Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thoughts on "close reading" and physics teaching

I got hooked into a certain section of the academic blogosphere (why does blogger flag that as a misspelling?) when my brother sent me a link to an article by Profgrrrrl wherein she reported visiting another faculty member on campus and overhearing some education majors complaining about doing math in their math ed class. [Having math taught by persons who hate math is a sore point with anyone whose students can only follow their dream of being an engineer by becoming fluent in basic algebra skills. Many of my female students did not discover they liked math and science until they got a decent teacher in college.] Fascinating.

I discovered an informal, virtual coffee shop with people from parts of campus I had not visited since I was an undergraduate: social sciences, english, history, philosophy, etc. I discovered that they face similar challenges with student engagement and skill sets. I even learned, recently, how to put a name on a skill I was taught by my HS advanced comp teacher. A skill my physics students, mostly future engineers, often lack. That skill is "close reading".

Physics and chemistry problems are all "word" problems. Simply put, those problems require a particular kind of "close reading" that results in associating an abstract symbol with a particular concept described by words in the problem. Our starting point is to assume that our students have met a specific "college-level" reading and writing prerequisite, since we are not trained to teach reading. We assume they know that words have specific meanings, and that adjectives modify those meanings, etc. This may be a bad assumption.

Dr. Crazy, in A Post on Close Reading, was writing from the point of view of someone teaching upper division English majors. That her students, well past first year composition classes, would be unfamiliar with the "deep analysis of a passage of text" or with "grounding one's claims in actual ... literature" is a clear signal that the problem I see has deeper origins. I assumed that students would base their persuasive essays on facts drawn from a primary source that had been read with some care. That was commonplace in my experience (about 30 years ago), but Dr. Crazy seems to be saying that English now avoids word problems (f.k.a "story problems") as much as Math does.

I wonder if it is for the same reason.

A colleague at another institution has seen a steady decline in "problem solving skills" in conjunction with rising SAT scores at his institution, that he attributed to the rise in high-stakes HS competency exams. Teachers put a lot of time into raising their school's NCLB grade by teaching to a particular kind of standardized test. I suspect they teach "rushed reading", with an emphasis on grabbing at a key word and running with it. [That would explain why a student would miss an exam problem asking him to "calculate the work done by friction" (emphasis added) because he read it as "calculate the ... friction" (a specific instance of a different category, force).] If so, college English courses have a lot of un-teaching to do before students will begin to appreciate the importance of reading every word rather than jumping on the first or last one they read. And I may have to learn how to teach reading, or at least let English professors know that a bridge might fall down because of the way students read.

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