Reading Notes

Reading Notes

Here’s a description that will resonate with many faculty: “Whole-class discussion often fell flat, so I shifted to heavier reliance on small-group discussion as a warm-up for talk in the larger group. This change got students talking, but not necessarily reading, and the talk frequently seemed to sit on the surface of the issues, or even skirt them altogether in favor of personal storytelling that might be tangentially related to the central course concepts.” (p. 146) That’s an observation Jane West offers in an article that describes an assignment developed by others but modified and adapted by her in some unique ways.

Students in her “reading groups” come to class discussions with prepared notes. Those notes have been electronically submitted to West 24 hours before class. She uses a simple rubric to provide brief feedback and up to two points, and returns them to students before class. She does not let the assignment overwhelm her—30 minutes, she sets a timer and makes herself move quickly through their notes.

To focus and expedite students’ note-taking, West provides templates. The original developers (cited in the article) used the templates to assign student roles in the discussion. West borrowed some of their templates, added a few of her own, and let students select which template they use. She encourages them to try a variety, but respects their decision to stay with one. All briefly described here, the templates include: question generation, connections to courses or personal experience, identification of significant passages, listing of essential words or phrases, selection and exploration of a significant quotation, question, and talking points, among others. Four of the templates appear in article appendices (and this is an open-access publication). Because these forms of note-taking are new to students, West provides examples, some completed by former students and some she’s created “to help students envision what good reading notes look like.” (p. 150)

West randomly forms the reading groups, using the college LMS. She wants her students interacting with a variety of different persons in the class. Group membership changes every four weeks. Students bring a printed set of their notes with them when their groups meet, but how the discussion proceeds and unfolds is up to the group. Sometimes, West will interrupt the proceedings with a provocative question or observation, which the groups then consider in light of their discussion. After the small group discussions, West facilitates a whole-class analysis of the reading.

Another interesting feature of the assignment is how West uses content from students’ notes. “Throughout the semester, I display compelling, insightful excerpts from students’ reading notes, and we use these both as discussion fodder and as additional examples of the kind of thinking I want students to engage in.” (p. 150) She writes elsewhere, “I believe that my publicly and explicitly employing what they have written in their notes leads students to view the notes as purposeful.” (p. 149)

Student response to the assignment has been favorable, although not everyone “loves” the reading notes. It’s the “kind of preparation that takes more time than simply reading and showing up to talk.” (p. 151) But it is an assignment that gets students coming to class having done the reading and having something concrete they can use to guide their discussion of it. Beyond that, it demonstrates a variety of approaches to note-taking, and the value of coming to the discussion prepared which makes it more likely that students will experience a quality exchange of ideas and insights with their peers.

This is an excellent article, well worth reading. It illustrates the merits of descriptive scholarship. It reviews the literature that justifies the approach, explains its origins and modifications. It describes how the assignment was used and how it was adjusted based on student feedback. Finally, it illustrates how thoughtfully conceived and carefully designed assignments can become solutions to problems and enhance student learning experiences on a variety of fronts. —MEW


West, J. (2018). Raising the quality of discussion by scaffolding students’ reading. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30 (1), 146-160.

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