3 – Reading Science With Comprehension

To free more time in lecture for demonstrations and higher-level activities, one strategy is to ask students to read sections in their textbook, but many instructors report that a high percentage of students are either unwilling or unable to do so.  To explore why this may be the case, try these brief experiments in reading comprehension.

Experiment 1:  Explain the meaning.

The tracheal chimera was fully lined with mucosa, which consisted of respiratory epithelium from the donor and buccal mucosa from the recipient.  (NEJM, 1/14/10)

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Easier reading may be on a newspaper sports page.

Experiment  2:  Read, then answer the questions below.

When Sarwan and Chanderpaul were going on strongly, England were looking down the barrel. But they came back with Broad removing both of them within 8 overs of taking the 2nd new ball.   It was always going to be difficult to survive with that kind of a batting line up and England then seemed to be on top. But the last pair hung around for ages to ensure that light is offered and they walk off.   (Times, New Delhi)

 What happened?  Who won?  Which words in the passage are unfamiliar?

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For probably 1/2 of our worldwide English-speaking audience, that was easy!  Now try

Experiment  3:   Given this historical anecdote, answer the questions below.

With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, Jeter scored on a sacrifice by Rodriguez to the warning track in right.

What happened?  What does “sacrifice” mean?  How many “outs” were there?  If this was a regular season game, exactly where in the universe was Derek’s right foot planted at the moment the ball was caught?  Why did he not run until the fly was caught?

Where are those answers supplied?  To answer each question, about how long did you take?

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Finally, here are comprehension questions that less than 1% of most audiences can complete.

Experiment  4:

For carbon tetrachloride:

What is its shape?  What are its bond angles?  What is its molecular dipole moment in debyes?  Does it tend to dissolve in oils or water?

How long did it take you to answer these questions?  Were you slowly reasoning — or answering pretty much instantly?

In the next post, we will note what cognitive science has to say in interpreting the results above.  But first, let us invite you to Comment on one or more of these questions:

Given time, “using the internet and reasoning skills” would likely work on Experiment 1.  For the Experiments  2 and/or 3 that you found difficult, would that strategy be efficient?  Why or why not?

On the question of the ability of students to read general chemistry texts with comprehension, what are some possible implications of the experiments above?

Finally, on Experiment 2, would someone kindly explain to the blog author who won?

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