Think-Alouds: Charting How Students Think

shaherzadahmadi

Pedagogy, Tools

Three books stacked on top of each other, all flipped open, and a set of headphones resting atop them.

As an instructor, I have often wished that I could examine my students’ thought processes. Are they questioning the author’s bias? Are they drawing connections to other sources? Fortunately, many pedagogues have engaged cognitive psychology to do just that. Think-aloud protocols were adapted in the 1970s and 1980s to help writers adopt certain strategies, and understand their own processes, in composing their work. Through the 1990s, pedagogues from the fields of rhetoric to psychology adjusted the protocols to suit the pedagogical objectives of their individual disciplines. Each field discovered the benefits of technology, which offers instructors a window into their students’ minds as they read sources and write their own pieces.

Think-alouds are crucial in helping instructors understand how students read texts. For think-aloud assignment, instructors assign students an excerpt (either of a primary or secondary source, though the former works better). After the first read, students record their response, revealing to instructors how they analyze sources. I typically avoid offering my students a primary source with which they are unfamiliar. In the past, I have offered excerpts from Herodotus or speeches by American politicians. Some students simply repeat the information they read, revealing a trust in texts to convey accurate information. Other students question the text and wonder aloud about the motivation of the author.

According to Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin, this voice recording should not last more than 45-90 seconds, though my students usually produce sound bites that last anywhere between 2 and 3 minutes. I compare the think-aloud assignment from the beginning of the semester with their second (and final) think-aloud exercise, recorded at the end of the term, in order to chart their progress. An instructor may approach this kind of activity in a variety of ways, one of which has been laid out in a DWRL lesson plan by Mac Scott. In comparing my worksheet and Mac’s lesson plan, one may gain a sense of the variability and versatility of audio recorded activities.

One example of a student’s think-aloud, which meets the 90 second time limit, is available for download or can be played in the embedded player below.

The text examined in this think-aloud is from Herodotus’s, The Histories Book II.

This, it is said, was the first outrage which Cambyses committed. The second was the slaying of his sister, who had accompanied him into Egypt, and lived with him as his wife, though she was his full sister, the daughter both of his father and his mother. The way wherein he had made her his wife was the following: It was not the custom of the Persians, before his time, to marry their sisters—but Cambyses, happening to fall in love with one of his, and wishing to take her to wife, as he knew that it was an uncommon thing, called together the royal judges, and asked them, whether there was any law which allowed a brother, if he wished, to marry his sister? Now the royal judges are certain picked men among the Persians, who hold their office for life, or until they are found guilty of some misconduct. By them justice is administered in Persia, and they are the interpreters of the old laws, all disputes being referred to their decision. When Cambyses, therefore, put his question to these judges, they gave him an answer which was at once true and safe, “They did not find any law,” they said, “allowing a brother to take his sister to wife, but they found a law, that the king of the Persians might do whatever he pleased.” And so they neither warped the law through fear of Cambyses, nor ruined themselves by over stiffly maintaining the law, but they brought another quite distinct law to the king’s help, which allowed him to have his wish. Cambyses, therefore, married the object of his love [Atossa, the mother of Xerxes], and no long time afterwards he took to wife another sister. It was the younger of these who went into Egypt, and there suffered death at his hands.

In order to evaluate a “think-aloud,” I examine the students’ cognitive skills, which include 1) questioning, 2) sourcing, 3) making connections, 4) making inferences, 5) considering alternative perspectives, 6) acknowledging limits in knowledge. For more detail on these skills, please review the second page of this worksheet.

The student in the think-aloud provided above proves highly conscious of Herodotus’s biases, questioning his reliability. He also expresses interest in the existence of alternative perspectives that would complicate his narrative. These are excellent indicators of a student’s intellectual curiosity and willingness to search for meaning outside the text.

This simple tool, of students voice recording their thought process for instructors, is greatly underutilized. Rather than depend on class discussions, I encourage instructors to use the same democratizing elements of the digital revolution, to gain a deeper knowledge of each individual student’s analytical strengths and weaknesses.

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