Project Sisyphus
Project Sisyphus

Question II : To what extent are we, as teachers, continuing to rely on textbook reading as the primary source of information for introductory level students? My experience has been that students increasingly come to college with poorly developed reading skills, which means they want to concentrate on memorization of facts as the key process in learning. Yet many of us say we are focusing more on the development of cognitive and critical thinking skills within a geological context as the goal of an introductory course. How do we reconcile these two trends

The Panel Responses

  1. Warren Huff, University of Cincinnati

      I can tell you what was in the back of mind with this question. If one accepts the notion that reading skills are on the decline then it seems to me we are faced with one of two choices, either try to reverse the trend or come up with alternative ways of engaging students in the learning process. I would submit the former is not realistic. Students who don't come to college with a love of reading already well established are not likely to develop it there. I was reminded of that this past year as I was struggling to get some 350+ students to keep up on the reading assignments in intro geology. One day a student stopped me after class and asked if I had noticed the errors in the textbook (I won't mention which one)? I stammered and said something that probably sounded professorially evasive, and he proceeded to call my attention to one outright spelling error and two statements, some pages apart, which were in conflict with one another. I had to agree, he was absolutely correct. Two days later he gave me a copy of a letter that he had taken upon himself to send to one of the textbook authors, a person whom I happen to know very well, in which he politely called attention to the errors. Some days later there came an email comment from said author acknowledging with thanks the student's sharp eyed observation. It seems the misspelling had been previously noted (it was a first edition) but the conflicting statements had escaped everyone, including the copy editor. Now, I submit, there is someone who reads!

      But what do we do about the rest of the students who are "reading" only in the sense that their eyes are moving from word to word over the proscribed text, but are not thinking from one page to the next about the content? Threats and whippings won't work. Oh sure, we can simply flunk them, and let them risk joining the 40% or so of college freshmen (in State-supported institutions) who don't return the following year. Or we can vigorously pursue my second alternative, which is to provide creative and engaging web-based or lab-based activities in which students have to acquire, evaluate, and analyze data that are clearly linked to identifiable problems. Almost any dataset will work; climatic, fluvial discharge, oceanographic, geochemical, geophysical, paleontological, as long as you provide some initial questions to be answered and a clear pathway for getting to them. Once they are hooked you can begin to explore other implications of their data which, if you can see where I'm heading, will invariably lead them back to the literature to get the background information needed to resolve the questions. Now, suddenly, reading has a purpose and the retention rate will take off like the population explosion curve. I'm sure I'm not inventing anything new here. Many folks are doing just that already, and I, for one, would very much enjoy hearing some of the success stories that I am sure are out there.


  2. David McConnell, University of Akron

      My gut feeling is that there are a relatively large number of students will purchase the textbook or other course materials and faithfully try to keep up with reading assignments if it is clear that this will help them earn a higher grade in the course. However, they will stop reading and maybe even sell back the book if they find that class consists of the instructor essentially repeating information from the text. This brings other questions to mind. Is material in the book that is discussed in class more important than material that is not discussed? Should students be tested over material in the book that is not covered in lecture? If we canĖt cover all the material in the book, how much material should we cover to make it reasonable to expect the students to buy the book in the first place?

      In an effort to encourage (force) students to read ahead this semester I give a brief (3-4 question) reading quiz when they first enter the classroom. The quizzes provide 10% of the course grade. I introduced the reading quiz concept because I am adding in-class exercises that gobble up time typically devoted to covering content. My thought was that the quizzes will encourage students to read ahead and I can avoid covering some of the more straightforward information in the lecture material. I admit I was initially reluctant to introduce the quizzes until I read of the successful application of this technique by Eric Mazur in his Introductory Physics course at Harvard. He has even written a book about his"peer instruction" methods (Peer Instruction: A user's manual). More on Mazur's education research for large classes is available at his web site:

      I try to get at critical thinking through a series of short web-based exercises that are related to, but not the same as, the material we are covering in lecture. I liked WarrenĖs suggestion that students might go to the reading in order get the information necessary to answer questions based upon real-life situations. Examples of web exercises are available near the end of each topic chapter in The Good Earth

      Finally, a suggestion. One way to identify the significance of reading would be to find out how many students have a copy of the textbook or other course materials. Perhaps the panelists would be willing to do an anonymous survey of their classes to discover how many students have actually purchased the textbook or have otherwise acquired course materials.

  3. Pam Gore, Georgia Perimeter

      I don't necessarily rely on the textbook as the primary source of information for my introductory students any more. There are lots more options now. For instance, the textbook and the lab manual that we are using in Physical Geology now come with CD-ROMs bound in, and all students who purchase the books get the CD-ROMs. We also use other introductory CD-ROMs which we have on reserve in the library (on topics such as Topographic Maps, Plate Tectonics, and Rocks and Minerals). If reading skills are not well developed, the interactive nature of the exercises, tutorials, and self-quizzes on the CD-ROMs gives the student experience with the material, through visuals, animations, and listening to the spoken word, without requiring the student to scan and digest reams of text. I also post my course notes on the web, so that the students have access to what I consider to be the major points and critical concepts in the course.

      I accompany each week's material with homework exercises, many of which are web-based, although I also require calculations, plotting and analysis of data, and answering questions based on some of the excellent geology videos (which are on reserve in the library). Publishers are developing web sites which accompany some of the introductory textbooks, and some of these have quizzes, critical thinking questions, and other activities. I am glad that we have a lot of options with instructional materials, because our students come to us with a variety of "learning styles". As educators have recognized this, I think they have promoted and supported the development of alternative ways to present the material to reach our diverse (and sometimes poorly prepared) student population. The big problem that I see is getting the student to commit their time outside of class to studying (whichever media are used - textbook, CD-ROM, web, video, etc.). By requiring assignments which will be graded, we can insure that the student must spend at least some time outside of the classroom engaged with the course materials.

      Pamela Gore

  4. Roger Suthren, Oxford Brookes

      Students' reading skills are a great concern in the UK too, and certainly seem to have declined over the 19 years I have been in University teaching. I am unclear as to whether this is a failure of the education system, a general decrease in reading as a result of increased TV and latterly computer usage, or other factors. A particular concern is the apparent inability of a significant number of students to read an examination question or instructions for a coursework assignment.

      What is clear is that directed reading is very important, particularly in introductory courses. The prevailing philosophy when I was a student of "this is the recommended text, go away and read it" no longer works (did it work then?). So in our Introduction to Geology course we ask students to read certain chapters or sections of the text before they attend next week's lecture or lab. We haven't yet quantified to what extent they are doing this, but they are given MCQ tests at 3 points during the course, based on lectures and the textbook sections that support those lectures. However, we consider the lab component of this course to be the most important, and put more emphasis on that.

      I also believe that directed 'reading' is important when using the Internet for learning at introductory level. Many of my intro level web pages are simply links to a limited number of relevant resources (see, for example, the Teaching and Learning Materials section of Similarly, when we use the UKESCC courseware, we find it is essential to direct students to particular sections of the courseware to support particular lectures or labs. If we simply indicate that, for example, the UKESCC Deformation module is there to support our structural geology course, most students will not use it.

      Since about half the students on our Intro Geology course have not studied geology before, we make a conscious effort to keep new terminology to a minimum, and to get students to describe samples in plain English if they do not know the appropriate technical terms. (Do we really need to submerge students at this level in 'adamantine lustre', 'diaphaneity' etc.?). We also encourage them to compile a glossary of new terms, and to use geological dictionaries and encyclopedias.

      Students are reminded frequently during all my courses that the end of term exam could include questions from any part of the course: not just lectures and labs, but also textbook, videos, web pages etc. In the end, assessment is the main incentive for students to carry out any academic activity (and there is a reluctance to do work which is not perceived as earning marks).

      One major difficulty for an Intro or Physical Geology course is finding a textbook we would actually want our students to use. So many of them are deficient in one way or another. When evaluating new texts, I start by looking how well they explain a few basic ideas, e.g. WHY are acid magmas more viscous than basic ones? Remarkably few intro texts even mention the linking of silica into strings, sheets etc., and yet this is not a difficult concept to grasp, and gives an understanding of why magmas behave as they do. How many intro texts explain adequately how cross bedding forms? A depressingly low number, in my experience.

  5. Terry Wright, Sonoma State University

      I have and will continue to use books as texts for my classes. I find the cd-roms that come with texts, especially the one "GeodeII" that comes with Tarbuck and Lutgens latest edition of "Earth" to be good supplements, but no subsititute for complete development of concepts in words and pictures. Books are easier to cart around than computers, and the eyestrain is much less, and easier to pick up and put down to read small portions. My students use this cd-rom for review before exams, with some good self-test quizzes, and for more pictures and animations. I feel that the more useful cd-roms are those that provide links to the internet, and bring up websites like the usgs quake site with current information.

      Another thing that prevents wide use of these is that if the cd-rom is missing, the bookstore will not buy the book back at the end of the semester.

  6. John Butler, University of Houston

      I have given homework in my physical geology class for about 25 years ... these became as faded as the mimeo sheets Miss Hughes (my high school history teacher) gave us back in the Precambrian. When I first produced Internet-based resources, I simply "digitized" most of the homework. Students suggested that the homework could be made more relevant if they were part of a "package" or were more directly related to the course. I have my students complete two projects. Project I is focused on volcanoes and I have managed to stick a few of my older exercises into the overall project -- a geography review, the distribution of silicates within the crust and upper mantle, and fractional crystallization (but in a different format) along with Internet searching and gathering data about recent volcanic events. I still don't "trust" my students so there are a couple of check points during the first 7 weeks of the semester when they hand in what they have done up to that date. Last year I had about 90% of the class hand things in on the date published. In the past I was likely to get about 50%. I sense that putting things together into a project is something these students relate to. The biggest problem last year was that the students sometimes failed to use the information they gathered in writing their final "report" (see below). This year I am emphasizing the importance to use what they have discovered.

      " The setting of the project is as follows. You are a reporter for the Cascading Times, a large daily newspaper published somewhere in the vicinity of the Cascade Mountains. There is a growing concern that a major eruption will take place sometime in the future. Your assignment is to write an opinon piece in which you: the causes of volcanic activity in general and in the Cascades in particular,
        2.comment on the probability that another eruption will take place in the future,
        3.and provide advice as to what the residents should do in case of another eruption.

      I find that those 15 minutes or so before class when I am setting up often are used in talking about (not really answering questions) the exercise.

      The exercises are not where I want them to be - interactive - but all I need is time!

June 1, 1999