By Larry Trincia
Delaware Technical Community College
I teach science, a discipline which, just like many others, demands that students study—a lot. I often watch very hardworking students invest significant time and effort frantically memorizing large wads of index cards only to be disappointed when they get their exams back. It’s not that students don’t memorize well. They do. I believe they learn everything on the index cards. What they miss out on is learning how to organize the material. When faced with a test question that asks them for more than just rote recall, they stumble. They have all the details they need, but the details aren’t cataloged in a useful way. When students go to retrieve information from their memory, it’s like walking into a library with all the books on the floor.
Students aren’t lacking in memorization skills, but they might just be lacking in textbook reading skills, particularly when it comes to science textbooks. I see my students spend a lot of money on texts that they never read. Or, they try to read them and quickly get lost. The organization that students don’t get from their index cards is right there in front of them, but they don’t know how to access it.
No textbooks on the beach
Part of the problem might be that students try to read a textbook as if it’s a novel. This won’t work. In a novel, the plot unfolds little by little, building a crescendo for the surprise at the end. A textbook is the exact opposite. A textbook reveals the ending right away and deliberately tells the reader how the story unfolds from chapter to chapter. In a textbook, there should be no surprises; the entire structure is designed to make the subject easy to learn. Students don’t know this.
If students approach a textbook as if it is a novel for leisurely beach reading, they will inevitably fail, and the experience will lower their confidence and motivation. They might even tell themselves, “I’m not smart enough for this course”. To combat this problem, I want to offer you some tips for how you can help your students start making the textbook work for them instead of against them.
For starters, make it clear to your students that EVERYTHING—from chapter titles to charts to sidebars—is in the textbook for a reason. Make your students read the preface, where the author typically explains their organizational method, and then show them what this looks like in one of the chapters you have assigned for reading. This will help them realize that every author has a different way to highlight important information.
Additionally, try to instruct students to use a top-down approach rather than a bottom-up approach when getting to know a textbook. For example, instruct them to analyze the table of contents before actually reading any specific chapters. Look for patterns or groupings. Does the book just list chapter after chapter, or are the chapters organized in units? If the book is organized in units, have the students ask “Why do these chapters make up this unit?”, “How do these chapters relate?”, “What can I learn about this unit, just by looking at the chapter titles?”.
Once students are ready to actually start tackling a difficult chapter and make study notes, teach them the following method to get them to organize information rather than just memorize it.
- The first step is for students to create “shelves” on which to catalog all of the information that they are trying to learn. They can do this by skimming the chapter’s headings and reading through the introduction in order to create a list of key concepts to be discussed. These concepts become the shelves on which they will store information as it is gathered.
- Once students have created their shelves, they should draft a purpose statement that attempts to sum up the overall goal of the chapter. This purpose statement will become a bridge that helps link the information that they gather to the shelf they are storing it on.
- As students read through the chapter, they should create study cards for each relevant piece of information. Instead of just listing facts for memorization, however, students should write down questions that form relationships between the purpose statement for the chapter and the shelves that they have defined. Students should write the question on one side of the card and the answer on the other.
For example, say that I am reading a chapter from a textbook about how ultrasound machines work. For this chapter, I have identified the following purpose statement: “The goal of this chapter is to explain the changes that occur to a sound wave as it passes through the human body.” Some of the shelves that I have identified for this chapter include reflection, viscosity, and Rayleigh Scattering. So, as I am reading through the textbook, I would write down questions on index cards that relate these terms to my purpose statement, such as the following:
- How does this geometric aspect of reflection affect the waves going through the body?
- What do I need to know about how Rayleigh Scattering affects the waves’ interaction with the body?
- If viscosity changes, how does it change the way waves go through the body?
The process of generating these questions helps students organize the material into meaningful shelves in their mind. In addition to creating more helpful study cards, students have also read through an entire chapter actively rather than just passively reading word for word. All of these factors will boost their confidence by giving them a sense of control over material that otherwise would be difficult and intimidating.
I recently had the good fortune of helping a couple of students using the techniques I described above. These were very good students who were getting borderline passing grades. They admitted they were overwhelmed with the volume of information required by one of our Allied Health programs. I taught them this method of study and they all immediately improved their grades on subsequent tests.
Admittedly, this process takes work. But no more work than reading a chapter over and over and getting nothing out of it. They payoffs are big. The student gets better understanding, retention, confidence, and grades.
In the end, students have an internal catalog all of the detailed information, so retrieving it is much easier. What was a chaotic mess of facts is now a systematic hierarchy of relationships. The books aren’t all over the library floor anymore.