Critical Reading in Higher Education: Academic Goals and Social Engagement
reviewed by Elizabeth Testa - August 24, 2016
Title: Critical Reading in Higher Education: Academic Goals and Social Engagement
Author(s): Karen Manarin, Miriam Carey, Melanie Rathburn & Glen Ryland
Publisher: Indiana University Press, Bloomington
ISBN: 0253018927, Pages: 184, Year: 2015
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Karen Manarin, Miriam Carey, Melanie Rathburn, and Glen Ryland's Critical Reading in Higher Education: Academic Goals and Social Engagement addresses a persistent problem that is well known among college professors. They contend with the following questions that perennially needle faculty about reading:
Are college students reading the texts assigned to them?
How capable are they of making meaning of these texts when they read them?
How do assignments restrict or enhance critical reading of these assigned texts?
Foundational to the authors' work is the assertion that college faculty members fail to understand students' limitations in reading critically in complex and nuanced ways. They adroitly claim that part of the confusion relates to a dichotomy in making sense of the concept of critical reading. They question if faculty members model and expect a positivist approach to reading texts when the goal of reading is to deconstruct the text to uncover the meaning presented by the author. They also wonder if faculty members advance a critical literacy perspective by expecting students to engage with texts by challenging their messages and interpreting their meaning through an understanding of contexts surrounding these communications. This leads them to frame their work in a call for faculty members to come together to clarify reading expectations for their students by asking:
What do faculty mean when we say we want students to read critically? What do we want them to do with the texts? . . . are we hoping to increase their institutional viability, or do we want them to unlearn institutional viability as priority number one . . . ? Can we hope to do both? Does either really matter? (p. 8)
The authors develop an interdisciplinary study across four thematic clusters of general education courses to understand these issues: Numeracy and Scientific Literacy (Rathburns course); Values, Beliefs, and Identities (Rylands course); Community and Society (Careys course); and Communication (Manarins course). These researchers devise a scholarship involving a teaching and learning project to examine data collected from students class writings about their readings. Their analysis includes developing hybridized versions of Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) to evaluate students responses to reading. They develop indicators for critical reading from this process including Comprehension, Analysis, Interpretation, Evaluation, Recognition of Genres, Connections to Discipline, Analysis of Knowledge, and Connections to Experience. They then seek to understand the nature of students reading of general education texts both generally and through the lenses of reading for academic and social purposes.
One limitation of the study may be that the authors do not account for the role that class discussion plays in deepening students levels of comprehension and analysis. Just as they conclude that students depend upon prompts to achieve higher levels of evaluative reading, perhaps their levels of comprehension and analysis were lower than what their data demonstrates. However, the authors' rich data and powerful analysis outweighs this small concern.
Manarin and her colleagues learn many important lessons about the nature of the types of reading strategies undergraduate students employ. They find that most students comprehend text at literal levels with a benchmark of proficiency. However, most readers do not interact with text in transactional ways that identify authors assumptions and they also struggle to make relevant inferences. The participant students sadly do not improve in their reading skills over the term. The authors conclude that learners are able to evaluate assumptions within nonfictional texts when prompted by the professors scaffolding. However, once these supports are removed the students do not sustain these higher levels of evaluation. The authors conclude that to allow transfer of these types of reading skills requires a concerted effort across curriculum over longer periods of time.
The authors also provide important insights into the attributes of undergraduate readers. They conclude that students are still novice critical readers needing more explicit modeling of higher level literacy skills. College faculty members are advised to assess students reading by assigning tasks that require learners to write about what they read.
In addition, this study recommends faculty members consider how to align assignments and assessments to the preferred learning outcomes. In particular, two of the scholars find the research papers they assign become an exercise in learning to write in a prescribed format rather than an assignment to frame a process of inquiry.
The authors make a final suggestion for faculty members to create opportunities for students to connect their textual interpretations to their worlds. They ask, Can faculty devise assignments that are grounded in the theory of the academy but that relate to the student as a person in this community, in this state, on this planet? (p. 98). Through their examples of faculty members situating their intellectual and scholarly interests within the fabric of their work and social lives, they help students develop understanding of this type of commitment to engaged citizenry.
Critical Reading in Higher Education opens an important window into the world of undergraduate reading within the walls of the academy. Faculty members across disciplines should consider the authors recommendations and deepen the opportunities for students to interact deeply with scholarly texts in life changing ways.