Think-Alouds

For my final session of English 205 this semester, we are doing exam preparation. I’m toying with the idea of doing a think-aloud. I’ve tried it a few times this semester, but found it difficult to write about the process and its effect. The first time I tried it, it was without much forethought or preparation other than “it’s been a while since I read this, so I’ll try to show my students my process for reading.” I’m not sure it was a good use of class time, and may have been just extended professorial packing.

Having done this, I tried a similar activity, but with the text in question written on the board, and in collaboration with my class. This had, I think, a better benefit in that it was possible to engage in the practice of close reading for some students in the class. I did make sure this time to name and describe the techniques I was applying to the text as I went through it.

My directions for this week are to prepare two answers to test-style questions, and then work through a passage analysis with my students. The passage analysis is not the part I want to do a think-aloud through, but rather writing a short answer question.

It seems to me the discrete skills required to answer these types of questions on an exam are:

  1. Identifying the questions I can do best on (my students will need to answer 10 out of 15 possible questions)
    1. Is the text one I’m well versed in?
    2. Can I do the thing it is asking me to do?
    3. Is the question easier or harder to answer?
  2. Reading the question directions
    1. What is it asking me to do?
    2. Are there key words which indicate the type of content required?
    3. How much recall vs. analysis am I being asked to do?
  3. Writing the answers
    1. Outlining (do I need to?)
    2. MEAL model for paragraphs
    3. Using complex sentence patterns (not sure I have time to deal with this, or if its appropriate to the level of the course)

Based on previous tests my students are, broadly speaking, fairly good at recalling information about a specific play (3-4/5) and fairly good at setting that information into some kind of larger context (3-4/5). I’ve had a few students ask what to do to take their answers to the next level (going from 6 or 7 out of 10 to 9/10). So, I think the think-aloud might be helpful in terms of narrating through the process of answering one of these questions.

Thanks to Ambrose and Linkon (and Chick and Halpern) I know that I need to be explicit about the moves that I am making in drafting my answer. I know, as well, that for this exercise to be an effective one and not a self-aggrandizing time-waster that debriefing is essential.

I think what I need to do is first introduce the question, then identify the various options (strategic knowledge) that I will apply to answering it. Then, on the board I can fill in the MEAL model. At this point, I should get my students to draft paragraphs in groups, and trade them around the room for critique.

What’s the principle at work here? (Besides me wanting grades. And procrastinating other work.) This should help to increase student efficacy expectations, by ultimately getting them to engage in practicing the activity that they will have to do on their final exam. With a small number of assignments, I will also have the ability to give targeted feedback on new material. (In other words, every student should receive feedback on work they have contributed to during the class period.) This should help my students to develop mastery, giving them the opportunity to identify and enhance component skills. Ideally, they would become consciously competent right around now and before their final exams.

Anyways, that’s what I’m thinking about for my final tutorial session on Wednesday.

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2 Responses to Think-Alouds

  1. fhalpern says:

    Hi Tim,
    Could you tell me what “MEAL” stands for? I suspect this is something I should know but don’t (or don’t think I do).
    This sounds like a very good thing to do with students, to articulate to them just what they need to do in order to do well on an exam question. If you had time in class, I wondered if you could go from a think-aloud to asking the students to answer one of the questions themselves and see if they can make the moves that you do. You might find that some of the moves that you make easily might need to be broken down further for them to be able to adopt them. That is, think-alouds are really good at letting students see what they need to do, but it would be useful to get a sense of what parts they can do once they know what they are and what parts they’re going to need more help on even if they can name what they’re supposed to be doing.
    This was brought to mind for me from my work on a longitudinal writing study I was part of many years ago that studied how undergrads developed (or failed to develop) as academic writers over the course of their time at university. One of the things we found, which surprised us, is that especially for novice students, they were often able to articulate what they needed to do and even sometimes thought they had done it, but they hadn’t. In other words, they could talk a better game than they could actually do at that point.
    But good luck with the lesson, and let us know if you see an improvement on their exams.
    ~Faye

  2. timmcneil says:

    MEAL stands for:

    Main point
    Example
    Analysis
    Link to question/thesis/next paragraph

    I like the acronym because it covers the basic material that should be in most body paragraphs, but it has limits. I, for example, tend to have my connective transitions at the beginning rather than the ending of paragraphs. And using the same pattern over and over again can limit expression in unforeseen ways, but overall it is a handy aid in developing writing.

    Thanks for your suggestions!

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