By: Victoria Bisnauth
Critical reading and thinking are skills that students applying to university, especially to programs in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and public affairs, are often told they will develop over the course of their post-secondary education and that are easily transferable and highly regarded in the job market. While this is certainly true for every student by the time they graduate, the development of critical reading and thinking skills cannot be easily pinned down to a single course or professor or experience. Instead, they are a set of skills that are continually and constantly worked on, improved, practiced, and honed throughout students’ undergraduate careers, and their development usually begins in tutorials and discussion groups led by TAs. The argument advanced in this brief article is that the undergraduate students must first be taught how to approach and understand academic texts, and that peer-led learning can be an especially effective strategy for developing critical reading and thinking skills throughout the semester or school year.
The importance of beginning with such basics as reading comprehension strategies in a first-year introductory course, like LAWS 1000 at Carleton University, which is what my experience as a TA is entirely based on, is demonstrated by Cynthia Parr and Vera Woloshyn’s article “Reading Comprehension Strategy Instruction in a First-Year Course: An Instructor’s Self-Study.” The authors note that first-year undergraduate students are often surprised by the amount and importance of texts in their post-secondary studies, and many have little experience with extensive reading. They also observe that “many first-year students may still be developing cognitively…and thus may benefit from guidance and support in meeting these new reading challenges” (Parr and Woloshyn 2013, 1). The necessity of incorporating some explicit directions and guidelines on reading comprehension strategies is further emphasized by the fact that students often do not receive direct instruction on a daily or regular basis beyond Grade 6 (Parr and Woloshyn 2013, 1-2). As such, it is hardly surprising that Parr and Woloshyn received largely positive comments and reflections from the participating students in response to their study on the incorporation of reading comprehension strategy instruction in a first-year introductory undergraduate course (Parr and Woloshyn 2013, 9).
However, the instruction of reading comprehension strategies is only the first step to effectively learning critical reading and thinking skills. Equally important is constant and continual practice, which does not necessarily have to be the sole responsibility of the professor or TA. Instead, peer-led activities can be especially helpful in reinforcing and developing the strategies first taught by the instructor, as Monica E. McGlynn-Stewart’s findings suggest in the article “Undergraduate Students’ Perspectives on the Value of Peer-Led Discussions.” The study involved requiring an undergraduate class to participate in student-led seminars over the course of the semester. Based on the data collected from her students, McGlynn-Stewart found the exercise had both cognitive learning and social and emotional benefits. The students noted that “being able to hear, consider, and understand the perspectives and interpretations of their peers” was especially important, which “would not have been possible if the assignment had been an individual one” (McGlynn-Stewart 2015, 1, 5). They also appreciated being able “to ask for clarification from peers who had similar knowledge and experience” rather than approaching the professor with their questions (McGlynn-Stewart 2015, 5). As such, the students expressed that “being able to talk about their understanding of the topic was more beneficial than simply writing about it, or listening to a lecture” (McGlynn-Stewart 2015, 5). The related social and emotional benefits of McGlynn-Stewart’s exercise included “having time to discuss course material with their peers in small groups,” the informal and less intimidating setting of the student-led seminars (which made some undergraduates more motivated to participate), “learning more about their peers,” and “the opportunity to practice their group discussion skills” (McGlynn-Syewart 2015, 6).
Despite the largely positive and encouraging results from both studies, some objections to this approach remain. Two main concerns in response to the suggested emphasis on effective reading comprehension strategies include that it is too time consuming and too “hand-holdy.” Professors and instructors may be understandably worried about achieving an appropriate balance between covering the course material and teaching such necessary university skills as reading comprehension; however, the role of the TAs can be to help manage this balance. The tutorials can be an especially good opportunity where the required readings are both discussed in relation to the course material, and used to practice and develop reading comprehension skills. The second potential concern—that providing direct and explicit instruction in how to effectively read and understand academic texts places more responsibility than necessary on the TAs and not enough on the undergraduate students, is certainly reasonable—but does not negate the importance of doing so. It is also easy for some TAs working with first-year undergraduate students in introductory courses to forget that the learning and building of critical reading and thinking skills for their students begins in their own tutorials. Many TAs conducting weekly tutorials with first years are eager to discuss the course’s readings and topics with their students, relying on them to have done the readings thoroughly on their own in preparation for the class. The discussion in tutorials often stalls, falling on the TA and maybe a few first-year students to carry the conversation for the fifty-minute period, because the crucial initial step of learning how to read for university has been skipped.
In light of such obstacles as the students’ reluctance to participate in tutorials, the encouragement of reading comprehension strategies becomes even more important and necessary in first-year classes. The peer-led discussion model can be an effective way to encourage the development of critical reading and thinking skills in first-year tutorials because the emphasis is placed on practicing the process of strategic reading comprehension rather than on the final product of correctly answering the TAs questions about the readings. In a posting on the site Faculty Focus, Maryellen Weimer elaborates on the importance of evaluating the “good faith effort” that students demonstrate in the process of completing an assignment or activity, in addition to assessing their final work or product (Weimar 2015). Weimar’s brief article serves as a good reminder to TAs that their undergraduate students, and first years in particular, are still adapting to university and just beginning to learn the skills necessary in post-secondary education, such as critical reading and thinking. It is therefore crucial to incorporate both the instruction and the practice of reading comprehension strategies in first-year introductory courses. Furthermore, the tutorials provide an especially good opportunity to implement peer-led activities in order to vary the structure and delivery of the material, and to provide a chance to evaluate whether or not the students are demonstrating a good faith effort in their work.
McGlynn-Stewart, Monica E. “Undergraduate Students’ Perspectives on the Value of Peer-Led Discussions.” The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 6, no. 3 (2015): 1-10.
Parr, Cynthia and Vera Woloshyn. “Reading Comprehension Strategy Instruction in a First-Year Course: An Instructor’s Self-Study.” The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 4, no. 2 (2013): 1-19.
Weimer, Maryellen. “What’s a Good Faith Effort?” Faculty Focus. 28 Oct. 2015. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/whats-a-good-faith-effort/.