Analysing your student’s reading ability.

Because a research degree is intended to make a contribution to knowledge, it is an important starting point for a research project to know what is known about your prospective topic. It goes (almost) without saying, that reading is an essential skill for undertaking a research degree; but when we use the term reading in the context of bodies of knowledge, as happens with a research degree, the notion of reading is much more complex.

When there is a requirement to undertake a literature review as part of a research degree, there are expectations that the research student will read a number of different discourses and form an opinion about the relationships between the range of things that are known about a given topic. This requires more than description of what each article is discussing. The crucial reading skill with literature is critical reading (1) .

Sometimes this term of critical reading can be misunderstood. It is not necessarily suggesting that you disagree with what is written in a particular article. It is being able to read the text of an article and comment on the perspective from which that text is written, and whether this perspective is different from other perspectives. This is sometimes described as bringing together affirming and disaffirming viewpoints.

One way to ascertain your student’s reading skills, is by setting them a reading task which requires them to submit a report to you about their reading. The reporting can be orally or in writing, with the oral report being a structured discussion with your students early in their candidature.

An annotated bibliography is a good example of the sort of task that you might set for your research student. You might require them to complete an annotated bibliography of a single article or a number of journal articles. You can even scaffold this type of assignment by providing them with a template in the form of a set of questions you want them to ask of the text.

For example:
1. What is this article about?
2. What is the research purpose or question that is being addressed in this article?
3. What theory has been applied in the article?
4. What assertions/propositions/hypotheses are developed in the article?
5. What methodology has been used (what sample, data types and sources, design, analysis). Does the paper nominate and articulate a paradigm?
6. What results are reported and how is this seen to make a contribution to the topic area?
7. What does the student consider is the ‘buy in’ or relevance of this article to their own PhD topic?
8. (Where multiple articles are reviewed) How does this article compare to the other articles you have read? Is there affirmation between comments or disaffirmation?

(These questions were inspired by an exercise that Professor Charmine E. J. Härtel at University of Queensland Australia uses with her students undertaking classes to support their research degree candidature.)

At the outset the task is ascertaining a student’s reconnaissance skills and their ability to locate articles, particularly if you have provided the references but not the actual article. Part of the contemporary challenge of reading a discipline is being able to locate the journal articles and master the many electronic searching tools that support this.

These questions predominantly test the student’s comprehension of the article. Some examining their ability to critically evaluate the article.
This does not have to be a written assessment. It is quite viable to provide the task for a student and suggest that you will have a discussion. For some students their strength lies in their oral communication and listening to themselves speak can provide the essence of what they might write.
Beyond the step of reading an individual article, is the challenge of reading not only multiple articles, but the large volume of reading that is often associated with undertaking a research degree. Part of this challenge is developing a system so that not only is the information being brought into some framework of thinking, if you need to go back and check something, then previously read materials are easily found and accessible.
Two systems that might provide a starter kit for a new researcher.

1. Sort into affirming and disaffirming.
After you have read your first article on your topic adopt a position. Either agree with the article or disagree with the article. This then establishes two folders into which you can file reading. This sounds very simple, but no two articles will necessarily match and slowly your filing system will grow bigger as you read more. Every once in a while you may need to reconfigure your filing system to accommodate the new way in which you are understand your topic.

2. Sort into chronological order
There is a natural sorting that is provided by way of the publication dates of the articles. If you begin filing your articles in publication date order this establishes a first level system. You can then look to see if an article refers to previous articles, and you get something more than a chronological order, you get the development of a line of thought. One thing that can become evident when you do this secondary sorting, is that you may have an article that no-one else is referring to. This might represent a new way of thinking or it could also represent someone writing oblivious of what has already been written.

For the supervisor, once you have established the level of reading that your student is demonstrating, you can then address whether there is a need to refer them to some additional workshops to strengthen their academic reading or to scaffold the development of their critical reading yourself. This could simply mean showing them how you read an article and pointing out the things which to you are self evident , but may not be to a novice reader. As the student progresses with their reading you will also observe their growth in confidence in discussing the nuances of each article and how it informs their growing understanding of their topic.

1.In the course of preparing this blog I came across a very good, free web sites devoted to critical reading or critical literacy


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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5 Responses to Analysing your student’s reading ability.

  1. Ben says:

    Great article. I don’t know many… actually I don’t know any supervisors that asses their students reading ability. As you say it’s very important, if I’d have had this, maybe I wouldn’t have had to start blogging about how difficult I found the literature review!

    The questions you list are good. I would encourage anyone to answer these questions about every paper they read and make a note of the answers to file with the article.

    As a proactive supervisor, I also think encouraging students to take part in some kind of regular journal club will also help develop understanding in the field and critical reasoning.

    • Thanks for this comment Ben. The credit for the questions really goes to Charmine who uses these as a scaffolding guide for one of her assignments on annotated bibliogaphy. I found it extremely useful to get my head around what she was wanting in that particular milestone assessment.
      A journal club sounds a great strategy for a supervisor to encourage. The more you hear how different people read the same article the more you start to articulate what you have got out of it and also that there can be multiple ideas to come from the same article.

  2. Excellent advice! I also find that students struggle when it comes to comparing and contrasting results from different papers and very often their first go at a literature review is a mere chronological order of who did what and how. I really like the idea of testing students’ reading abilities as you suggest and will put it in practice. Interestingly, I have just published a post on taking notes about papers ( in a way very similar to that of Charmine, but sadly I lost track of where I first encountered the original suggestion. I also concur with Ben that a journal club can be very effective to develop critical thinking about papers. So, thank you to both for sharing!

  3. Please i need to know what are analytical tools, types of analytical tools and examples of where or what type of research topic could be analyzed with what type of analytical tool.Example in what type of research do i use correlation analysis or descriptive analysis or quantitative analysis

    • HI Binta,
      This is not an easy question to answer as so many factors impact on the decision about how to investigate a particular topic.
      Sometimes this decision is made in terms of what types of knowledge you will be using to investigate your topic. If this is qualitative then that opens up into a range of investigative approaches that work with qualitative data.
      Sometimes the literature about how other people have investigated similar topics sugegsts that there is a well established approach to investigating the topic and this helps in your choice about your investigative approach.
      To the best of my knowledge, there is no analytical tool that will help oyu decide which sort of analytical tools to bring to bear to your particular data. This is usually established in an extended argument about
      How the topic can be understood (framing)
      and given this understanding the range of investigative that might be viable.

      It is also important to look at how you are establishing the truth of your outcomes as this will impact on the types of tests that you use for these verification processes.

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