Reading Mindfully

In this section we explore ways that faculty can help students become more critical readers and thereby more critical thinkers. Thank you to Professor Rose Shinko in the School of International Service for sharing the ways in which she intentionally and methodically teaches her students to read complex material with a critical eye.

Learning to read critically is a key skill.

While we assume that most undergraduates have the skills they need to read critically and analyze complex materials, early assignments often demonstrate that students are not there yet. Students need to access information from all course readings and engage in the type of ‘deep reading’ that leads to analysis and critical thinking. When students cannot read this way, they may skim the pages or decide not to read at all, thereby limiting their ability to participate in class discussions or to successfully complete course assignments. Students who ask basic questions about a reading, have difficulty identifying a text’s key themes and concepts, or cannot support their opinions with facts and theories from an assigned reading may be struggling with complex material.

It is challenging to learn to read complex materials.

Early in the semester, acknowledge that it is challenging to learn to read complex material but that with practice, your students will acquire this skill. Remind them that it it will take time and hard work on their part. These messages can reinforce the importance of learning to read complex material while reassuring students that it will take time and practice to learn and refine these skills.

Note that reading in college will include many different types of material including:

  • Textbooks
  • Journal articles
  • Lengthy investigative pieces
  • Primary sources
  • Case studies
  • Literature

Working through a complex reading together in class teaches students how to grapple with difficult material.

Students may not know what it means to engage in ‘deep’ reading that includes analysis and critical thinking. Demonstrating how you want students to break down an article and look for cues within the reading will help them learn to do this on their own.

Select an assigned reading in the first week of class and provide students with a hard copy to read and bring to class. Select a passage from the article that you want to emphasize and analyze it together. Walk students through the steps you would like them to take when reading, including:

  • Where to Start: Look at the title, sub headings, pictures and graphs, table of contents and a glossary if one is included to get basic information about what the article or chapter will be about. What do each of these elements tell you about the article?
  • Break a sentence down, if needed: Model for your students how to determine the importance of what the author is trying to say in complex sentences.
  • What is the author’s message? Perspective? How does the author craft the argument?
  • Professor’s Intention: Encourage students to ask themselves why this reading was assigned. For later readings, how do they connect to course content?
  • Content: Is there something students do not understand? What was it about the article that made it difficult to read? For example, was it…?
  • Vocabulary: Remind them students they might need to look up words that reappear and which are unfamiliar to them.
  • Nuance: Remind students that this may come gradually and may not always be obvious at the start. Let them know that this is something you and they will do together in class as you review and/or reference reading assignments.
  • Length of Time it takes to do the reading: Ask them to be reflective: how many of them read the entire article? How much time will it take them to read similar articles? What are the benefits of reading it more than once?
  • Marginal Notes: Students should include questions or points they want to bring up in class, as well as their own marginalia.
  • How should students decide what to highlight or to bracket and how can this help with re-reading and studying?

If you do this at the start of the semester, you can then refer back to these components in later sessions. Students will have a clear framework for tackling complex readings. This type of scaffolding allows you to decrease the amount of support that students need as the semester progresses.

Learning to read complex material can be integrated into course content.

A common concern is that teaching skills will take time away from course content. Planning ahead of time and integrating skills into your course framework and syllabus can address this challenge. For example, highlighting course themes early in the semester and connecting them how you want students to analyze readings will lay the foundation for connecting skills and content. The goal is for students to move from understanding to critical thinking to application.

Connecting reading assignments to course themes and concepts provides context within and across readings.

Throughout the semester, as you discuss readings in class, listen to students’ observations about the content and whenever appropriate remark on how much they did understand from this complex material. Ask them to share:

  • Interesting ideas from the reading;
  • Thoughts they have about the reading;
  • Questions or ideas that need clarification;
  • Key points the author makes;
  • Something from the article that either resonated or confused them;
  • Names of other authors or other themes within the article and remind them to pay attention to whether these names show up in subsequent reading assignments.

Note-taking strategies support critical reading.

We also assume that students know how to take effective notes when they read (and when they listen to a lecture) but this may be a skill for which they need help. There are several options to consider:

  • Share a page from your own reading to illustrate some of the ways to annotate a reading, for example: notes in the margins, question marks, notes about how the content connects to another text, an image that comes to mind, and other types of marginalia that you may employ.
  • As an (ungraded) assignment, ask students to copy one page of their own annotations from the reading. Review these annotations to see what they know how to do, and how to structure additional support you might wish to provide.

In class, students can learn what to look for and how to analyze complex materials.

Ask questions that model the way you will approach class discussions throughout the semester. Encourage students to be honest about how complicated the reading was for them, how long it took to read, how they found “clues” to help them understand the content, and other relevant reflections. Remind students that reading complex material will not always be as hard as it is now; they will learn how to do this.

Other discussion starters might include:

  • Questions about the nature of the reading.
  • How challenging was the reading and why?
  • Identify the most important part of the reading?
  • How does this article/chapter etc. connect to others you have read for this course?

Ongoing feedback encourages students to build on their understanding of complex material.

The feedback that you provide on students’ written work and on exams can help to reinforce the skills you are teaching them about how to read and analyze complex materials. (For more information on feedback, read Efficient and Effective Ways to Provide Feedback on Written Work and Providing Meaningful Feedback). The goal is to create a continuous ‘loop’ so that students carry over what they have learned from analyzing one reading to the next. Summary feedback on written work that highlights ‘deep’ reading skills, in turn, reinforces those skills and helps students to become more critical readers and thinkers. Providing feedback on an assignment prior to when the next assignment is due is critical; students need to be able to process and respond to your feedback before submitting the next assignment.