Published: Feb. 27, 2012

For every major, there is a key set of skills that students are expected to obtain and refine over the course of their educational experience. In English, the two primary skills are writing and close reading.  Close reading can be defined as the ability to look at a text, interpret the important information in it, and understand the deeper context that surrounds the writing. During the Teaching with Technology seminar series, Benjamin Robertson, an Instructor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, talked about the role of technology in teaching these skills in the classroom and how one must carefully analyze a tool before employing it in a curriculum.

As mentioned earlier, when students graduate from the English Program, they should exit with refined writing and reading skills. For Professor Robertson, fostering the technique of close reading is the objective of every class he teaches, a direct application of the Threshold Concept.  The theory claims if you desire to become a part of a certain profession, you are expected to possess certain skills. If English majors want to excel in their field of study, they must be excellent at close reading. But in the process of attempting to reach the threshold of becoming an “English professional”, students may get stuck, an idea known as the Bottleneck Concept. Throughout his career, Robertson has continually searched for technology-based solutions to help students overcome this bottleneck of their profession. But before using a new device or tool, it is essential that one thoroughly examines its benefits and detriments.

Frequently, professors will incorporate technology into the classroom to solve certain issues, but these “solutions” end up creating problems in themselves. During his presentation Professor Robertson emphasized the importance of analyzing classroom tools before using these new methods. For example, Robertson incorporated wikis into his English courses to stimulate discussion about the course material, but he found that he ran into several issues. First, a considerable amount of classroom time was wasted as he had to explain how to use the service. Secondly, the amount of posts generated by the students was simply too much for one person to thoroughly read, comment, and grade. Although the wikis tool did foster discussion among the students, it created more problems.

For the past few semesters, Robertson utilized the discussion forum features on CULearn and Desire2Learn as a way to encourage conversation outside the classroom. He found that it is pretty simple to set up and he does not have to waste time explaining it to students, but it does not yield the effect he desires. Robertson found that sometime only a handful of students would respond, which limited the discussion and probably made certain students nervous about contributing to the conversation.

Also another method to engage students and develop critical reading skill is that Robertson requires his students to take at least one page of notes on the assigned reading before class. The information students gathered from the reading are then uploaded to Desire2Learn before attending class that day. This simple practice encourages students to pay attention, while also requires to engage in deeper thinking about the reading prior to the in-class discussion.

Despite the fact that Professor Robertson has not found the perfect approach for developing the skill of close reading in his students, one cannot deny that everyone leaving his classes will emerge as stronger students. Through the variety of methods he employes, Robertson prepares his students to overcome the bottleneck.