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Center for Teaching and Learning

Focused Inquiry Groups (FIGs) - BSI:  Reading Apprenticeship

Reading Apprenticeship - Members - Nick Alexander

Reading Apprenticeship Faculty Inquiry Group

Instructor Review

2008 - 2009


I’m interested in methodically studying my students’ learning in order to expand it. At the heart of my process are Mathematics-Science Division rubrics for evaluating physics quantitative and qualitative problem solving. The quantitative rubric involves 10 stages, the qualitative a single educated guess. Both require accurate reading comprehension.

I must say that well before my recent, inspirational introduction to Reading Apprenticeship (RA), I had already integrated in varying degrees the five principles representing an understanding of “basic” skills, which may help explain my popularity among students in an all to often intimidating area. In physics and mathematics I believe these principles, working synergistically with my existing teaching style, may profoundly help students master the intricate knowledge and skills necessary to fully comprehend even the most “basic” problems. Word problems dominate our physics curriculum, requiring reading literacy, visualization and translation into mathematical language. At all levels, I combine (1) high structure, (2) high challenge, (3) intensity and to lesser degrees (4) intentionality and (5) inquiry in my attempt to produce a potent, supportive learning atmosphere for my students. RA will have the largest impact on the last two principles, addressed below. I discuss how they’ve been applied so far and how I’ll better integrate them in the future.



You might glean the first three principles and hints of the last two from key elements of my teaching style, which emphasizes interactive and collaborative rather than hierarchical, authority oriented learning:

  • Regarding instructor–student interactivity and collaboration, my teaching involves a balance between presenting new material in traditional lecture format and discovering new topics by question and answer. This approach I learned while teaching for Project SEED, a mobile teaching project in which predominately low income and elementary school students learned higher mathematics by answering leading questions. Asking a question to discover a law or make a prediction allows active participation of students who may or may not otherwise shine on exams, inspiring some level of confidence that they can, with hard work, master the subject. The discussion also helps generate discussion of certain aspects of the curriculum, including the social responsibility of scientists, which may go unmentioned in the textbook. It also helps remove the barrier between the students and instructor who is more easily seen as a collaborator instead of some one to be feared. Asking questions also allows me and the students to keep tabs on the class’s understanding and to identify the problem areas, addressing them through some sort of reinforcement, extra discussion or review-in other words, to help students monitor their progress.

  • I employ “interrupted” lectures, with “problem solving moments” that could serve as the basis for systematic “reading moments” in future classroom experimentation. To stimulate pupil-pupil interactivity, I encourage students to think critically in a collaborative way by assigning in-class quizzes, famously known as “ICQ’s,” akin to a pop-quiz, sometimes extra credit to make the experience non- threatening. At certain points in my lectures, I will stop and ask students to complete a derivation or calculation, or do a short problem illustrating a just covered topic. For example, after introducing the Biot-Savart Law of magnetism, which involves understanding the celebrated “right-hand rule” for finding the direction of the cross-product of two vectors, I will ask students to find the direction of the magnetic field at a certain location in space for a specific configuration of wire and current. My lectures, whether in math or physics, are laced with and driven by these exercises, sometimes occurring three times within a 2 hour lecture period. In physics, I allow students to work for 5 or 10 minutes collaboratively in their laboratory groups, and try to circulate in the classroom to observe student-student interactions and give small group hints if needed.

  • I offer students an extensive set of web based tutorials and helpers that guide students to the solution of homework problems, which are assigned from the text, collected weekly and graded for a significant portion of the course grade. The take home quizzes are also integral to passing the exams. Thus, the web site is heavily trafficked and an essential component of the course. My "Hints" often involve an elaboration and review of lecture material relevant to understanding and solving the problem. Point your browser at my web site at which includes links to other interesting physics related sites. See the left columned quiz hint links on the Physics 2B and 4A main pages.

Upon encountering a hint, students must fill in strategically placed gaps to find the answer to the problem. These hints are uploaded several days before the take home quiz aka homework is due. Once the homework is returned, the numerical answers to the problems are posted. Thus, students have access to a complete solution, comprised of "Hint" and final result, which they can study along with their graded homework in preparation for the midterm and final examinations. They are able to correct their mistakes and/or compare their method of solution with my approach. In some cases their method differs from mine, in others it is basically the same. In either case, I encourage the students to at first try and solve the problem without consulting the web as a way to strengthen their own independent problem solving skills, which speaks to the issue of nudging students toward better self-confidence and an enhanced academic self-image. I urge them to consult my set-up when they get stuck, and if necessary email me a question from the site, see me during my posted office hours or by appointment, or in more rare cases, go to one of the blossoming tutorial centers offered on campus.



Since joining RA, I’ve become mindful of better incorporating 1.) Intentionality and learning how to learn and 2.) Inquiring and assessement to make learning more visible.

I’ve already created “reading moments” of sorts. I now often interrupt example laden lectures and ask students to carefully read for a few minutes a problem before I work it out on the board. Next term, it will be straight forward to insert a “think aloud” between the reading and my board work to get a deeper feel of students’ experience with the notorious hurdles of word problems. Students will help make learning visible by conveying, as explicitly as possible, key stages in their thought process while they tried to solve the problem. Through this meta-cognitive activity, students will eventually become more self-confident and self – sufficient problem solvers and better able to assess their own learning.

That brings us to “intentional learning” and the Meta-Cognitive Awareness Strategies Inventory (MARSI) attached to this report. MARSI is a 30 question survey of students’ use of helpful reading strategies. It essentially expands the reading process analysis we explored during our RA meetings: 1) Which part of the text did you focus on? Why did you pay attention to those particular parts? 2) What questions were you asking as you read? What were the purposes of those questions? 3) What conclusions did you form from the text? How did you draw those conclusions? 4) What background knowledge did you use to make sense of the text? How was that useful? 5) Where were the stumbling blocks in your understanding? Where did you feel you understanding break down? What did you do to try to resolve it?

My students likely transfer their analytical, mathematical skills to reading in a language frequently different from their native tongue. I hypothesize that home language and mathematical literacy translate into higher English reading literacy than non-science students from similar ethnic backgrounds. Only systematic research and time will tell.

My tabulated Physics 4A results reflect a common trend shared by other RA colleagues. Use of helpful “Support Reading Strategies” (i.e. taking notes while reading, paraphrasing text information, revisiting previously read information, asking self questions, using reference materials as aids, underlining text information, discussion reading with others, writing summaries of readings) is decidedly lower than “Global Reading Strategies” and “Problem Solving Strategies”. In the future I’ll probe students and ask them to share their reading practices to make their experience as learners more visible to all. I also plan to cross-index student performance, investigating the reading habits of poor performers.

Finally, I will correlate overall changes in student performance with my integration of RA principles over time.


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