Old-school tech, new school reading: On repurposing transparency film to support multiple text integration online

I’m nearing the end of data collection in a study that (I hope) will provide teachers with much-needed information on methods that support (or don’t support?) 9th grade students’ reading of multiple, multi-modal Internet texts on science-focused topics of inquiry. As I was developing my teaching intervention, I was especially concerned with methods that would help students to construct an integrated model of what they understand (Kintsch, 1998). In the introduction to his book, Kintsch (1998) explains his Construction-Integration theory of comprehension (pp. 4-5):

Roughly, the story goes like this. We start with a comprehender who has specific goals, a given background of knowledge and experience, and a given perceptual situation. The perceptual situation may, for instance, be the printed words on a page of text. […] Given these idea units in the form of propositions as well as the reader’s goals, associated elements from the reader’s long-term memory (knowledge, experience) are retrieved to form an interrelated network together with the already existing perceptual elements. Because this retrieval is entirely a bottom-up process, unguided by the larger discourse context, the nascent network will contain both relevant and irrelevant items. Spreading activation around this network until the pattern of activation stabilizes works as a constraint-satisfaction process, selectively activating those elements that fit together or are somehow related and deactivating the rest. Hence, the name of the theory, the construction-integration (CI) theory: A context-insensitive construction processes is followed by a constraint-satisfaction, or integration, process that yeilds if all goes well, an orderly mental structure out of initial chaos.

Upon first reading this paragraph, the last sentence really struck a chord with me. Online, the magnitude of “chaos” presented by “the perceptual situation” can overwhelm readers – especially novices. I recognized that any teaching intervention that would help students make “an orderly mental structure” would have to help them stay focused on their purpose, and on what they already knew so that the process of ‘selective activation’ might actually occur.

I also decided that to build a network, it might be helpful for students to actually see its foundations as it grew. We know that background knowledge is a huge determinant of reading comprehension (Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Langer, 1984) but I hypothesized that if students could record what they already knew on their topic of inquiry (e.g., the pros and cons of nuclear power or whether a person with cancer should accept the risks of radiation therapy) AND be able to refer to it and build from it as they read across multiple texts, it might help them to solidify their understanding more effectively. I saw limitations, however, to regular paper.

If students took notes on a regular piece of paper, I worried that the background knowledge that they started with would be forgotten at the top of the page, or quickly muddled with what they had read. Plus, from a research perspective, I wanted to be able to see what students learned. The background knowledge had to remain, visually, as the foundation of the model students were building — and for that to happen, I needed students to be able to build up from it — to deliberately construct a layered model of understanding. As my advisor, Doug Hartman said, I needed to be able to separate students’ background knowledge from what they read just as maps allow geographers to see layers of topography.

So, what did I do? Well, I repurposed an old-school technology 🙂

Before doing any reading on the Internet, students in the treatment condition were asked to brainstorm, with their reading partner, everything they knew on the topic. Using a single color (which they chose from a rainbow assortment of permanent Sharpies) they jotted down their knowledge and related experiences on a single transparency sheet.

Yup. A good old sheet of 3M Transparency film. A few kids had never seen or touched the stuff. Most of them remembered it from “like, 2nd grade, before the digital projectors were installed”.

Then, when they began to read, students layered a second transparency sheet on top of the first. Students were told to build from their background knowledge, and to jot down important ideas from what they read using any method. The intervention also explicitly taught students to compare and connect new information to background knowledge. The transparencies allowed students to see their background knowledge — but it was also made old and new information physically separate entities that could be teased apart and then re-aligned.

In an informal interview, one student,who has completed the study, told me that having his background knowledge on the first transparency film allowed him to stay focused on the task purpose because seeing what he already knew reminded him of what he needed to find out.

I’ll be analyzing more data to determine the impact of the intervention overall, but based on my observations of students’ use of the transparency film, I think this method offers great promise to students as they construct “an orderly mental structure out of initial chaos” (Kintsch, 1998, p. 5). It’s simple, inexpensive, and it makes the process of building a mental model much more concrete for students and teachers alike. At any point in the reading inquiry process, everyone has access to where students started, and what they’ve since read and identified as important. Plus, it’s something that teachers across all subject areas can do — from K-12 — as they help students to integrate what they learn from multiple sources.


Anderson, R.C. & Pearson, P.D. (1984). A schema-theoretic view of basic processes in reading comprehension. In P.D. Pearson, R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 255-292). New York: Longman.

Kintsch, W., (1998). Comprehension: A paradigm for cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Langer, J. A. (1984). Examining background knowledge and text comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 468-481.

Screencasting in College History Courses?

My husband teaches history at a small liberal arts college in Michigan. The education students receive there is, in my view, absolutely exemplary. Professors are completely dedicated to undergraduate teaching (in stark contrast to the recent critique offered by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa on the abysmal state of undergraduate learning nation-wide; NPR Story). The college offers students incredible research opportunities and a curriculum that expects both breadth and depth in the liberal arts tradition. Students live on campus and the ethos of the place is about living and learning together.  The model of instruction is suitably traditional which, of course, goes along with the traditions of academic excellence this college values so highly. And yet, it seems to me that beyond the use of Moodle coursewebs to organize content and PowerPoint presenations to display images, data and content, web-based technologies have not really been embraced as powerful learning tools by my husband and his esteemed colleagues.

Why not?

There are probably plenty of reasons, not the least of which may be a general feeling that technology may somehow compromise a good thing. If it ain’t broke…

More than anything, however, I suspect my husband and his colleagues just haven’t had much chance to explore the range of web-based technologies that could support — and dare I say, even enhance — their curricula and teaching.

In a 15-minute brainstorming conversation yesterday, my husband and I came up with several great ideas for using screencasting technology in his college history courses. These aren’t revolutionary or anything but they are ideas that he felt a) were do-able and b) would offer learning support to his students without compromising academic rigor.

Here’s a list of screencasting ideas that could support undergraduate history students:

1) A guide to the “how-to” document that my husband gives out on the first day of class. The document outlines how to write a history paper, how to cite sources, how to format a history paper, how to conduct research. Highlighting the important elements of this document alone might make it more accessible for students and ultimately increase the number of students who actually read it and use it during the semester.

2) Brief tutorials on how to cite sources. The screencasts would render transparent both the integration of cited material into a paragraph and the thought process that goes into deciding when and where to cite a reference. These tutorials could be created by capturing a short five-minute paragraph writing session during which the professor composes in a Google Doc, inserts citations and thinks aloud the whole time.

3) Showing students how history papers are graded so that they are aware of how professors think about argument, the substantiation of ideas and good writing. This could be done with a tablet PC and screencapture software like Camtasia so that students can see the professor writing comments and narrating the process along the way.

4) Students could submit screencasts of their own writing with questions related to any aspect of their work — we imagined students showing the professor a paragraph and identifying the specific issue they were struggling to overcome. For instance, “In this paragraph I am using information from work by X. I’ve summarized his ideas — do I need to insert a citation here? or here? Where should I do this?”

Of course, this back-and-forth between professors and students ideally happens face-fo-face in class but we all know that learning a complex skill like how to write a history paper takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. Screencasts posted to a CMS permit just-in-time support for students that can be revisited over and over again. And, when students create screencasts for professors, they’re thinking critically about their learning process (always a good thing) and creating a record of their learning development. To me, this application of technology is absolutely aligned with the core mission of a small liberal arts college.