Lost in a Sea of Yellow: Teaching Students a Better Way to Highlight
A creatively designed study analyzed what faculty, seniors, and first-year students underlined in a piece of primary research in biology. The study contained content familiar to the faculty members. The seniors were biology majors taking a capstone course, and the freshmen were first-year biology students. The questions that motivated the study were pretty straightforward: How do students identify what’s important in an article like this? Assuming they don’t tackle the task the same way experts do, what do they do differently, and how can they be taught to read more like the experts?
The results weren’t all that unexpected. Faculty readers pretty much agreed on what was and wasn’t important in the article. The seniors and the freshmen didn’t agree all that much with each other or with the faculty, although the seniors agreed more closely with the faculty than the freshmen did. The researchers concluded that the seniors had developed some degree of scientific literacy during their undergraduate careers. (If more specific details are of interest, find them in the study.)
It’s the study design that I found most intriguing, and I wondered if it might be a strategy that could help students interact with their assigned readings more effectively. Start by assigning students some course-related material to read and highlight—you can decide if they need a few points to take the task seriously. Then give them a copy of the material with your highlights and encourage discussion on how the two compare and contrast. You could also challenge students to consider how they decide what needs to be underlined. Are there ways to tell when something is important in a text, an essay, or a short story? Is highlighting useful only in identifying what’s important? What about underlining things you don’t understand or passages that relate to content being talked about in class or covered in previous chapters?
The study authors point out that novice science readers usually approach text in a linear fashion. They start at the beginning and read through to the end. I’d say that’s pretty typical of how most students approach all kinds of text. In the case of science studies, the authors note that experienced readers tend to start with the title and the abstract, using those to decide if a paper is of interest. If it is, they often jump to results and consider the findings. Then they might look at the methodology to ascertain if it’s sound, and finally, depending on their level of interest, they consider the review of literature and discussion sessions. I suspect the way experts read content in every field is somewhat unique. The question is when and how are these approaches taught to students?