Teaching Hub

Teaching how to do college: helping students read for learning

old desk with feather pen in an inkwell beside a tattered notebook.

Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies

Learning to read is a crucial skill for higher education. Student reading has changed due to the shift, and back, from going entirely online. When you order textbooks for your courses, are they mostly digital? (e.g. Access granted) Or, to make your course affordable and expose students to cutting-edge scholarship, do you forgo textbooks and post all your readings in Blackboard? When your students do research, are they using the Libraries e-book holdings or journal databases? Our students might bring paper notebooks to class. Increasingly, they might bring tablets or notebooks.

How do we help our students learn to read in the 21-st century?

My “aha!” moment of learning to read happened during my second undergraduate degree at the University of Winnipeg. For a philosophy class, I decided on “Heidegger.” I recall finding a copy of Heidegger’s essay “What is a thing?” in the library stacks. I opened the book in a sun-drenched corner on a winter day. I opened the book, sneezed at the dust, and then I found people had written everywhere! I read the words on the page. But then I read people’s readings. And then I began to reflect on the competing readings. Guilt-ridden, I tried using a pencil to make small dots to signal what I thought was useful. Then I created the method that took me through doctoral studies: photocopy and make my own notes. It cost a lot. But doing so allowed me to read. There are no more copy centers in Tuscaloosa. Copiers are buried under care packages and parcels at the UPS store near campus.

How do we help students read in the 21st-century when hard-copy, kinesthetic interactions with text seem extinct?

I gave one answer on this blog in 2016. I think the starting point works: students learn to read by seeing each other read. “Social annotation” is a useful term for how people read each others’ reading on digital platforms. When I design my courses, I build in social annotation with a tool called Hypothesis.

Here’s what I wrote 7 years ago:

“I use Blackboard to host a lot of course content. This semester, students in my courses will be reading at least one peer-reviewed article from the UA libraries. The PDF file format is the coin of the academic realm when it comes to having students access the widest variety of ground-breaking scholarship — of the past or present — in almost any discipline. […] [Hypothesis} is a tool that allows me and my students to privately annotate almost anything that I post inside my Blackboard shell. We started today’s class by annotating the syllabus with questions. After class, I went into the syllabus and replied to my students’ queries. It worked like a charm!”

Since then, Hypothesis is integrated into Blackboard. And, it works with any Vital Source e-textbook you might require from the Supestore.

Here’s how it works:

Becky George and I will be hosting a workshop on February 10 at OLIS 2023. We will host a meet-and-greet on Thursday, February 9, too. Please send me an email if you wish to attend any of these events, or, to meet with another time. I would be glad to share more ideas with you!