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Approaching Difficult Texts (For Students) 14 January 2011

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.

I have come up against students recently who are resisting my assigned readings on the grounds that they are “too difficult”. This has been an increasing problem over the past few years, but it’s especially noticeable with texts that I have been assigning for several years, and which have received positive student feedback in the past, but that  are now being met with complaints that they are “too hard.” So I’m trying to design a document that I can give to students when they need some skills or attitude adjustments about encountering texts that they find difficult to read. Very often, I find that students get frustrated with difficult texts and give up, and they usually blame me (I’m a bad teacher) or they blame the author (the author can’t write). Rarely, they internalize the issue as one of their own inadequacy (they think they are stupid). Here is a draft of a document I’m trying to design to address this cultural shift in student attitudes toward difficult reading.


Difficult Texts

There are many reasons we may find a text difficult to read. For our class, which is an upper-division SJSU studies class, here are a few salient possibilities:

• the topic of the text may be new or unfamiliar to you, or may be outside your specialization

• the level of argumentation and evidentiation may be more complex than you are accustomed to dealing with; may be using unfamiliar methods; or may be drawing complex logical conclusions

• the level of the writing may be asking you to stretch and improve or increase your reading skills

Generally speaking, I carefully choose readings for a) topical relevance; b) appropriate level for university students (either upper or lower division); and c) good writing. In AMS-ENVS-HUM 159, I have chosen texts that are exceptionally well written and award winning (both Wade and Diamond). From time to time, I may choose a poorly written article because the contents are so important (and I will usually tell you in class what is wrong with the writing so you can learn from it (e.g., Zuberbühler)). There are a couple poorly written articles in the Agyuman collection, and we can talk about what makes them poorly written in class if you desire that skills discussion.

Faulty or Ineffective Beliefs

I have found that when students find a text difficult, they respond in a handful of unproductive ways that actually hamper and prevent their learning. I have enumerated here the most common problematic beliefs about difficult reading that I have encountered over the past few years.  Most importantly, these are beliefs, habitual ways of approaching the world, that can be changed if you desire to. The unproductive ideas have to be replaced with productive and more empirically accurate ideas. As you read these, ask yourselves which one’s most apply to you and engage in my suggestions for “replacements” to see what you might be able to do. The reward for taking this seriously is the shift in your ability to learn from reading challenging texts.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 1: “I am too stupid to get this text.”

This is a touchy one, but please read me carefully: If this is an idea that pops into your head in my class, do everything possible to immediately counter it with a fact: You are in university; you have already proven your intelligence. A difficult text is not evidence of your intelligence or lack thereof, but of other things entirely. So remind yourself that you’ve already proven your intelligence, and find the real reason why a text is difficult.

Replace with: “This text is about topics which are unfamiliar to me, so I’m going to have to slow down and read carefully and with my full attention to apprehend it. The rewards of doing so are learning and educating myself.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 2: “This text is boring.”

In some ways, this is a personal issue. If you find yourself bored, take some time to figure out where the boredom is coming from. In teaching, I’ve found that there are generally two sources of boredom:

a) It may be that you simply do not care about the topic of the course or of the reading. This can be common in general ed classes where you are fulfilling requirements for graduation. If this is the case for you, I urge you to find a way through your boredom (maybe just focus on successfully jumping through the hoops; or working to find something interesting or relevant to your interests that you can hang on to).

Replace with: “Although I’m not interested in this topic, I will focus my attention on this text for ___ minutes, because I need to know this material for ____.”

b) Often, however, boredom is an indication that you are encountering a difficult text and are feeling the “pain” of having to work to understand a text. If this is the case, please read on.

Replace with“I’m experiencing my discomfort with the difficulty of this text as boredom; that means I need to address directly the difficulties I’m having.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 3: “The author uses big words, when smaller words will do.”

What you’re really saying is that the author is using words that you don’t know. This is not an indication of a bad writer; but an indication that your vocabulary is being stretched and challenged. When you encounter words you don’t understand, work to make your automatic response to reach for a dictionary. Try to avoid Dictionary.com because it’s definitions aren’t very good; I recommend either the Oxford American English Dictionary or the Webster’s Collegiate.  You may also want to keep a running list of words that you learn in your reading.

Replace with: “There’s a word I don’t know. I will look it up in the dictionary, and then reread the sentence to learn a new word and understand the author’s argument.

Note: Sometimes scholars do make a writing mistake, when they write in jargon. Jargon is specialized words that only specialists know; sometimes, scholars use jargon as a short-hand when they are writing for each other. This is actually bad writing when the writing is intended for larger or more general audiences. You will notice, however, that Prof. Ormsbee assigns readings were nearly all specialized terms and concepts are defined in the text. This is not jargon. This is the author using the text to introduce you to specialized vocabulary in the field.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 4: “This text is redundant, repetitious and wordyThere are too many details.

Although there are moments when authors are redundant, generally speaking Prof. Ormsbee is assigning texts that are offering up detailed and thorough arguments. If you find an idea being repeated, it is more often an indication that there is a concept, fact, or issue that is connected at multiple points and is central to the overall argument; it is usually not an indication of a bad writer.

Replace with: “The author is repeating this set of information several times, so it is my job to figure out why that idea, fact, or issue keeps emerging in the text, what is so important about that idea, what it’s interconnection is to the overall argument.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 5: “This work is too long. The author could’ve said the same thing in a much shorter space. There are too many details.”

From time to time, Prof. Ormsbee does assign lengthy pieces that could be edited down; but generally speaking, Prof. O has chosen texts that walk you through a complex and thoroughly evidentiated argument. The details presented by the authors we’ve read in class go directly to substantiating their argument; they explain the details of the research, the argument, the logic, and the evidence that lead them to their conclusions. If you only read the bullet-pointed conclusion, you do not actually understand why we should believe the author’s claims or why the author’s claims are important. If you only read bullet-points, you never learn how to build complex arguments yourself.

Replace with: “The author is spelling out for me exactly how s/he arrived at his conclusions and why his/her conclusions are reliable and important.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 6: “I should be able to read this text quickly and casually and understand its argument easily without working at it.”

Very few people would ever say this out loud, but I find by my experience that this is a common underlying belief of some students. Reflect carefully about your experience with difficult texts, and see if this is a belief that you hold. There are many cultural reasons why we expect texts to be immediately and effortlessly assimilable, but this is a belief that is detrimental to learning. Imagine that what you’re saying is that you learned everything you needed to know by 8th grade (the level most of us can read without having to engage our attention) and that 8th grade level of writing and argumentation is the most complex that anyone should be required to read at. This is detrimental to your learning, your attention, and your retention.

Replace with: I am a university student and am still learning, both at the level of information and facts, and at the level of argumentation and writing. Difficult texts are challenging me to learn new things and approach increasingly complex argumentation and writing. This is part of the learning process.

edited per feedback



1. Taylor M. - 14 January 2011

I think this is a great beginning to a document for university students! I’ve run into countless situations with other students (and myself if I’m being honest) where this sort of faulty logic is present.

It really boils down to willingness to challenge oneself and take the time and effort to really understand something. I’ve gone through similar phases like this and I finally realized that my own laziness was getting in the way of my learning. It rarely had anything to do with the author or the content, I just wasn’t willing to put forward the effort.

I like where you’re going with this overall. Hopefully it will work out for you and your students! Good luck!

2. Todd - 14 January 2011

Also, this was written for a specific course, but I’m going to rework it to be more general, so I can distribute it in all my courses.

3. Ron Smith - 26 January 2011

You mentioned that you are encountering this difficulty (student complaints) more and more frequently than you had in the past. What has changed in your student body, or class, compared to when there were no complaints?
Have the prerequisites for the class changed? Or perhaps who is teaching the prerequisites changed? Has the university lowered it’s admission standards?
Certainly the document for students can be useful, but in the long run might it be more effective to identify the underlying cause if possible?

4. Todd - 26 January 2011

Ron, you pose some difficult questions. My impression is that the students are less and less prepared for college, period. I teach at a university with virtually no admission requirements (over 1/2 of our first year students fail out). There are several working hypotheses, two of which stand out to me: 1) is that we ourselves are overworked (we have a 4/4 teaching load, which is crushing at the university level) and so have lowered our expectations; 2) is that k-12 education in the state is horrifyingly bad. These are massive structural problems that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to address. The best I can do for now is to try to coax students into being willing to be challenged and to work for knowledge.

5. mattblack - 9 February 2011

One thing you might add to your document is to let students know that they are actually entering into the real academic discussion by engaging with these texts. That this is the no holds barred real deal of experts talking to experts and the fact that it’s challenging is normal. They’re like rookies entering into the pros and if they can learn the ropes they’ve accomplished something significant.

6. Marcus Hamilton - 28 August 2011

Hi Todd,

I’m teaching a freshman level critical reading and writing course, and I would love to adapt some of your “faulty or ineffective beliefs” and their replacments for use in my classroom. Would you mind if I used some of this to drive a discussion about critical reading practices (giving you full credit of course)?

7. Huskie - 1 January 2012

The problem begins with your students telling you that what you are offering them is too difficult. Who is a 20 year old kid to tell a PhD that his selection of texts is “wrong”? And because the words aren’t small enough?

I’m a High School teacher, and so I am familiar with what you’re up against…the big difference is that NY says it’s unlawful for my students not to come to school…they are required legally to be imbued with knowledge. Your students ought to be there because they need to be to reach some career goal, or want to complete a solid, liberal education, or simply want to avoid the stigma of being degreeless. A lot has been written on this by people who could do a much better job than me, but the bottom line (from my perspective) is that
1) K-MA teachers/professors are being blamed for their students not reaching the standards set,
2) therefore the standards keep sliding south (and this is defined as a number of things, but is occurring nationally, at the state level, and in individual classrooms), and
3) too many kids are going to college who either shouldn’t be, or shouldn’t be at eighteen.

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