Teaching tools: How to read (for class)

A key component of successful higher education is developing reading and communication skills.  Reading at a college level–and quantity–is hardly natural.  Many students benefit from explicit instruction on how to quickly “read” and comprehend texts.  Below are two summaries that I’ve used in courses to teach reading skills:

(In a reading-intensive ecology class): How to do well in this course

Doing well in this course will require active engagement and diligent study habits. We have several suggestions about practices that will help you stay afloat and engaged with the course:

  1. Keep up with the readings, and do the assigned readings before the date on which they are due.
  2. Take notes while you read. Draw pictures.  Write a few sentences about the main point(s) of the piece.  Note common themes between readings and lecture.  Jot down any questions you have about the readings or course material, and bring these to class.
  3. Attend class. In lecture and in section, be prepared to ask questions or offer comments about the readings, how they relate to lecture material, or current events.
  4. Take notes throughout class, beyond the powerpoint. Your brain is working hard to make connections between newly learned material and past knowledge; help it out by jotting down notes on these connections throughout class.  If you miss class, get class notes from another student who you trust to be a good note‐taker.

(In a history class, with many primary (original, 19th century) texts): How to read like a historian in four rounds

  • Reading #1: Reading for Origins and Context
    • Read orienting information: title, author, place, date, introductory material.
    • Are there any footnotes?
    • Do not read the main body of the document at this point.
  • Reading #2: Reading for meaning
    • Read through the main body of the primary document.
    • What’s the main idea?
    • If there are difficult or confusing sections, skip over them.
    • Underline the sentence or phrase that best captures the author’s main idea.
  • Reading #3: Reading for Argument
    • Read through the main body of the primary document again.
    • This time, underline assertions, evidence, or examples: support for the author’s argument.
    • Write in the margins next to the underlined support: Do you consider the support to be strong? Is it logical and believable? Does it contradict other evidence that the students have read?
  • Reading #4: Reading Like a Historian
    • Given the author of the document, what bias or perspective might be expressed?
    • How does that shape our understanding of the argument?
    • Given the date of the document, what is the document responding to or in dialogue with?
    • Given the place and audience of the document, how is the argument shaped to be effective?
    • Of the authors’ original readers, who might have disagreed or had a different perspective?
    • What facts did the author leave out and why?
    • What questions are unanswered by the document?