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Active and Critical Reading

Many of our prospective students don’t read very much; and/or they have little experience of serious, academic reading. For many the last research they did was in a College Writing course in their freshman year perhaps 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

So, confronted with a reading list including texts, monographs, novels and more, expected to carry out research and report critically on it, they need help.

From Passive to Active Reading

Many of our students, with demanding jobs and complex lives, have experience gleaning key information from texts, scanning newspapers and noticing the biases of authors. Many are, fundamentally, already experienced active and critical readers, but not in school. In school they often learned to read every paragraph with great care, accept the all-knowing authority of the author, and struggle to memorize as much of the text as possible.

On one level, then, the mentor’s task is to encourage students to employ the survival skills they’ve learned at work and in the community to their school work. They need to learn to question authorities, to engage in a conversation with the text, and to approach each reading with clear objectives in mind.

Many of our students need to learn:

  • To pre-read an article or chapter, trying to figure out what it is about and what the author's 'agenda' might be.
  • To think carefully about why they are reading something and what they want to get from it.
  • To write in their books!
  • To summarize what they’ve learned, in their own words.
  • To think of the author as a person with a point of view and an argument to make, rather than as an authority with information ['facts,'] to impart.

Encouraging Active/Critical Reading in Studies

When text books are used, mentors who want to encourage their students’ development as active and critical readers and thinkers should design assignments that encourage students to question the authority of the author, to explore alternative points of view, and to write essays that address issues like the author’s point of view, use of evidence, and sensitivity to alternative perspectives. At the same time that the student benefits from the structure and coherence a good text can provide, the student is learning to challenge authority, examine assumptions, and acknowledge the author as another human being.

Early studies or courses that rely on relatively short readings and frequent, short written assignments provide the student with an opportunity to explore an author’s presentation of evidence closely and give the mentor an opportunity to respond promptly and with care to relatively short written assignments. There is less risk for the student in these first encounters and the opportunity for growth and change is ever present.

Mentors who encourage critical engagement with texts need to be prepared for students whose idea of critical thinking involves the simple rejection of points of view that conflict with their own or analyses that bring into question values and beliefs the student holds dear. Their exposure to talk radio and attack television prepares our students well for a bullying approach to ‘conversation.’ Mentors need to help students learn how not just to question but to consider varying points of view, to question both others’ and their own points of view and to provide rationale on arguments for their conclusions. Through exposure to unfamiliar and discomfiting perspectives, our students have the opportunity to learn and grow. Mentors need to find ways to support students through this challenging and unfamiliar transition.

Assessing Writing Skills

Empire State College is a writing-dependent organization. For our students to succeed, it is essential that we understand our new students’ strengths and weaknesses in this area very early on. Several tools can be used to achieve this end.

Application Essays

  • The Empire State College admissions process provides an assessment of the prospective student’s essay. Essays that are weak clearly provide an early warning-signal, though application essays should not be treated as ‘proof’ that a weakness exists.

Writing Samples from Orientations

  • Many units, centers and programs require students to complete some kind of "writing sample" at Orientation. When evaluated by someone with expertise in the field, these samples can provide indication of writing problems, which the mentor can discuss with the student.

Student Self-Assessment

  • Many students, in early conversations with their mentor, freely express concern about their writing. Many have done little writing in years, and have reason to be anxious. Others, confronted with a writing assignment, prove to be very capable. Whatever the case, a student expressing concern about writing needs to be heard and further steps need to be taken to address the concern.

Probing Writing Skills

If uncertain about a student’s writing skills despite the evidence available to you, you can ask the student for an additional piece of work, perhaps a brief essay regarding where their work at the college will take them or regarding the challenge they face as adult learners. You can explain to the student that an accurate assessment of their skills in this area will help you guide them in making the best enrollment decisions and help them to succeed in college.

Improving Writing Skills

The steps taken to help students improve their writing skills depend on the severity of the problem and the range of learning resources available locally. Find out who, within your center, unit or program is responsible for the writing program and work with them to make the best possible connections for each student.

Students with severe writing deficiencies might work with a writing mentor or in a writing lab at some centers, while in other situations; they would be advised to enroll in a community college where remedial help is more readily available.

Students whose work simply needs attention might enroll in a local writing study group, or might take a course in college-level writing.

On the other hand, Empire State College really embodies the concept of ‘writing across the curriculum,’ which makes each of us a writing mentor! Ideally, attention to improving writing should be imbedded in every study.

Students who need to make the jump from introductory to advanced level writing might be encouraged to take studies whether locally or at a distance that emphasize critical writing and research skills within their academic discipline.

For all of these students, the resources available through Empire State College's Writing Resource Center are invaluable and comprehensive. You and your students should both get to know this set of resources.

Reading, Writing and Thinking

While a prospective student’s reading and thinking skills may be difficult to assess, especially during brief and informal meetings, writing skills may provide a glimpse into this network of tightly related abilities. Therefore, when you raise the issue of writing skills with students, be aware that these issues may be ‘technical’ having to do with the process of articulating ideas. Or they may reflect a student’s weaknesses as a reader and/or thinker. Teasing out these distinctions and exploring them with students and with colleagues who may be more expert in these areas can prove extraordinarily helpful to your students.

Importantly, mentors, in whatever field, need to know that they are not alone in dealing with very complex issues regarding a student's academic skills. We must turn to faculty colleagues, college resources and center administrators to help us think about a problem, find the best response and make connections with others who can help.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is at the heart of learning, of course. Yet many of our students, if asked whether they would define themselves as critical thinkers, are apt to respond as if ‘critical’ meant negative. It is important for mentors to help their students recognize the crucial and positive role critical thinking will play in their experience as adult learners.

Here are some suggestions that may help students see the value inherent in becoming a critical thinker.

Critical Thinking and Self-Awareness

  • Critical thinkers are aware of themselves as learners, reflect on their learning experiences, and honestly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the techniques they use, come to know themselves well, and create opportunities for continuing growth and improvement.

Critical Thinking and the Evaluation of Perspectives

  • They are aware that multiple points of view may exist on many issues, can recognize and evaluate the perspectives authors represent, are aware that their own ideas reflect their perspective, and ought to be open to challenge. They do not assume that because someone is presented as an authority, their position ought to be accepted without question.

Critical Thinking and the Appeal of the Familiar

  • They recognize that while all of us are attracted to what is familiar and ‘known,’ we need to resist the urge to accept arguments that are familiar and non-threatening, and to look beyond simple solutions to complex problems.

Critical Thinkers and the Scientist’s Questioning Stance

  • They want to see the evidence, and recognize that new evidence is emerging constantly, and that things we have taken as ‘givens’ in the past are subject to challenge as further evidence accumulates.