Increasing engagement and confidence in critical thinking with Level 6 undergraduates

This is a paper I didn’t get to present at a research day at my institution in 2018. My university is inner-city post-92, where many students the first in their families to attend higher education. Most on my course are non-traditional students, many of whom had a break from study. They are wonderful, engaged and committed students, but are often unsure about what critical reading and thinking means. We ask students to be “critical” but we are not always effective in developing these skills. This paper outlines what I do to support Level 6 Early Childhood Studies students in developing criticality.

Critical reading group activities in Level 6 seminars: a work in progress

Alison Baker, Early Childhood Studies

In September 2016, I moved from teaching Primary PGCE to a module leader and lecturer on the Early Childhood Education and Care pathway of BA Hons Early Childhood Studies. My module was Level 6, with 49 students instead of 40 Level 7 students per P group so I had not anticipated a big change to my pedagogy. I had not realised the different needs of students who meet once a week for 3 hours from those who spend most of the week in the same group, when it came to group discussions and critical thinking.

The challenge

It was clear that some students were very uncomfortable with feeding back from group discussions in front of the whole group. The same 6-8 students would feed back every week. When I was circulating around the teaching space, it appeared that some students had not done the reading- some admitted that they had not; some would avoid my eyes and scroll through the reading on their phones or tablets. When students did respond to me in one to one discussions, they often required a lot of scaffolding to make links between readings, and between curriculum and theory. As a result, I felt compelled to over-teach.

Feedback from students

There was recognition from many students that I was over-teaching, and that I had lost faith in group reading discussion, even though module evaluations were very positive:

  • Term 1 evaluation:

“I do feel that there are times where the lecturer delves into a topic too much to the point where they say the same stuff just in different ways”

  • Term 2:

“Engage more on peer activities”

“More opportunities for independent working”

“Seminars to be more organised”

Literature circles

At the UK Literacy Association International Conference in June 2017, I attended a paper presented by Dr Naomi Boakye from University of Pretoria, where she discussed the difficulties many Sociology students had in reading critically, and her use of literature circle roles in developing critical reading with her students. In her 2011 article, Boakye quotes Elley (1996):

Instructional programmes that stress teacher directed drills and skills are less beneficial in raising literacy levels than programs that try to capture students’ interest and encourage them to read independently (Boakye, 2011, p. 116)

Duncan (2014) discusses the pedagogy of teaching adult readers using grouped reading activities, and he summarises features of group reading activities:

  • Non-hierarchical
  • Turn-taking
  • Collaborative, with peer-to-peer teaching
  • Involve discussion.

Levy (2011) discusses her use of literature circles in undergraduate English classes in the United States; a different higher education system where students complete a range of general education courses before specialising, so these students are not English Literature majors. She argues that students who struggle with writing will also struggle with reading; she argues for a “structured methodology of scaffolded, low-stakes and collaborative” approach to reading activities (Levy, 2011, p. 54).

Seminar reading activities 2017-2018

I decided to adapt Boakye’s approach to literature circles. Since I had a group of 39, I wanted to have no more than 7 groups, so I could get around each group in the 35-40 minutes of seminars I intended to give over to discussion groups. I allocated students to groups at random after week 1, except for the only male student in the group, who I asked which group he would be comfortable with. In the week 2 seminar, I gave the students a newspaper article to read with cards outlining the reading group roles:

  • Director- keeps the discussion going and ensures everyone has a chance to speak
  • Clarifier- predicts words and phrases which may be difficult to understand and suggests meanings
  • Connector- makes connections to other readings and to real life experiences
  • Questioner- thinks of some questions related to the reading to ask during the group discussion
  • Summariser- summarises the discussion and feeds back to the seminar group.

I explained that these roles will circulate weekly. Feedback after the first week was positive. As the weeks progressed, it was interesting to see that no students seemed to be reluctant to take the role of summariser, and that all students were engaging in discussion. As I circulated around the groups, it seemed that although there were always some students who had not done the reading, the peer pressure of the group activity appeared to motivate them to engage in discussion and to be conscious that they were inconveniencing their group.

Outcomes after Term 1.

After marking Assignment 1, a higher proportion of students passed the assignment at above 50% than Assignment 1 last year; 89% 2017 as opposed to 79% in 2016. (Of course, my own improved confidence, and a different group of students, may affect this number). Additionally, these comments from the mid module evaluation demonstrate a positive attitude to the literature circle activities:

  • “When in seminars we had reading groups. They were really helpful”
  • “We should continue with group activities as usual”

Inclusion issues

One student commented in the mid-module evaluation that they did not like group activities, and there are reasons why students may find them difficult. One student asked to move groups in week 3 due to previous conflict with another student. Students with social anxiety or other mental health conditions may find working in a group challenging, as may autistic students. Some dyslexic students may find the role of summariser hard. However, it has been made clear to students the pedagogical reasons why reading group activities are being used, and that both PGCE study and working in education settings are likely to involve group work, and students have accepted that. It should be noted that the most enthusiastic participants have been students with English as an additional language.

In conclusion

There is still another term to go for this academic year, so while outcomes for students appear to be positive so far, end of module evaluations and assignment 2 marking will determine how successful this approach has been. I hope to obtain ethical approval for interviews with students about their experiences of reading group activities and their recommendations for how the approach could be extended or modified in the future.

Reference list

Boakye, N (2011) ‘A Multifaceted model for designing reading programmes for L2 learners at tertiary level’ Per Linguam Vol 27 No 2 p. 114-132

Daniels, H (1994) Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student Centered Classroom Markham: Pembroke

Duncan, S (2014) Reading for Pleasure and Reading Circles for Adult Emergent Readers: Insights in Adult Learning Leicester: NIACE

Levy, R. J (2011) ‘Literature Circles go to College’ Journal of Basic Writing Vol 30 No 2 p. 52-83


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