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Advice from the Best

Don't miss words of wisdom from NAU Distinguished Teaching Fellow Michelle Miller, associate professor of psychology: read "Give Them Something to Talk About."

Also see the article below from NAU Faculty Development Program Director Linda Shadiow, who provides thought-provoking columns on teaching for each issue of The Graduate College e-newsletter.

GTA Resources

Be aware of GTA teaching resources on the Faculty Development Program website.

Also consider the Seminar in College Teaching, offered again this spring: a one-credit, pass-fail course.

"But I Don't Understand the Text!"
Linda Shadiow

Consider, for a moment, your own undergraduate experiences. Think first about the classes in which you received high grades—classes you undoubtedly liked and maybe even majored in.

Contrast that with a class you struggled with. Likely this was a class outside of your major field of interest, a class for which you put off study, even a class you might have said was “like studying a foreign language.” Between these two classes, did you approach the reading of the textbooks differently? Probably not.

When students are given reading assignments, the assumption is that reading is a skill learned in elementary school and honed in secondary school. An ability to productively study texts is assumed of all students —those for whom the material comes easily and those for whom the class is a struggle. In fact, faculty may be overheard making comments about students’ general inability to read critically.

Could some of the skills of reading in a text be discipline-specific? Here are three brief references where the researchers reply, “Yes.”

1. Disciplinary cultures. In the 1960’s, University of Arizona professor Sheila Tobias worked with outstanding students (and faculty) to have them audit a class outside their discipline while at the same time keeping detailed journals of their learning. She was looking at barriers to learning across disciplines, particularly in the sciences. A faculty member or student outstanding in art, for instance, took a class in physics. Her findings focus on the extent to which barriers to learning are the result of "disciplinary cultures."

2. Novice and expert learners. In 2000 the Committee on the Developments in the Science of Learning for the National Research Council published an examination of the research on learning. They make the distinction between expert learners (people with years of experience of learning in a particular field) and novice learners (people new to the study of a field): “experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment” (Bransford, et al, p. 31, in Chapter One, “How Experts Differ from Novices” (pp. 31 – 50).

3. Decoding the disciplines. Current work by professors Pace and Middendorf pursues a process whereby “expert learners “ (faculty) are led to see their discipline through the eyes of “novice learners” in order to develop teaching approaches responsive to these differences. “…Faculty have to dissect their innate thinking. Faculty generally chose to go into fields where they were successful at that kind of thinking and have been working within that particular disciplinary framework for years. Therefore they may have leaped almost automatically over obstacles that can prove daunting for novices” (Pace and Middendorf, 2004, p. 5).

What is a way to begin introducing students to reading texts in a field? Here are five brief suggestions that will need to be “translated” into your discipline.

  1. Provide a grand tour of the text: what are the major components in the text and why do you as an expert learner say what you do?
  2. Provide a general question each reading assignment sets out to develop, and place this question in the syllabus or online—it serves to provide an informed focus for the reading.
  3. Suggest that students turn headings within each chapter into questions that the reading is a response to. Making this suggestion to students may further focus the way they read for meaning.
  4. Suggest that students preview the chapter before they focus on reading it. By identifying where the definitions or formulas or questions are, students can map out their reading strategy in ways similar to what expert learners do in many fields.
  5. Take opportunities to be transparent about how you read the material: “As I read this material, I first…, and I pay careful attention to…, and I make notes on…, and so forth.

I resisted being this explicit about how to read when I first became aware of some of the research. But now I think about it as designing ways for students to gain meaning from course materials so those materials will be bridges rather than barriers to their critical engagement with the discipline.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., and Cocking, R. R. (eds). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000.

Nilson, L. B. Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Pace, D. and Middendorf, J. (eds). Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking.  New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 98 (Summer 2004).

A useful website:

—Linda Shadiow, Professor of Educational Foundations and director of the NAU Faculty Development Program