort and skills with social aspects of internet (Facebook, blogs and comments, Google/Yahoo Groups)
  5. how much time one expects to spend on a course, and in what increments
  6. habits relating to organization and professionalism
  7. normal student skills like reading, writing, participating in discussion, interacting with faculty
  8. motives and expectations (why an online course rather than face-to-face?)

For me, some of the real biggies are those that pertain to the f2f classroom as much as to distance learning: How much time will you put in? Will you break that time into daily chunks? Do you have professional habits of time management and communication? Do you have experience with active reading? Do you have experience with several different kinds of writing? Why are you here? Some of this can be taught, but a lot of it amounts to disposition and attitude. Even a willing student who falls short in these areas will be struggling against likely long-term counter-productive habits.

The items more clearly related to the peculiarities of the online environment—knowing what to own and how to use it, navigating virtual space, translating existing social skill sets into unfamiliar venues—actually worry me less. Sure, the student has to recognize the need, and may have to get over a “fear hump,” but if that one hurdle can be negotiated, then it’s just a matter of learning a bunch of stuff.

This is, I acknowledge, my own idiosyncratic assessment: it’s how I think it would be for me to get started.

What would you want to ask of a prospective online student, to help her make a no-B.S. assessment of whether distance learning is for her? If you have been an online learner, what do you know now about “what it takes” that you didn’t know then?

[What Would You Ask a Prospective Online Student? was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/03/16. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Reading the Textbook with an Open Bible

Typically, in an “Introduction to Bible” or “Introduction to Old/New Testament” sort of class, the student is expected to read weekly in a textbook and also in the Bible. However, some students find themselves reading through a chapter of the textbook without the content seeming to “stick,” or gain traction, with them. Others will find themselves getting bogged down in confusing biblical material, blowing a lot of time on (say) the Book of Jeremiah, without much payoff in their understanding of critical issues in that material.

I regularly suggest that students read the textbook with an open Bible. The textbook will regularly cite the biblical texts, usually in the context of making some critical point. “In Jeremiah 7:4-14, we can see the prophet’s attack on his opponents, who are convinced of the Temple’s inviolability and therefore unimpressed by the Babylonian threat on the horizon.” At this point, the student should read Jeremiah 7:4-14, checking to see 1) that the textbook is reading the Bible correctly, and 2) whether the student is understanding the textbook correctly. The student should do this with all of the Bible references in the textbook.

In the above example, the student may also find that related aspects of the course work are reinforced: the fall of Israel (where Shiloh is) to the Assyrians, for example.

“But reading the textbook already takes so long: now it will take longer!” Will it really? Perhaps, but with a net gain in time. By the time a student has read the textbook on, say, the last years of the first Temple, she will not only have already “skimmed” the whole book of Jeremiah, but will have done so with attention to critically significant texts, in the context of an informed discussion (with the textbook) about those critical issues. So, there’s the main part of the assignment to read Jeremiah, checked off the “to do” list.

Also, the words of the textbook are now gaining traction for the reader: by “checking up” on the textbook’s claims about the Bible, the student is out of a purely passive, receptive mode of reading, and into a dialogic, critical, active mode of reading. Additionally, related critical issues are being brought into synthesis with the material at hand (“where is Shiloh? why is it destroyed?”). This kind of active learning is what makes material “stick.”

Have you tried “reading the textbook with an open Bible”?

“Audience” and Student Writing

To whom should a student imagine herself writing, when doing her course work? At least, she’ll want to know how much knowledge of the subject matter she can presuppose on her reader’s part. Further, a writer naturally imagines a hearer: an interlocutor to her line of reasoning, a narratee to her narration.

In my experience, the usual reflex is to imagine the professor as the audience. This makes a kind of sense: the work is actually to be read by the professor, of course. And, the professor created the assignment in the first place, so doing the thing feels like an “answer” to that.

However, many students will already know some drawbacks of imagining the professor as their reader. For one thing, the professor’s knowledge of the field of study will usually so far exceed the student’s that the student has no idea what prior knowledge or presuppositions to assume for that reader…not to mention the creeping fear that the prof will know some bit of data that totally demolishes whatever line of reasoning the student has gone out onto the limb with in her writing. Further, the student may have negative, fearful, or ambivalent feelings about the professor. The conditions for good writing are delicate, and as easily frightened away as shy woodland creatures: the imposing shadow of the prof-as-reader can all too easily paralyze the writer before she can really get started.

At the same time, I don’t think that the utterly uninformed layperson—what I think of as the “tabula rasa” audience—is a much better alternative. If the imagined audience has no prior knowledge of the subject matter, then the student writer feels compelled to explain every little thing to the nth degree…and the work becomes unmanageable. Also, this “tabula rasa” audience is rather amorphous. I prefer a nice, clear audience in my head.

For my part, I suggest that in their writing, my students imagine a strong colleague as their audience. That is, some one (or two, or three) classmates who have kept up on the reading, heard the lectures, participated in the discussions, and have sought to make connections between the different elements of the subject matter. This solves the question of prior knowledge: the writer does not have to explain every little thing, but insofar as her research has led her to information not covered in class, she should bring that data into relation with her classmate’s body of knowledge. The “strong colleague” is (or can be) a positive figure to hold in one’s mind, and emulating that mental audience is an attainable goal: the “strong colleague” is like the writing student herself at her imagined best. In the writing that she is doing at that point in time, the “strong colleague” represents the best of what she is trying to be.

What do you think of the “strong colleague” as an imagined audience for student writing? What sorts of audiences have you imagined for yourself when you write, and with what results?

Being a Student: Crazy, Mentoring, and Office Hours

Everyone who has taught first-year students in higher education knows it: besides teaching the subject matter of the course (“Introduction to X”), we are also triage nurses in the task of academic formation: writing skills, critical thinking, academic integrity, time management, methods in collaboration and mutual support, and so on. In short, being a student. All of this depends in part on soliciting the students’ trust so that they’ll hear our sage advice. Some of my recent reading has me considering all this under the umbrella of “mentorship.”

Sparked by a post about faculty mentoring in Inside Higher Ed, there has been a conversation in the academic blogs about mentoring in grad school. In the final link below, Dr. Crazy writes about her strategies for forcing students to accept mentoring.

  1. Historiann: Mentors and mentoring: whose responsibility?
  2. Sisyphus: Lessons for Girls: Don’t Just Ask, Insist on Help (even if it makes you feel weird)
  3. Dr. Crazy: How to Force Students to Let You Be Their Mentor

In a nutshell (and in my own words), Crazy wants to say two words to you, Ben. Just two words. Are you listening? “Office hours.” Face-time is the necessary-though-not-sufficient ground for a protegé/mentor relationship. This accords pretty well with my own experience, though “office” for many adjuncts will often and awkwardly mean the library, a quiet corner of cafeteria, or an unused classroom.

Like “extra credit,” the “office hours” strategy has a common drawback: the students who take advantage of it are almost always the ones who are already going to earn top marks in the course. So how does one draw in the students who need it most?

Crazy’s strategy is to frighten them early and often, while wearing a sandwich board sign saying, “This way to my office.” For example, she describes the tactic of responding to a written assignment with “see me” and holding back on other feedback until the students shows up to meet.

This probably sounds controlling to some, but in my experience, students who are struggling with the course really resist interaction with the prof: it’s just that natural, poisonous impulse to “get one’s act together” before meeting with the powerful authority figure. It often takes a trigger incident of some kind to prod the student out of the slow freeze of inchoate anxiety and into motion toward the office-hours sign-up sheet.

This term, I also have a plan for driving students to my door. I am starting our first-year students off a very short written assignment that a mean to be enjoyable and low-stakes (graded only as done/not done). After it’s finished, we will discuss it during a brief office appointment. If nothing else, it will help me learn their names, and it will show them the way to my office with a suggestion that I don’t mind company as long as an appointment is made in my available hours. As Crazy writes, students who have found the office once will tend to come back again.

If you are a student, what sorts of “carrots and sticks” drive you to a professor’s office? If you teach, do office hours have a role in your efforts to offer mentorship, and if so, what experience can you offer to other teachers or to students?

Being a Student: Letters

Bryan Bibb’s recent post on “How to Argue with Your Biblical Studies Teacher” has me reflecting on that hatful of things I’d like my students to know about being a student. Expect occasional posts on the subject, beginning today with “letters of reference.”

Imagine it’s the first day of the first year of your course of study. Besides everything else on your plate, take a moment to focus your gaze on that figure at the front of the room. Think: “I will be asking this person for a letter of reference.” It may be for admission to a degree program, or for a scholarship or fellowship, or it may be for the thing you don’t know yet you’ll need. That is, it will involve money and opportunities: can you hear me now?

Advance preparation:

  • Don’t be a wallflower, even a high-performing wallflower. Come to class with genuine questions that engage the subject matter. Check in with the prof before or after class occasionally. Sign up for office hours. If you are self-conscious, do this enough that you can relax and be yourself: after all, you are the self that she will be supposed to be writing about.
  • Do what you can to perform well. Do you devote two hours outside of classroom on the course for every hour inside the classroom? More on “performing highly” in a later post, but for now: if you follow that 2:1 formula and do not get the results you want, check in with the prof about tips on how to spend that time.
  • Get advance permission: “Would it be possible for me to ask you for a letter of reference in the future?” This translates to, “Don’t forget about me while two or three more waves of incoming students crash over your bow in the next year or two.”
  • Cultivate more than one professor. When you need a letter, any one prof might be out of commission: What if she has been denied tenure and left; or had a family emergency; or been carried off by a twister?

Getting the letter:

  • Give your prof a month’s notice if at all possible. For one thing, she’s probably over-booked already with responsibilities that are out of her control. For another, her writing practices may include multiple sittings with periods of “percolation” in between.
  • Be ready to offer a portfolio. Besides any official instructions for the letter, I like this to include 1) the graded copies of everything you have written for her; 2) copies of any personal statement and cover letter that you are sending to the approving institution; 3) a URL for the approving institution. The point of this is to help the prof write a personal and on-target letter rapidly. You win because it’s the best letter it can be; she wins because it takes as little of her time as possible.

Think on the difference. In one scenario, the prof is unhappy to find herself rushed, to fill a page about a student she doesn’t remember well, and whose records show sub-optimal performance. In another scenario, the prof is grateful to have time to woolgather, concerning a student with whom she has a relationship, producing a letter that recalls detailed and individual accomplishments.

All of these steps are simple to do (even the one on “2:1” homework: in the long haul, “short cuts make long delays”).* However, none of them can be made up later if missed.

Remember that profs want to write good letters: we need students in the chairs, and when the “housekeeping” aspects of your life are going well, you hypothetically are better positioned to focus on our coursework and do well. Take care of your end, and we’ll do our part to help you reap some benefit.

* Peregrin Took to Frodo Baggins, Chapter Four of Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkein).

Modern Hebrew to Prepare for Biblical Hebrew

Often, students who have pre-registered for a seminary course in biblical Hebrew will contact me ahead of time, asking what sort of preparation they might do in the weeks or months before the course begins. I always reassure them that no preparation is strictly necessary: we begin at zero, with no prior knowledge needed. That said, some students have good reasons for wanting to get a jump on the material: maybe they expect a heavy course load, maybe they feel that getting started is the best way to scratch their anxiety itch, maybe this is just how they roll with all of their courses.

For the past couple of years, I have offered a suggestion that few if any students have taken me up on. I suggest that they work with modern (Israeli) Hebrew instead of biblical Hebrew. I don’t yet have enough student feedback on this to report on results, but my theory is that the pros outweigh the cons on this.

First, the cons:

  • Modern Hebrew differs in some distinct particulars from most biblical Hebrew. A good example is the handling of possessive constructions like “your horse”: most biblical Hebrew places a possessive pronominal suffix on the noun (e.g., suseka “horse-of-you”), where modern Hebrew usually follows the definite noun with a compound possessive adjective (hassus shelleka “the-horse which-is-yours”).
  • Modern Hebrew is normally learned wholly or principally as an oral/aural language, while the initial hurdle in most biblical Hebrew courses is the script (I would not say, “the written language,” since the script does not represent a different language).
  • Modern Hebrew involves a lot of vocabulary and situations that are rare or absent in the biblical material: renting a car, inviting a friend to lunch, and so on.

How about the pros? Since my argument is that these outweigh the cons, some of these will be constructed as responses to the above cons:

  • Modern Hebrew tapes or CDs are freely available in many public libraries.
  • Learning orally/aurally is just more fun, especially in nice weather. You have a choice: hunker over a kitchen table in semi-darkness and wrestle alone to learn a language in utter silence and without feedback, or skip happily along a multi-purpose path in the summer sun while a professional reader murmurs confidently and accurately into your ear in patient dialogue. Where do you want to be?
  • Even where modern Hebrew differs from biblical Hebrew, there is nearly always an application. In our example above: the suffixes used on the possessive adjective are the same personal suffixes used ubiquitously biblical Hebrew, as object suffixes, possessive suffixes, and suffixed prepositions. Also, the “which” element in the modern Hebrew possessive adjective (she-) obviously is also used (as is its longer form) in biblical Hebrew, in usages which a student of modern Hebrew will readily understand.
  • What about the oral/written business? For my part, I do not begin biblical Hebrew with the aleph-bet. Instead, I spend ten hours (five sessions) guiding the students through a series of dialogues, lessons, and songs designed to immerse them in sounds and structures of biblical Hebrew. Only then do we go to the aleph-bet and proceed with a very conventional, grammar-based curriculum. I am still finding ways to link these two course elements together, but overall I am convinced that it has been a good approach (maybe another blog entry on this will come along later). So, a student who has been working (playing) through modern Hebrew should find the first sessions of by biblical Hebrew curriculum to be comfortable, if not an outright cakewalk.
  • Learning even the rudimentary elements of any modern language is an educational good in its own right: it broadens horizons, provokes the imagination, and prepares one for opportunities to be a good neighbor.

As more of my students take me up on this suggestion, I will be interested in their feedback. The numbers will be small enough that the data is more anecdotal than statistically significant, but that’s where knowledge begins.

Ad-yoter me’uchar!

[Update: I had accidentally allowed comments to close. Sorry: comments are open again. GBL]