Challenges & Strategies

Challenges of Academic Reading

From research and experience, the challenges students face in reading and using scholarly articles well fall into four main categories:

  • Not understanding that there are different kinds of reading for different purposes
  • Being unaware of how the language and structure of scholarly articles affects where students can find different types of information
  • Negative feelings about their own efficacy as readers leads to procrastination or avoidance (the affective aspects of difficult reading)
  • Not understanding the value of the information provided so the effort to get through a difficult texts seems worthwhile

Strategies for Dealing with These Challenges

  • Developing active reading strategies
  • Learning to decode the technical elements of different types of texts such as their structure, jargon, and the presentation of data
  • Attending to the affective aspects of difficult reading so students feel less stupid and intimidated
  • Learning the value of difficult texts

When teaching these strategies, it’s important to think about the different requirements for using scholarly articles based on what students need to get out of articles to succeed at that point in their academic life.  For example, first year students may need to learn about and practice active reading strategies as they are constantly expected to engage with texts in new fields of study in order to build background knowledge; higher- level students might need to focus on strategies that help them critique what they are reading.

 Active Reading Strategies

Explicitly demonstrate and encourage the practice of useful reading strategies such as:

  • Printing off articles to allow for deeper reading – less distracting, easier to focus and take notes, etc.
  • Reading with questions
  • Reading as dialogue
  • Marking up the text
  • Drawing out the data, results, relationships
  • Reading non-linearly such as reading the abstract then the conclusion, then the parts in between

Decoding the Technical Elements of Texts

Explicitly discuss the anatomy of articles including the roles of different sections and how understanding the type of information in each section can help when practicing  non-linear reading.

  • Use the abstract to get an idea about the questions the article should answer.  Are they relevant to what you want to know?
  • Tell students, “Articles are not mysteries. It’s OK to read the ending first”
  • Ask questions such as: “Given how the article is built, where are you likeliest to find material that describes what THIS study found?”
  • Ask students why they are reading the article and what they need from the article to help them identify which section of the article they should focus on first. If students are interested in the results, they should focus there, but if they want an overview of the topic, the literature review will be more useful. If they need to be able to conduct a study of their own, the focus should be on the method. If students are curious about counter-intuitive results, they should look at the sample.

Students also may need reminders for how to deal with jargon.

  •  Quick online dictionaries that students already use may not have the discipline-specific definitions required to understand the article so librarians should identify and link to topical resources.

Students often need the most help with understanding the presentation of data such as charts, graphs, statistics or discussions of qualitative themes.

  • Provide ways of extracting what students need to understand from the article, such as demonstrating how the text and illustrations work to create meaning together.
  • Develop analogies to help students visualize concepts, e.g. “Standard deviation is like a swarm of bees” – The smaller the standard deviation, the closer the bees are together, the more confident you can be of their direction of flight. Large standard deviation  = bees all over the place and you can’t be as sure they’re flying away from you.
  • Provide links to resources that can help explain the methods and terminology used in articles such as online encyclopedias, http://socialresearchmethods.net, etc.

Addressing the Affective Aspects of Reading

Students report that scholarly articles are intimidating.  Trying to read these types of articles without support often makes students feel stupid and/or excluded.  We can address the affective aspects of reading by:

  • Reminding students that scholarly articles aren’t written with students in mind.
  • Recasting reading as translation to validate the effort and signal the need for a more active approach.
  • Knocking the article off its pedestal. This gets at some of  the threshold concepts such as scholarship as conversation and authority is constructed.  Give students permission to ‘attack’ the article, include exercises where they can develop questions for the author.
  • Providing examples of where research was incomplete, ill considered etc. Use not-quite-perfect articles in reading exercises.

Demonstrating the Value of Understanding Difficult Texts

Students don’t always understand why they have to use scholarly articles beyond that the instructor requires them, so students may not appreciate that reading difficult texts is worth the struggle. We can:

  • Talk about the processes involved. What leads to a journal article being published? What do these artifacts do for the discipline, for society? How does the purpose of these articles inform the jargon and format used?
  • Provide examples of articles that benefit students with links to their professional or their personal lives (e.g. narcissism and social media, research on multitasking etc.) Upper-level classes can look at the history of an idea they are already familiar with in the literature.

Even More Reading Strategies We Wanted to Include in Our Paper, but …Word Limits.

Librarians can demystify the reading of scholarly articles, by explicitly teaching the anatomy of articles in a particular field.  They can demonstrate non-linear approaches to reading such as identifying the information needed before starting the article, reading an abstract then skipping to the discussion/conclusion to make sure students understand the gist of an article, before going back and skimming the literature review and the methods section. Librarians can allow students to compare literature reviews with other types of research articles so they can gain a greater understanding of how research is contextualized and statements are supported within a particular field.   Librarians can discuss the purpose of jargon in a discipline and model behaviors such as using the class textbook, define: command in Google, or consulting specialized dictionaries to understand unfamiliar terms.

Academics implicitly assign value to scholarly articles but students are likely unaware of their purpose and place in knowledge generation so they may not understand why they have to use these articles beyond the fact that their instructor requires it.  Linked to the deeper learning envisioned in the ACRL Framework, this contributes to seeing articles as random acts of research rather than as part of an ongoing conversation, a conversation that plays a role in constructing authority of certain arguments and authors over others. Students may not understand why we value these incomprehensible objects or what might make one more useful than another, in part because they cannot read them, but also because we may not be clear about it.

Librarians can make the usefulness and purpose of scholarly articles explicit by starting research activities with an introduction to how scholars communicate and using citation chaining to show how each article is part of a larger conversation that goes backwards and forwards in time.  They can engage faculty members in conversations about how they choose the articles that students are assigned to read for their classes.

The affective domain of reading or students’ feelings about reading, especially in new disciplines, are very similar to those of faculty reading outside of their fields. A study conducted by Weller documented faculty feeling such frustration and anger when reading texts outside their areas of expertise which ultimately lead to the reader questioning his/her own status as an academic. Students feel the same way when reading unfamiliar, complicated texts, noting that they felt intimidated by articles, or that the articles made them feel stupid. Students expect to be good at reading, thinking “I’ve been reading in English since I was six, this looks like it’s in English, reading shouldn’t take this much effort.” The fact that scholarly reading does take effort and can be frustrating needs to be acknowledged so students don’t feel like they are experiencing unique problems with the material leading them to imagine that they are stupid or unable to complete “real” scholarly work.

Librarians should validate students’ frustration with reading these types of articles and the time and effort it takes.  One strategy is to reframe the activity of reading these articles as translation, not ‘just’ reading as many students have understood it so far- Describe reading as more than eyes moving over a page “When given an assignment, some students feel they have met their obligation if they have forced their eyes to “touch” (in appropriate sequence) each word on the pages assigned.” (Roberts and Roberts p.125)

Librarians can disperse notions about the infallibility of published authors by “knocking an article off its pedestal” — deliberately choosing an article that students can question.  Librarians can also have students engage with texts during the instruction sessions. Librarians can ask students to read sections of the text and can model the reading  as a dialogue with the authors and themselves by recording questions and comments in the page margins, through the use of graphic organizers, stickies, or reader response logs.  Librarians can pay special attention to those difficult to make text-to text connections by making their own between the article and texts shared by the entire class such as the the textbook or course readings. This may also be an activity in which the course instructor can be asked to get involved.

How We’ve Started Incorporating Academic Reading Strategies Instruction into Our IL Sessions

1st Year Reading Class in a Communication History Course – Practicing Active Reading Strategies

This class is meant to familiarize students with key aspects of active reading, including reading as a dialogue and making connections beyond the text to students’ prior knowledge and life experiences.

The article we look at is Liu, Z. (2004). The evolution of documents and its impactsJournal of Documentation, 60(3), 279-288. It discusses documents from cuneiform to digital formats and I bring in examples of each so students can see exotic information formats like 5.5 inch floppy disks.

I introduce the activity, tell why we’re focusing on reading, and talk about some of the affective issues I’ve seen in my research to normalize some of the difficulty students find. (Students often beat themselves up for not being able to read something that appears to be in English – I mention these articles aren’t meant for first year/undergrads, and that it is more an act of translation as a way of validating the effort)

I give some basic tips around reading – largely around printing off the article, reading as a dialogue, annotating,  and the basic anatomy of an article. The current version of the handout is here – http://libguides.mtroyal.ca/loader.php?type=d&id=874150

I give students time to read the abstract and as a group we generate the questions we hope will be answered by the end of the article.

I then outline the exercise they’ll be doing in groups. Typically in first year classes that means taking a specific chunk of the synthesis article (citation)  and discussing it, providing a summary,, questions they would ask the author (I find these highlight areas of difficulty and maybe prompt deeper engagement) and connections- analogies etc.

I then model reading with connections. I read the first paragraph of the article aloud, breaking off to note connections, deliberately using statements starting with ‘I wonder if…’ , ‘This reminds me of..’ , ‘I’ve seen/done something like this when..’ The students then work in their groups to develop a summary of the introduction, questions for the author, and connections  (with me transcribing) as a practice round before they work on the individual sections.

The students then take about half an hour to work in groups on the article sections, posting their comments to a titanpad.com document. I circulate, answer questions, and am often working on one of the sections not chosen by a group. I occasionally interpose comments and questions into groups’ work on the titanpad document (again reinforcing the focus on dialogue). Students are often amazed that 30 minutes has passed, I often ask them how that experienced differed from trying to read the article on their own. – point out key aspects- reading with questions, discussing, etc.

We review the titanpad document – I ask each group for one highlight to share with the class.  Often these highlights generate interesting discussions.  At the end, we check on the questions generated from the abstract- which were answered, which weren’t.

These sessions typically take 90 minutes, sometimes a bit longer. Afterward, the titanpad document is posted to the course Blackboard site – not sure if anyone ever goes back to it, but as the article is chosen because they relate to course content, it’s there for students’ reference.

Most First & 2nd Year Classes – Paying Attention to Affect

Students are asked to use at least one scholarly journal article in almost every class I teach, even though most of these classes are for students who haven’t yet completed college-level English.  I’ve just started asking students who scholarly journal articles are written for.  They invariably tell me that they are written for students and I have to tell them, no. I end up telling them that reading a scholarly article is like when they were children and they eavesdropped on their parents or grandparents who were speaking a different language. They understood bits and pieces, but not the whole conversation because no one was talking to them.  The researchers publishing those articles aren’t writing for students, they are writing for other researchers who are already experts in that field so they use citations as short cuts for describing the theories they are using and they use specialized jargon so they can portray their findings with a great deal of precision. They may also fixate on a specific niche in their field because they want to get published.

I then talk about how it’s hard for me to read scholarly articles in new disciplines and how I have to stockpile jargon from encyclopedias, books, and popular or professional texts before I feel like I kind of understand them.  I talk about how it’s OK if those articles seem hard but that eventually they will learn how to master the literature of their discipline — they just have to give themselves time to get through the reading and to be nice to themselves about it.

Dance History, Art History, etc. – Learning How the Structure of the Source Influences the Type of Information Presented

Most of the Dance History and Art History classes on my campus are huge and it’s difficult to bring students into the computer lab for an instruction session.  These classes often contain a majority of first year students who haven’t done much research but the topics they are expected to explore require a wide range of sources. I usually begin the class by asking the students to brainstorm the kinds of information they need to answer the questions they’re being asked in their assignments.  Then I bring out articles from different types of sources on the same topic and have students work in pairs to examine the sources and identify which source is best for answering the different types of questions they have.  We also discuss which sources are easier to read, what assumptions the authors of each type of source are making about their readers’ knowledge of the topic or discipline, how those authors support their claimes, and how hard or easy it is to read each type of article.

Students get tired reading, so I usually use a timer and start off giving students just 5 minutes to explore a source and as they get faster I reduce the time.  If most of the class is still engaged with a source, I’ll give them 1-2 minutes longer.

3rd Year Reading Class in a PR Course – Developing Ways of Critiquing Articles

I began by reviewing tips for reading and talking about moving into critiquing academic articles. The course deals with research methods and so I asked them to pay attention to how they might challenge the author.

As with a first year course we developed questions for the author, and to focus on the discussion section, I quickly reviewed the background and methods. (we saved the literature review for the end as their next assignment requires them to identify themes in literature reviews).

I modeled reading with connections, making sure I included statements that were analogies, links to practice, etc.

Students then worked in groups on different sections of the results/discussion developing summaries, connections and questions/challenges for the author.  They wrote in an open titanpad document so we could all see the comments – as there were fewer sections than groups, some sections were done by two groups. This took about 20 minutes

We reviewed the titanpad document together and teased out some of the issues with the research process, ethics, presentation in the article (there are many)

Finally – as preparation for the next assignment in the course – we returned to the literature review and they read through it to identify the key theme

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