“To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” Edmund Burke
“Before we go any further, I want to talk about reading itself. I’m sure all of you have had this experience at one time or another: you are reading some textbook, and you get to the end of a paragraph and you suddenly realize you have no idea what you just read. Your eyes went through the motions, you theoretically saw all the words, but you just weren’t there at the time. You were on automatic pilot. It’s like driving in a car lost in thought or in conversation, and realizing you didn’t actually see the street you just drove down.”
It’s clear that everyone knows what I’m talking about.
“A person who is bad at reading won’t even notice that he just “read” a word or phrase or paragraph that he didn’t understand. He just keeps on “reading”. Even if you are a pretty good reader, you might notice you don’t know a specific word but you keep on reading and don’t do anything about it.
“A really good reader will stop, make a note of what it was that didn’t make sense - maybe underline it or make a note in the margin or slap a post-it on it. She might even grab the dictionary or look a word up online. In any case, there is a heightened awareness of what is happening. Things aren’t just ignored or swept under the rug. It’s called metacognition, which is a fancy way of saying you are aware of what you are thinking about at that moment - you are conscious of reading while you are doing it.
“That’s the kind of reading we’re after here. So when you’re done, I want you to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the right side. The left side will be your reading notes. The right hand column, which I call the “commentary”, will be where you assess how well you’ve understood that section.” As I’m talking, I’m drawing an example on the board.
“We’ll use a simple scale - 5 means you know it so well you can explain it to someone else, 4 means you’d like to talk about it some more, and a 3 means you have some serious questions. Putting down a 1 means you don’t know what any of it means - I’m guessing that won’t happen too often.
“Next, in the commentary column I want you to make a note of anything you didn’t understand, and be as specific as you can. If you didn’t put down a 5, what was it that you didn’t get. It might be a word or a phrase, or maybe a diagram that didn’t make sense. You want to be able to see that note tomorrow and ask a specific question about it. You will be in a study group, and by going over everyone’s questions together, you should be able to understand what you didn’t get while reading by yourself.
“By getting into smaller groups, everyone should feel more comfortable and talk more, asking and answering questions of each other. It’s called conversational learning, and it is one of the most effective tools we’ve got. You’ll be doing a lot of it in this class.
“Here are some examples of previous students‘ homework. Take a look at them, talk to your neighbor about whether you think this approach makes sense for a minute or two.”
I hand out examples of excellent homework showing different note-taking styles. I also hand out a cover sheet that has a checklist of things that should be included in the homework. (If you’re interested, I’ve included several examples of homework and the cover sheet in Appendix A.)
“One final thing: when you get into groups tomorrow, I’m going to stamp homework that has all of the pieces on this checklist. The stamp doesn’t say anything about whether you understood the material or how good your handwriting is. It is simply acknowledging that you have prepared yourself well to participate in a conversation with your study group.
“Your job in doing this homework is to understand the material to the best of your ability, and to know as specifically as possible what you don’t understand yet. That way you are ready to teach if you got it, or ask good questions and learn if you didn’t.”
I’ve been paying attention to the clock on the sly, and I finish this last sentence just seconds before the bell rings to end the class. It’s an old teacher trick, but it’s a nice touch and it provides a tidy, dramatic close to the class. Eventually, some students will notice it, and marvel at this silly skill - it might even get a good-natured laugh.
“See you tomorrow.”
“I have learned about myself as a person thanks to this class. I have learned that failure is an opportunity. One of the lessons I am taking away from your class is to never frown at failing. I have an entirely new feeling towards receiving bad grades, making a mistake, etc. I now view this as an opportunity to figure out what I don’t know, to go back and actually learn it and better myself.” Erin S., student