Think Alouds in an English Course

November 14, 2008

A focus on students and their learning is central to the faculty inquiry process. Consider Katalina Wethington, who participated in a scholarship of teaching and learning seminar at Los Medanos College in fall 2006. Wethington was puzzled by a problem in a developmental English course one level below freshman English. In Wethington’s case, the problem was a specific roadblock to learning that she had observed again and again:

The impetus for this investigation is my observation that the majority of students in developmental classes have difficulty properly applying evidence to the argument they are building or the point they are trying to support. I have especially noted the frequent misapplication of quotations from primary and secondary sources….Does this difficulty reflect a lack of understanding of the role of quotes in academic discourse, difficulty in simply choosing the right quote(s), or a larger weakness as far as creating logical connections between pieces of an argument? (Wethington, 2007, Explanation of Project)

Using a trio of techniques to investigate these questions, Wethington assessed students’ initial understanding of quote incorporation by asking them to write an ungraded paragraph-and took that opportunity to solicit her students’ help as co-inquirers. “This task is anonymous and will not be graded. So don’t feel pressured, but do give it your best shot! This will help me see how well you as a class have understood the concept of incorporating quotes…” (Wethington, 2007, Methods of Investigation). Wethington also analyzed student work throughout the semester by means of a specially-designed rubric to categorize quotation expertise; and conducted and videotaped “think alouds” with selected students earlier and later in the semester.

In these sessions, she asked students to write a short essay and then discuss with the investigator a set of questions like: “Can you explain to me why you chose the quote in the paragraph?” and, if they find it difficult to explain or feel they may have chosen the wrong quote, “What kind of quote might have worked better?” (Wethington, 2007, Short and Long Assignment Think-Aloud Questions).
Wethington found out that early in the semester, while students appeared to understand the technique of quotation incorporation, “it hadn’t yet sunk in that it wasn’t a ‘I did it everything is fine I don’t have to think about it anymore’ equation.

In essence, the idea of a thoughtful, recursive process wasn’t clear, nor was the idea [that] using [the three-step process they had been taught] didn’t [bring] immediate success. The inner logic of what they were writing and why still eluded them and made it impossible for them to self-edit.” For Wethington, this meant emphasizing that good writing was about clear thinking, for which there is no “trick” (2007, Think-Aloud Results).

Later in the semester, Wethington found that one of these same students who earlier felt that “nothing is wrong” was now aware that something was not quite right with her use of quotation and could say exactly what it was. If rewriting now, the student said: “I think…what I would have done is find a quote that would have described more that [the character] was obsessive because the quote I use doesn’t describe that he was obsessive; it just describes the part where [another character] kills him” (2007, Think-Aloud Results). Her student’s willingness to pause and doubt her earlier choice pleased Wethington. “This represents, to me,” she said, “the best I could ask for in self-reflection and growth as a student learns a new skill” (2007, Think-Aloud Results).

Wethington realized that it is wrong to assume that students can easily transfer a concept (like using quotes effectively) from one genre to another, and that it would be better for instructors to discuss the effective use of quotes with every kind of text they teach.

Adapted from Mary Taylor Huber, The Promise of Faculty Inquiry for Teaching and Learning Basic Skills. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 2008. Strengthening Pre-Collegiate Education in the Community Colleges.

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