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Improving Students' Skills in Textual Analysis Through the Written Reading Response — Cecilia Samonte

Overview

A history professor teaching a survey course seeks to improve students’ skills in textual analysis through implementing a written reading response assignment.

Background

History 2500 or HS 2500 (“History of the United States II”) is a survey course that covers the social, political, economic, and cultural history of the United States from the Reconstruction era to the present time. The class is generally composed of twenty-five students from all level and majors. All History majors are required to take either this class or its counterpart (History of the United States I). After taking this class, students are expected to acquire a deeper knowledge of significant events that have shaped national formation, developing students’ abilities to think critically and communicate in oral and written form, and honing students’ skills in undertaking historical research. I have redesigned HS 2500 with the goal of improving students' skills in textual analysis through the written reading response assignment.

Implementation

Instead of requiring students to provide a summary and identify the author’s argument and supporting evidence outright, I adopted a more staggered approach by requiring them first to reflect on the title, write about their expectations and thoughts about the topic, and focus on one important piece of supporting evidence that they thought was compelling and important in establishing the piece’s overall meaning. In addition to my written feedback, students also received feedback from their peers through class discussions.

Student Work

Overall, it is clear that students showed considerable progress in their performance over the semester. Some students who received good evaluations were able to write summaries which included most of the required aspects such as author identification, main idea, and themes covered. There was also sufficient evidence of a strong effort to interpret evidence. On the other hand, there were other students who submitted responses that failed to include all components and needed to do more work incorporating direct quotes in analysis and in providing examples of contemporary issues related to those discussed in the document.

Reflections

Redesigning the course in this manner has made me realize the value of establishing a good foundation for developing students’ writing. Through short writing exercises, students were able to develop a greater awareness of how they approached historical texts and how they processed different kinds of information. While I plan on using this strategy again in the coming year, I will be revising this so that students do multiple exercises, with each one focusing on a specific component. Teaching in this manner has made me focus less on assessment and more on collaboration. I have become more invested in helping students develop their skills and engage with the text in more meaningful ways.


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Background

History 2500 or HS 2500 (“History of the United States II”) [pdf] is a survey course that covers the social, political, economic, and cultural history of the United States from the Reconstruction era to the present time. The class is generally composed of twenty-five students from all level and majors. It is taught during the fall and spring semesters. All History majors are required to take either this class or its counterpart (History of the United States I). In Rockhurst University’s core curriculum, it fulfills the “Historical Mode of Inquiry” which aims to have students develop their abilities in reading comprehension, textual analysis of multiple historical sources, and historical research. After taking this class, students are expected to acquire a deeper knowledge of significant events that have shaped national formation, developing students’ abilities to think critically and communicate in oral and written form, and honing students’ skills in undertaking historical research. Major requirements geared toward the fulfillment of these goals include three long examinations, reading responses, and class participation.

I have redesigned HS 2500 with the goal of improving students' skills in textual analysis. This is in accordance with the RU Department of History’s goals geared toward helping students “develop important historical concepts (i.e. causation, periodization, objectivity, development) that will facilitate their acquisition of specific bodies of historical knowledge,” and “employ and develop essential academic and intellectual skills, including critical reading and analysis, research, and communication.” Since 2010, several members of the Department have used the written reading response assignment in measuring its success in realizing these goals and I have decided to continue this effort.

The reading response assignment requires students to demonstrate their ability to summarize the document and identify arguments made by authors, cite and interpret supporting evidence in a thorough and productive manner, and discuss the significance and relevance of authors’ main ideas to contemporary issues. Students are provided with a rubric (pdf) evaluating three particular aspects: summary and argument, evidence, and each aspect (main idea, evidence, context and relevance) of the assignment.


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Implementation

The project I implemented during the spring semester of 2016 focused on the reading response assignment. I aimed to improve student’s abilities to do “close reading” as a way of developing possible interpretations and investigating what a particular author is attempting to accomplish. Based on written work from previous semesters, it appeared that students had difficulty restating authors’ arguments, identifying major themes, and interpreting supporting evidence. Much of the writing seemed fairly mechanical and despite regular feedback, it didn’t seem that students were showing considerable improvement in their writing. In attempting to address these issues, I decided to use scaffolding strategies that would help students engage with the text at a more basic level. Through short writing exercises, students were asked to provide short answers to questions that pertained to specific components (title, opening paragraph, or evidence) of an assigned text.

My goal was to provide students an opportunity to interact with the text in more thoughtful and productive ways. Consequently, instead of requiring students to provide a summary and identify the author’s argument and supporting evidence outright, I adopted a more staggered approach by requiring them first to reflect on the title, write about their expectations and thoughts about the topic, and focus on one important piece of supporting evidence that they thought was compelling and important in establishing the piece’s overall meaning. In addition to my written feedback, students also received feedback from their peers through class discussions. The discussions allowed students to explain their own positions, exchange ideas, and think more critically about how they understood the main issues raised in the readings.


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Student Work

Students are provided with a rubric for this particular assignment which indicates what constitutes exceptional, satisfactory, and insufficient work. In evaluating the three major parts of the assignment which includes summary, evidence, and context, I consider the following as bases for excellent work:

   Summary

  1. provides accurate identification of the type of source being studied
  2. gives accurate identification of author
  3. makes clear statement of the author’s reputation or background
  4. provides clear explanation of the purpose of the text
  5. succinct statement of the author’s position or argument, and
  6. complete enumeration of the most important topics covered by the text.

   Evidence

  1. integrates two to three important quotes from the text
  2. abides by the “official” rules of in-text citation (proper incorporation into text, use of quotation marks, page number/s)
  3. cites important and relevant evidence that support author’s main point
  4. clearly explains how and why evidence affirms or strengthens author’s argument/or makes author’s case

   Context

  1. clearly discusses how author’s argument and supporting evidence affirm, enhance, or change the understanding of a particular historical era
  2. clearly explains what impressions/images of the historical period students are able to develop from their reading of the document
  3. draws clear connections between major ideas in the text to contemporary problems or issues
  4. provides a thoughtful discussion about how major ideas in the text/document provide a deeper understanding of contemporary issues

Results:
The perfect score for each assignment was twenty points. Based on the results, it is clear that students showed considerable progress in their performance over the semester. I have attached some examples of student work. For Reading Response 1, some students who received good evaluations were able to write summaries which included most of the required aspects such as author identification, main idea, and themes covered. There was also sufficient evidence of a strong effort to interpret evidence. In example 1 (pdf), the author reflects this engagement by characterizing the language used in the document. The student analyzes the evidence more thoughtfully by identifying “several fascinating lines that stood out” (page 1) and “the most powerful line from the speech” (page 1). On the other hand, there were other students who submitted responses that failed to include all components. The author of example 2 (pdf) needed to do more work incorporating direct quotes in his analysis and in providing examples of contemporary issues related to those discussed in the document. In the third and final response, there was evidence of significant improvement in these areas. Example 3 (pdf) shows how this one student provided a comprehensive summary providing exhaustive background information and important quotes that analyze the meaning of evidence. In this particular instance, the student clearly shows how activists who participated in Freedom Summer “were afraid; but . . . overcame their fear for a greater cause and show the public that it was time for change” (page 2). This student also reflected on the relevance of these ideas and events contemporary issues. The student drew connections between the activities of activists in the sixties and the those involved in today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

In gauging their ability to identify main ideas and provide summaries, I found that initially, students tended to write more mechanically and failed to provide complete summaries of the readings. By the end of the term, many students demonstrated a stronger effort at framing the document and explaining the context which shaped its production and did a better job at specifying the major themes covered in the text. For the “Analysis” component of the assignment, students still needed to work on interpreting evidence appropriately. In terms of identifying evidence, students demonstrated good ability in identifying important supporting evidence and incorporating short quotes, but despite my written feedback, a good number continued to face difficulties interpreting the information in meaningful ways. Many merely translated the information superficially and failed to identify the connection between the evidence to the author’s main point. There were exceptional assignments which reflected more insightful analysis (such as language use, among others), but in general, most were not able to engage the text critically.


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Reflections

Professor Cecilia Samonte

Cecilia Samonte

Overall, I believe I was able to make fair progress in achieving my goals. The incorporation of scaffolding strategies provided a good opportunity to introduce students to the larger work ahead. Through short writing exercises, students were able to develop a greater awareness of how they approached historical texts and how they processed different kinds of information. While I plan on using this strategy again in the coming year, I will be revising this so that students do multiple exercises, with each one focusing on a specific component. Redesigning the course in this manner has made me realize the value of establishing a good foundation for developing students’ writing. By breaking up the assignment into more manageable tasks, students developed specific skills and became more prepared to embark on more complex assignments. Teaching in this manner has made me focus less on assessment and more on collaboration. I have become more invested in helping students develop their skills and engage with the text in more meaningful ways.

In the future, I may consider other ways of strengthening students’ abilities to engage with the text in productive ways in order to improve their skills in interpretation and analysis. One option is the Early Semester Tutoring Program that has just been launched by the university’s Learning Center. The program requires students to participate in one-on-one sessions with student tutors. This approach may encourage students to become more active readers and more critical writers early on in the semester. I have availed of this option for my HS 2500 Fall 2016 class and hope to use the results in improving students’ approaches to the writing assignment.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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