Read to succeed

Augustana professor Neil Haave on the importance of developing different learning modes, beginning with the most fundamental skill: reading.

Tia Lalani - 02 February 2018

By Neil Haave

Photo courtesy of Leah Kelley.

Anyone who attends a post-secondary institution must have a sense that they are able to learn. Otherwise, what is the point of going to class?

Learning is enhanced by what Carol Dweck, a research psychologist, calls a growth mindset. The growth mindset is held by anyone who understands that their abilities, skills, and intellect are able to be developed and grown. This is very different from the idea of a fixed mindset which is held by those who believe that their ability to learn is natural or innate and fixed from birth. Every year I am surprised when I meet students who feel disadvantaged by the reading requirements in my courses because reading is not, as they put it, part of their 'learning style.'

The theory that undergirds learning styles is that students learn best when teaching matches their learning preference be it, for example, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. The research on learning, however, does not support the theory. What the research does suggest is that learning occurs best when the teaching mode matches the content. Thus, if problem-solving is the skill to be learned, then practising problem-solving is the best way to learn it. If concepts are being learned, then reading and practising explaining the concepts may be the best way to learn them.

There are many different ways to learn and we each have our preferences about how we learn. But that does not mean that we cannot develop different learning modes. If we have difficulties learning by listening to a lecture that does not mean that our listening skill is fixed and unable to be developed. It means that we need more practice at listening for meaning. If we have difficulties understanding meaning through reading written text, that does not mean that we are unable to develop into skilled readers-it only means that we need more practice reading and need to learn strategies for reading different types of texts.

It is well-known that widely-read people have a head start on others when learning something because they have at the ready a myriad of read experiences, facts, and concepts that they are able to integrate with the new material. In "Make it Stick," Brown, Roediger III & McDaniel argue that deep learning occurs when we are able to integrate what we are learning with our existing mental models of our world. In other words, for learning to stick, we need to fit it into what we already know.

Hence, students who have read widely and extensively are better prepared for learning because they apply different strategies for different kinds of texts. How we read a novel is different from how we read a textbook or scholarly article. Inexperienced readers may have difficulties reading for information or meaning rather than for pleasure. But reading does not simply deliver information, reading also rewires our brain. As Maryanne Wolf writes in "Proust and the Squid", reading deeply by considering the ambiguities in a text produces changes in the synapses of the neural network in our brain. In doing so, our brain is able to better integrate what we are learning with what we have previously read.

The well-read student has a richer memory upon which to draw when trying to integrate new learning, new understandings. Without having exerted prior effort in reading a variety of texts, newspapers, magazines, or books, students are at a disadvantage when they arrive at university. University professor Patrick Sullivan penned an open letter to high school students about reading back in 2016 in which he stated that the best advice he can give to those who aspire to earn a university degree is to read often and widely-reading is the best preparation one can do to achieve academic success.

So please, encourage your children and your students to read, even if they find it difficult. Reading is similar to any skill or ability-it can be developed with work, effort, focus, and practice. And as Carol Dweck points out, even geniuses have to work hard.

Neil Haave, Biology, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on January 30, 2018.