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2011 June 6

Teaching technical reading

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:33
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I have often taught technical writing, but it never occurred to me that I might need to teach “technical reading” skills as well.  There has been an excellent series of blog posts on Mylène’s blog “shifting phases” on teaching reading comprehension to engineering techs.I particularly liked the techniques in How Reading Comprehension Led To Formal Logic, in which students had a design task (making an assessment plan) that required close reading of rather dry technical material.  Having a clear goal for the reading (to minimize the amount of work they would have to do in the assessment, while still meeting the standard) motivated the students to tackle material that they would otherwise have found too difficult and to dry to cope with.

It might be difficult to incorporate some of the methods Mylène uses in my grad classes, but I can see them being very useful in undergrad and high-school classes.  The problem is not that the grad students are necessarily better readers, but they certainly think that they are, and so would resist attempts to micromanage their learning.  I need to think about ways I could get them to improve their reading skills without insulting their ability or motivation.

I’ve already been using the grad-school classic—the journal club, where students read a published paper and present it to the class, filling in with background material from other papers and critiquing the research as they present it. This works well with some students, but those who have reading weaknesses generally do a poor job and are unaware of how much more they should be doing.  Even seeing good examples from other students does not seem to be enough for some, though that is a big part of the pedagogic justification for doing journal club.


  1. Been thinking about this one. You mention that in your journal club, students’ performance is unaffected by witnessing the higher quality work of others. Is there a way to point out high-quality work? If the under-performing students don’t realize how much more they should be doing, I wonder if they can even tell which work is higher quality than theirs. On what grounds are they expected to found their critique? Are they expected to identify possible sources of bias, or propose improvements in experimental design, or identify ambiguous or poorly substantiated claims, or take note of ways that the paper improves on other research… ? One possibility: creating a self-assessment checklist that distinguishes good work from great work (maybe the “good” category includes accurately summarizing the methods, while “great” includes proposing improvements to the methods). Another possibility: once in a while, giving a short review of best practises demonstrated by recent presenters.

    Comment by Mylène — 2011 June 13 @ 16:11 | Reply

  2. “Are they expected to identify possible sources of bias, or propose improvements in experimental design, or identify ambiguous or poorly substantiated claims, or take note of ways that the paper improves on other research … ?”
    All of the above, as appropriate for the particular paper.

    Because we do journal club in almost all our grad classes, I’ve been assuming that students would pick up the conventions just from watching other students do it, and asking questions when they weren’t sure what to do. Generally this works (80–90% of students do fine in journal club presentations). It had not occurred to me that some of the students would need more explicit instruction, but I can see now how a couple of students over the past few years would have benefited by direct instruction in doing journal club presentations.

    The next time I teach a grad class (in a little over a year, since I have sabbatical next year), I’ll try to put together some “how to do journal club” notes for students to read before their first journal club presentation. It would fit well in the “how-to-be-a-grad-student” course, which already covers research presentations and teaching, but not specifically journal-club presentations.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 13 @ 17:08 | Reply

    • That might be your “in” for reading comprehension techniques (no need to call them that, of course). So far, my experience has been that my students need much more “modelling” than I think they do — by modelling in this case I mean “watching me do a thing,” rather than being told how to do the thing. I’ve done this by talking them through the thought process that helped me decide which parts of a text were most important, for example.

      I also wonder if you might make use of your blog. There are a number of pieces here that discuss shortcomings in research methods, or expose flaws in the reasoning of some of the more facile critiques, and even the comments could help student think about which issues should be raised. I’m thinking especially of Lectures Better Than Inquiry but of course the are lots of others. You could even have them leave a comment evaluating your performance according to the Journal Club criteria ;)

      Best of luck with this — I hope to read more about what happens. I’m also looking forward to reports of your sabbatical — hope you’re planning on keeping up the blogging during that year.

      Comment by Mylène — 2011 June 13 @ 20:20 | Reply

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