A Method for Deep Reading

Many students find it difficult to study reading assignments in depth. Part of it is simply not knowing how to get the essentials from a text. I’ve been experimenting with a simple method I call GSSW: Gather, Sort, Shrink, and Wrap.

In the Gather phase we read through looking for ideas that seem to stand out or lead to other ideas. In the Sort phase we cluster the ideas into chunks, building a grouping that segues into the next stage, the Shrink phase. In this one we reduce the pile of important ideas to several essentials that can be expressed, in our own words, in a sentence for each. Then in the Wrap phase we summarize and prepare to “ship” the essentials out, perhaps in a form such as a flow chart, a concept map, an if-then diagram, or a simple, clear, and visual Keynote or PowerPoint presentation.

I’ve tried this out in an introductory ethics course in which several essays of moderate complexity are assigned each week. The students paired up for the first two phases of Gather and Sort, and then as a class we took the important ideas and “shrunk” them to the essentials. If we’d had time, each pair could have teamed up with another pair to produce a concept map or a flow chart that would illustrate the development of the argument in the essay.

After this initial tryout the students were cautiously optimistic that the technique could work, even on an individual basis. What had seemed a formidable wall of text became permeable through this technique. To change the metaphor slightly, we saw through the walls to the foundation, beams, and struts that framed the house.

The goal of using this method is that students write an in-class essay, based on the readings, that is exemplary of organized, clear, accurate, and critical thinking.

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