Wednesday, March 21, 2012

faculty and reading skills

I recently had the opportunity to speak to 45 or so university faculty. I was invited to speak about how to improve student reading skills. The faculty increasingly feel that their students aren't doing the reading - at all or do it with little comprehension and ability to speak about it in class. Having done this kind of presentation in the past, I am wary of the reception that an "outsider" can have -- tellling faculty about how to do their work.

But I was encouraged by the university hosts that their faculty are friendly and receptive to ideas that will help them with their teaching. They wanted practical skills.

So, I decided to present a mini version of the reading improvement course (aka speed reading) that I teach each term at Dartmouth. I've learned what helps students the most with improving their reading rate and comprehension is to introduce them to and have them practice fewer fixations per line and the SQ3R method. I add information about reading related factors (e.g. not reading in their rooms) and getting the sleep they need to do quality reading.

While most of the faculty were quite receptive (I sensed they worked with the "developmental" students), a few of the faculty were a bit hesistant about having the students learn how to initially skim, scan, or survey. "We want our students to read slowly," a couple of the professors said. They weren't quick to appreciate that pre-reading or surveying skills would allow the students to get the "advance organizer" or big picture, which would then allow the students to look more closely at what the text is saying.

My experience in these situations paid off. I knew that some faculty have discovered (usually on their own) a technique or two that helps them get their students to learn how to read the course material better. I encouraged the faculty to share a success story or two. One faculty member talked about how he has his students read a short primary text. He then spends a good portion of the class discussion on not only what the text is about, but also the ways in which students can/should read the text so that they can know what the text is saying -- reading skills, in other words.

He then has them read and discuss the same text a week later. Even though this approach takes time and "cuts into other course content," the professor has stuck with it because students tell him every term how useful they found it. The students often say, " I got so much more out of it when I read it a second time and because I knew how to read it."

I had the latter part of the presentation be small group discussions where the facutly spoke to each other about improving student reading. When we got back together as a large group and each of the small groups reported out, the most repeated point was the many of the faculty were realizing that they needed to spend class time (and not just once at the beginning of the term) talking about how to read the course material.

My additional point was that if students were being intentionally taught how to read in different ways for different courses and subject matter (reading skills across the curriculum), the faculty would be giving their students a wonderful and powerful learning gift. And a life-long gift, as well.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Many of my conversations with individual students during the year includes the issue of motivation. In many cases, the students either lack motivation to do their work or do it in a timely way ... or they are struggling to keep motivated.

While some of the students are juniors and seniors, it's usually first year students and sophomores who speak about this issue the most.

Motivation is a complicated issue - one that I will address in several entries. Generally speaking, I find that a key factor is that students are thinking of motivation as an external force or entity. And it was external, for the most part, during their high school years. That is, their motivation in high school was driven or fueled by their parents, peer group, high school teachers and guidance/college counselors, and "society" to do well so they could attend  college, perhaps a selective college or university. And much of that external motivation was immediate: living at home or at a private secondary school.

This is not to say that students didn't have their own internal motivation. Most of them did. They had their own drive to do well and be involved in athletics and/or school and community activities.

The breakdown, if I can put it that way, is when they come to a residential college, one of the biggest changes in their lives is that they are living away from home and having to depend on themselves to go to class, keep up with their academics, do their laundry, and so on.

Some students make that transition quickly; for others, it takes a few weeks, a term/semester, or even a year or so.

This is why so many students don't do well their first term in college when they are certainly capable of doing well.

Again, it's a complicated issue because other factors are involved, as well: homesickness, making new friends, knowing where things are on campus, changing values or personal values being queestioned or challenged, general adjustment, experimenting with new things and activities, getting over-involved in co-curriculars, and so on.

In my conversations with students, I first have them understand what the issue or motivation is - in all its complexity. I then have them see how college is a time and an opportunity for them to move from a "dependency" on external motivators to internal motivators. That is, what should be determining their personal goals and behaviors is what they want their college educational experience to be. To ask and answer two key questions: why are you here and what do you want to accomplish.

In individual conversations and in large group presentations, particularly to first year students, I ask: "what were your goals during your junior and senior years in high school?" Without hesitiation, they respond: "to get into this college." Then I ask: "what did you need to do to get into this college?" And they just as quickly answer with: good grades, school/community involvement, teacher recommendations, good SAT/ACT scores,  and so on.

My next question is: "Now that you are here, what are your goals?" That question is almost always responded to with silence.

More on this topic later.