Thoughts on Annotating

The question to be addressed: is there a way that we can read faster?

As I prepared for our pre-reading-week class, I had remembered that I needed to either take notes or annotate my text. I had begun working through the readings when I found my handwritten notes with the specific content that I needed to find in each text as I either took notes or annotated. I commented to no one in particular that it would take a really long time to complete my reading, with the addition of rather specific notes/annotating.

Although it was my initial intention to take notes, I ended up annotating because I felt like it would take less time overall. With my instructions close by for referencing, I went through the Graff article. It didn’t take much additional time. I completed the rest of the reading, including catching up on the material from the previous week. And then class happened, and I felt like I had a much more significant grasp of the material. My content knowledge was much stronger, as a result of deploying some strategic knowledge from the course.

Let’s go meta: using the scaffolding provided by Drs. Chick and Halpern, I changed my study habits for this exercise. Using a bunch of our terminology:

  • My efficacy expectancy was high. While each of the tasks on list combined were things I initially felt would take a good deal more time than just reading and highlighting stuff, I also knew I was capable of identifying arguments, finding points I agreed with/disagreed with/could connect to prior knowledge.
  • I had a number of goals, but most prominent was the performance goal. Dr. Halpern had suggested that we would be discussing our experience in the class which followed. (Narrator: they didn’t.) This suggests that I saw instrumental value in completing an annotated reading.
  • Having both a sense that the task was something I could accomplish, and with a goal I wanted to attain, I valued completing the task of annotating my text.

But now, would I say that I have mastered annotating my text?

  • I’ve acquired key component skills: I have a list of the things that I need to do to effectively annotate a text. These skills existed, but I had not effectively integrated them into my reading practice. This knowledge, then, was inert and needed to be activated; I was not activating it.
  • I’ve practiced integrating them effectively. My subjective experience of preparation and execution in class was different. I liked that I had done the necessary work and that it had an immediate payoff.
  • I’d suggest that any text I want to teach with or present on is one that I should annotate; however, I may want to adopt somewhat different strategies for working with primary texts.

As I write this post, thinking forward to class on Friday, I’m wondering where my list is. This suggests that I have achieved, at best, a level of conscious competence. I can recall three or four of the nine-ish items to look for while annotating my text. Maybe I’m still incompetent? I know I can do all of the individual components, but I haven’t yet integrated them into an unconscious practice.

Did anyone take notes? Did you have a similar experience to mine? Did it take a substantially longer amount of time? What other concepts might help to explain this experience of more effective learning?

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Annotating

  1. fhalpern says:

    Hi Tim,
    One of the things I found most interesting about your post is hearing you say that you compiled a list of things to look for in annotating (and could you give us more details on what they are? I’d love to see it) and that you needed to a catalyst to start doing engaging in those kinds of practices. It wouldn’t have normally occurred to me that grad students need either that kind of training or explicit instruction to do these things. I think it’s partially a case of expert blindspot: since I do these things habitually, I assumed grad students did, too. As I revealed last class, I worry about condescending to grad students, but you’re making me think this is an area I should pursue. But it might also be a lack of empathy: not considering enough how busy you guys are. On the other hand, I was happy to hear you say that annotating the Graff didn’t take significantly more time than just highlighting would have. And the difference in time, I suspect, has the pay off in how much more you’ll retain the article and be able to apply what he says.
    I also realize that I haven’t really addressed this topic of reading strategies in my undergrad classes. I’m thinking reading strategies should become much more explicit in my future classes. Do you think you guys will address it in your own future sections and classes?

    ~Faye

  2. Tim McNeil says:

    So, where I’d start from is that I’ve tended to be successful with my previous strategy of reading through something once and making sparse marginalia and/or underlining things, but without much of a strategy. Doing this, I was able to half-remember lengthy Victorian novels read through a good portion of the night before class well enough to participate the next day. So, while my strategy has served its purpose to an extent, as I attempt to become much more of a disciple of English in graduate school there is also some maladaption here. In other words, I have nostalgia regarding my strategic knowledge.

    I’ll share the list at the end of this post, but as I look over it, there are not items on it that I don’t know how to do or that or important to identify. In other words, I have a wider range of strategic knowledge that I could deploy, but the hammer in my toolbox still manages to open jars in addition to pounding nails and screws into things. But much of this strategic knowledge remains inert.

    The major impetus, according to my notes, was that we were assigned to try a reading strategy that would work better. Either annotating the text, or writing long-form notes, and for at least the Graff. I’ve been a student for quite a long time, and if I have an assignment, I’ll do it, even if I never do that assigned task again.

    I imagine many of my peers to be much more active and to have better adapted learning strategies than I do, but I wonder if as part of the mandatory graduate seminar students did some kind of strategic knowledge concept inventory asking what we know how to do, but also what we actually do, might also be helpful.

    In my upgrading courses I generally have about a twenty minute section on how to read well where after students have read a short section from their text describing a five-stage reading process that seems to me to be cumbersome, I encourage them to adopt a strategy where they read a section of a text and then summarize the information before working through the next section. I will not be doing this in the future, at least in part due to my experience annotating for this assignment. Instead, I will need to provide opportunities to develop the necessary strategic knowledge, and encourage my students to annotate their texts as a better way of reading.

    And now… the list, presented by Dr. Chick:

    Find disagreements
    Big “so what” ideas (answers)
    Facts/details/plot points
    Turns or critical moments
    Problem: identify what is the problem the text engages
    Connections to prior knowledge
    Questions to the author and/or text
    Key Quotes

    Dr. Chick also suggests reading twice: first to understand the text, and second with teaching the text in mind.

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