The beginning of this academic year has seen a wealth of classes and inductions aimed at orienting students around Cambridge. In amongst all of this, the Critical Reading Group has been piloting a session to teach students how to critically read academic works.
The Critical Reading Group formed eight months ago when a demonstration was provided by Manchester University’s ‘My Learning Essentials Workshop’ team. A group from across all areas of librarianship in Cambridge (faculty/departmental, colleges and University Library) then came together to modify Manchester’s workshop and create a version that could be replicated across Cambridge. This also provided an opportunity to give learning outcomes, a lesson plan and a structure to the activities that were included. The result of this work is the new workshop: ‘An Introduction to Critical Reading: Breaking it Down’.
Lucy Cavendish was the first college to include this session in their induction week programme for all first year students. Two groups of 25 students were welcomed by three librarians before being presented with an academic article and given advice on how to efficiently read it. The presenters then gave further direction on how to critically read academic works, assess the surrounding factors (such as its impact, the context and purpose) and extract key points. The students then worked in pairs and looked further at the difference between opinions, facts and key arguments. The sessions ended with the feedback of key points and the opportunity for each small group to suggest possible academic and social media titles for the article.
The response to these sessions was very positive and the feedback wall showed exclusively positive responses. The team also noted how engaged the groups were and how the discussions were relevant to the subject of the article. We were also surprised at how closely students managed to replicate the (very long and academic) article title which was initially hidden from them.
At the end of the class, students were given individual articles which they needed to critically read before their first seminars with their Directors of Studies. Although the article that was used in the initial session was largely interdisciplinary, this provided them with the techniques required for this first assignment.
The group had a discussion after the classes and agreed that certain factors were key in the success of these sessions:
- The endorsement of the college: This session was timetabled as part of a college induction programme. The students were given an article to read for a supervision at the end of the session and told they should use the skills they had been taught in order critically read it. This meant that the class was not only endorsed, but it was embedded into the teaching provided during their induction week.
- The size of the class and the room: A large room provided space for students to work independently, in pairs and in groups without hindering each other. A class of 25-30 people provided the right ambience, but the group agreed that a larger group would not work as well.
- The teaching tools: The team spent a lot of time on the PowerPoint Presentation, finding an article and working on learning outcomes, but all of this was very worthwhile. The preparation that went into these sessions was a key factor in their success.
In terms of challenges the group faced in planning the session, finding an interdisciplinary academic article with all the elements we needed and that could be condensed successfully was by far the most challenging part of the process. We would advise anyone aiming to replicate the session with a different article to start their search very early in the planning stages.
The next step for the group is to pilot more sessions, hopefully including more colleges as well as holding some sessions at the University Library to allow students from non-participating colleges to attend. If any other Cambridge college librarians are interested in getting involved in Lent Term, please contact Paul Cooke (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Lucy Woolhouse (email@example.com).