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Improve Students’ Reading Skills with Interactive Assignments

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Improve Students’ Reading Skills with Interactive Assignments

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As faculty, it is easy for us to fall into the trap of “The Expert's Blind Spot.” This is the well-established tendency of experts to not be able to understand the troubles of novices because the expert either never encountered the problem or has long gotten past it. Reading academic work is a good example.

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As faculty, it is easy for us to fall into the trap of “The Expert's Blind Spot.” This is the well-established tendency of experts to not be able to understand the troubles of novices because the expert either never encountered the problem or has long gotten past it. Reading academic work is a good example. We all too often chalk up a student's misunderstanding of course material to laziness or lack of intelligence. But in reality the student may not know how to read an academic article. We have no problem reading academic articles because we were the better students in school, and have honed the skill through years of practice in our work. 

Jan Miernowski, professor of French at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, addressed the problem by creating an interactive module that teaches students how to read difficult texts. The module uses a sample text and a series of exercises to walk students through the process of critically reading difficult work. It begins with a podcast overview of the lesson, and then takes the students through a series of screens divided into two parts. On the left side is a section of the reading, while on the right are exercises that teach critical reading. Students move through the text section by section, doing exercises that both ensure they understand the text and learn lifelong critical reading skills. 

The general format is the same for each section. The student is first asked to carefully read the text. Words that may be new to the student are in red, and when the student runs his or her cursor over the word, a definition appears. The student then clicks a button that highlights parts of the text in different colors according to the concepts covered. The student clicks on the highlighted text to get further information on it. That information might include images, podcasts, or videos that examine the passage in depth. This teaches the student that they should be reading for underlying themes, rather than just surface facts. 

The student is then given a series of exercises to test their understanding of the material. Those exercises might include completing a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank question or picking the correct statement about the text from a list of statements. The student is told whether their answer is correct as soon as they submit it, and asked to go through the section again if they get it wrong. Students are expected to redo each exercise until they get it right, and so should have all correct answers by the end of the module. Their successful completion of the module is recorded.

The value of the module is that it addresses the underlying skills that can lead to poor performance, rather than just telling the student about their poor performance afterwards. It is a bit like the difference between telling a batter that he or she missed 10 balls versus teaching the batter how to swing correctly. Plus, it provides a way to teach critical reading skills at a distance.

A key to the success of the module is that students walk through the reading process one section at a time, with a reflective exercise after each section. Traditionally, we ask students to read through a text all at once, and then address any comprehension problems at the end. This module teaches critical reading skills by focusing on specific passages in a text, and so shows them the actual steps that they need to use to understand and take notes on difficult text.

The system works well for both online and flipped education. Instead of just putting reading assignments online, a teacher can provide students with the tools needed to better understand the readings. Plus, as a self-contained system, it provides a systematic and coherent journey through a reading assignment, with the exercises directly connected to each passage. This works better than having student do a reading and then take a quiz afterwards.

The University of Wisconsin uses the system for a variety of subjects. The Law School uses it to put the student in the middle of a court case, with the student playing a role, such as lawyer or prosecutor. The student is given information about the case in the text on the left, and must make decisions about how to react by completing exercises on the right. In this way the student moves through a case and must make decisions at various junctures according to new information, just as they would do in a real case. 

The School of Medicine and Public Health uses it to put the student in the midst of a medical emergency, requiring them to make important decisions on care. The Department of Biology uses it to present a hypothetical disease outbreak in Bangladesh. The student picks a role at the beginning and is then given a journey based on that role to address the outbreak. They might choose to be an epidemiologist and so be required to track down the source of the outbreak. This module also makes use of outside content to provide more information, including a YouTube video describing Bangladesh. 

The software package, Case Scenario/Critical Reader Builder, makes it easy to build modules. You can request a free copy, as well as see examples, at http://engage.doit.wisc.edu/software/cscr. You simply pick the type of content you want to import into each page, such as text, videos, and exercises, and follow a menu to load it. The result is a stand-alone presentation that can be hosted on a server, put into an LMS, or even cut to a disk and mailed to students. As always, it's a good idea to include transcripts of any audio so that you are not left scrambling at the last minute to make them in response to an ADA accommodation request.

If you are interested in building even more complex content, you can try Articulate Storyline, a tool that allows you to construct simulations and reading exercises. It has drawn a loyal following of users due to its power, ease of use, and active support community. You can also download free templates from a growing shared library that provides a head start on module design.

Take a look at the examples on the website, and consider how you can improve student learning through guided tutorials and case studies.