by Zach Marshall, teaching assistant and instructor in UW-Madison’s English department
I learned about Case Scenario/Critical Reader (CS/CR) – a tool for developing interactive learning simulations – almost two years ago as part of an ongoing education session through UW-Madison’s Writing Center. In this post, I will make a case that using the Critical Reader side of the tool in literature classes will help teach students some of the challenging aspects of close reading.
CS/CR is a tool for developing online learning modules that allow students to learn at their own pace; instructors who have used this tool over the past few years at UW have hosted the modules on Learn@UW, although they can also be hosted through websites. The tool was developed at UW-Madison by Brad Hughes and Academic Technology (see Hughes & Tedrowe 2013). Using modules developed with this tool, students answer questions about a scenario or reading passage, and the tool provides formative feedback for more and less successful answers. The last bit is one of the key aspects of this tool – it gives feedback on answers rather than a quiz that checks for correctness. While there are more and less correct answers to questions, the point is for students to look at the answers to a few questions in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of course material. If you’re interested in downloading the tool and using it, follow this link (the tool is free).
Most uses of CS/CR at UW-Madison focus on the CS side, allowing students to work through case scenarios in kinesiology, food science, medical science, agriculture, plant pathology, and more. These scenarios often work well for science disciplines in which labwork is an essential component of instruction. I helped Kathleen Daly, Will Broadway, and Brad Hughes develop a case scenario for new writing center instructors. Fewer people use the CR side, with noteworthy examples in the law program and Professor Jan Miernowski’s modules in French and Italian literature. For a program like law in particular, students need to have savvy interpretation skills, and a program like CS/CR helps them practice those.
Surprisingly, though, no examples of the CR side have popped up in literature classes yet (at least to my knowledge). Moreover, research indicates that students increasingly need additional, more overt instruction to develop critical literacy skills (Horning 2007).
To address this paucity of examples, I experimented with CS/CR to develop a module that teaches close reading. Unfortunately, I haven’t tested it in a class yet (since I wasn’t teaching a literature section this semester). However, I can say that when I used the CS side of the tool in my intermediate composition class, I was amazed at how students were telling me about the importance of focusing on global revisions when we discussed the module. I have a hypothesis that pairing this tool as homework with in-class discussion of how it went will be the best for promoting a greater understanding of close reading.
Here’s what the tool looks like behind the scenes. The left-hand bar shows all of the pages of the module. The window that takes up most of the right-hand side of the screen shows a split-page. Students navigate by following buttons and arrows which link to other pages. These links allow students to make decisions about where they go next; while it’s hard to develop a lot of complex decisions into a module, the link feature makes CS/CR different from, say, a slide show program. Here’s what it looks like online from a student’s perspective.
I tried out at least four different ways to use the tool to teach close reading. As for parts or sections of the module, I tried to do quite a lot – probably more than I’d do if I were assigning a module focused on only one learning goal. Towards the beginning, I created a section that unpacked one writer’s reading process as an example of how close reading leads to a claim about a text. Second, I included a section that provided instruction about successful thesis writing and then asked them to evaluate a series of sample theses. Finally, I also included a section which asked them to look through sets of evidence drawn from the text and evaluate which ones might generate a good argument (using the criteria for successful theses).
Pop-up dictionary: One way I used the tool to teach close reading is that I created a text of the poem with hyperlinks on words that students might not know; by clicking on hyperlinked words, students open pop-up windows which had that word’s Oxford English Dictionary definition. I see this aspect as something that can teach students the importance of reading for multiple meanings.
Text Highlighting: A second way the tool is useful for teaching close reading is that you can color-code text. When using the two-window feature, color-coding visually connects different pieces of evidence with different parts of the text. This example shows where one writer drew her evidence for her argument that there are four speakers in Langston Hughes’ poem “The Ballad of the Landlord.” Unfortunately, you can’t see the pink, green, and blue highlighting (because I can’t fit the whole poem in my screen without having to scroll down), but students see it when they scroll down.
Comprehension Questions: A third way CR can help to teach close reading – one that builds on the color-coding feature – is through the questions and feedback. In this image, the question asks students to evaluate one in a series of sample theses. By clicking on the three different answers, they receive three different messages as feedback. This is the feedback for the middle answer “Well supported and arguable.” You can see that the feedback explains why this answer (which students may consider subjective without an explanation) is incorrect.
Below is another image that shows a different type of question feature. The question above was multiple choice; this question is “select all that apply.” I often start with a “select all that apply” and follow it up with a multiple choice that asks them to pick the best answer because most questions don’t have one right answer and it’s important to see both the multiple right options and the one (or two) that are better than the others. One of the really great features of this tool is that it allows you to write unique feedback for up to six different types of responses (some right, some wrong; all right, some wrong; none right, some wrong; some right, some wrong; none right; all right). The response pop-up below shows the feedback for “all right, some wrong.” One other question type not shown is short-answer.
Tabbed Boxes: On the right side of the greyed background of the screen above, you can also see another aspect of CS/CR – the ability to create tabbed boxes. This tabbed box shows different collections of evidence from the poem. Users can look through the tabbed boxes to see what collections of details seem like they will help them to develop a supportable and arguable claim about the poem. Seeing the evidence helps them to understand how much evidence there is in the poem for a given category and to start to see connections between the instances of a topic or theme. The tabs can visually represent the layers of meaning in a text.
Overall, I believe using the CR side of CS/CR can be a very productive way to teach a variety of higher-order reading skills from reading for multiple meanings to making connections between words and passages to evaluating their own claims about a text. This kind of tool can really help to advance students beyond assumptions about the One Right Way to read a text or the subjective nature of reading literature (often expressed as “my instructor just doesn’t like my argument”) to a nuanced understanding of better and worse options in a world where there are many different good options and also many different ways to go wrong. Perhaps most importantly, it allows every student – and not just the talkative or most engaged ones – to interact with a text for a relatively long period of time, longer than I usually achieve in a fifty minute discussion class.
In the comments section below, I’d be especially interested to hear other literature instructors’ responses to my description of using CS/CR to teach close reading. As I said, I haven’t tested this module with undergraduates yet. What parts are you skeptical about? How do you expect literature students might respond to the elements I’ve described? What would you be excited to use CS/CR to teach in a literature class?
Horning, Alice S. “Reading Across the Curriculum as the Key to Student Success.” Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning, and Academic Writing (2007).
Hughes, Bradley, and Melissa Tedrowe. “Introducing Case Scenario/Critical Reader Builder: Creating Computer Simulations to Use in Tutor Education.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 38.1-2 (2013): 1-4