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Think Aloud Protocols in Composition II Courses: Let’s Talk About Research

by Laura Seeber

College of DuPage

Publication Details

OLOR Series: OLOR Effective Practices
 Author(s): Laura Seeber
 Original Publication Date: 20 FEBRUARY, 2024


This piece was authored as part of a GSOLE Research Fellows grant which is supporting authors as they adopt, implement, and collect data on an existing teaching practice published in the Online Literacies Open Resource “Effective Practices” (OLOR EP) journal. 

The article here is an extension of and response to o Charlotte Asmuth’s “Using Think-aloud Protocols to Model Metacognitive Reading Strategies” from June, 2021 <https://gsole.org/olor/ep/2021.06.01/>.

Readers are invited to consult the original article for a full discussion of think-aloud protocols (TAPs) and how Asmuth implements them. For quick reference, however, an excerpt from the “Introduction” to Asmuth’s article is provided here:

Think-aloud protocols (TAPs, for short) involve people verbalizing their thought processes (literally, thinking aloud) as they perform a particular task––for example, testing a product, reading a text, or composing an essay. When TAPs are recorded and revisited, they can offer insight into the strategies and thought processes writers, readers, or users bring to a particular task [...] TAPs have been used to capture the complex, recursive, cognitive processes writers engage in as they compose.

- Jason Snart, OLOR EP founder and editor


For online asynchronous courses, students lack the face to face interactions that traditional in-person courses offer. The introduction to Think Aloud Protocols (TAPs) in an online environment afford students the opportunities to have an interactive experience with their classmates and get feedback. TAPs have students use interactive technology, such as a recording, to share their responses to their classmates' writing. Additionally, TAPs offer students a chance to hear what their writing sounds like aloud, such as synthesizing research sources with their own writing. This article explores the use of TAPs in an English Composition course focused on Research Writing. Their use permitted students to focus their research while fostering conversation about their research through brainstorming, workshop, and reflection. Students utilized various methods to record themselves for TAPs such as Screencast-o-matic, Screenpal, Youtube, and even their cell phones. The goal of this project is to create a more engaging and interactive experience in an online writing course for students.

Resource Contents

 1. Introduction

[1] In online, asynchronous courses students often lack interactive experiences with each other. The interactive experiences in face to face (F2F) writing classrooms afford students the opportunity to talk about their writing in various scenarios: peer workshops, reflection, classroom conversations about research and writing, and even presenting source information. My goal in designing the effective practice was to create an interactive experience for online students to have a conversation about their writing. Many students who have expressed their frustrations writing courses have shared with me that they prefer to take online, asynchronous writing courses rather than having an F2F experience. Online anytime courses often lead to a lack of conversation about writing. Furthermore, students who are second language learners who take asynchronous courses lack the interactive experience between writing and speaking about writing.

[2] In the Spring of 2022, I adapted the Think Aloud Protocols (or TAPs) as described in Charlotte Asmuth’s “Using think-aloud protocols to model metacognitive reading strategies” (2021) for my English Composition II course. In a course based heavily on research writing and synthesizing scholarly sources, students were challenged to utilize the TAPs to speak aloud about a text using the student's choice of software. My course focused their TAPs to various stages of the research process and fostered conversations about writing through workshop and reflection.


[3] In English 1102 (Composition II) was an asynchronous writing course, so students and the instructor had no “live” meeting time requirement. For each assignment I recorded a video tutorial of the assignment (See Figure 1) focusing on modeling TAPs to capture the tone, pausing often so students could follow what I was saying.

Figure 1: TAPs Assignment Tutorial Video

[4] Students were required to have a working microphone and webcam for the class for TAPs. Students performed TAPs for a variety of assignments throughout the research process. Students were asked to choose a topic related to the class theme: Is College Worth It? inspired by Karin Fischer’s (2022) “The shrinking of higher education, '' published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. This English Composition II course was a total of 16 weeks with students having their first TAPs one week before the midterm, at which point students had an instructor-approved research topic. Starting Week 5, students brainstormed various research topics in an interactive online platform called Padlet with topics related to themes from Fischer’s piece (See Figure 2 for a screenshot of the research topic brainstorm Padlet).

Figure 2: Screenshot of Research Topic Brainstorm in Padlet

Screenshot of student responses from research topic brainstorm using Padlet

[5] After getting their topics approved with their research proposals during Week 6, students were to come up with a research question related to their research topic and explore their topic with peer reviewed sources. Once students found reliable research sources during Weeks 7 and 8 that explored their research question, students began the process of drafting their essay in Week 9. Students gave feedback to their classmates which I call “peer workshop” where they used TAPs. Rather than written feedback, students through a discussion board, students were using free form TAPs to verbalize their feedback on each other’s drafts. After students reviewed their feedback from their classmates, I asked students to utilize TAPs to process the feedback from their classmates and instructor feedback before they proceeded with their revisions. The last use of TAPs for student research was a reflection after the students completed their research.

2. Source Summary Think Aloud Protocol: The First Attempt

[6] The first TAPs assignment that students received was in Week 7, one week after students submitted their research topic proposals.  For the first TAP, students were asked to write source summaries to discuss two sources from their working bibliographies. Students completed the working bibliography exercise earlier in the week and gathered a list of potential research sources. The source summary assignment asked students to choose two sources from that list to write about (and then talk about). The instructions for the Source Summary Assignment are outlined in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Source Summary Assignment Instructions

A source summary forces you to interact with your research evidence early on in the research process. The goal is that you uncover new information as you research that leads you down a new path. Going through information as you research will help you to narrow down your research question. Your goal is to arrive at a narrowed research question versus a list of inquiry questions (think working bibliography).

From Thursday’s working bibliography activity, choose two different sources (these should be separate from anything you included in your research topic proposal). You will write two summaries total: one for each source. This can be an article, peer-reviewed journal article, book, etc.

What your source summary should include:

  1. Title of the article/ book chapter/ Website (not where it is from i.e. The New York Times but the title of the actual article).
  2. Summary (the main points) of your source. A summary should be all in your own words i.e. what are the main points of the source. The best way to think about writing a summary is to imagine you have to share what the source was about with someone in an elevator. This sounds goofy, but truly it works!
  3. Include three important quotations or paraphrases from the source and explain what insight these offer to your topic.

Each source summary must be typed in MLA style: Times New Roman, 12 pt font, double spaced. Your source summaries should be written in paragraph form and be sure to include a works cited page with all sources cited.

[7] In this assignment students were asked to interact with their sources by writing and then speaking. In a traditional F2F classroom students would present the source summary to the class. I asked students, by utilizing TAPs, to record themselves sharing out the two sources they found and wrote about. The instructions for the TAPs portion of the assignment can be found in Figure 4 below:

Figure 4: TAPs Assignment Instructions

This step will ask you to closely read two of your best sources and consider the findings and purpose of the information for your research argument. You will then record yourself either audio or video - your choice sharing your two sources. You do not have to read directly from the sheet, but you can if you choose. You may record using your phone if you want or a free software such as Audacity (https://audacityteam.org) or Screenpal (https://screenpal.com/). You are also welcome to record using Youtube and share a link with me - just make sure the link is set to anyone with the link can view.

Please make sure to attach a doc., doc.x, PDF, or Google link (set to anyone with the link can view) when you submit to Blackboard AND a link or clip to your recording. Please make sure that I can access the recording to grade it.

[8] I offered students a few places to do their recordings but being my first time using TAPs, I wanted to see the various ways students recorded themselves. I also had concerns about what platforms would be most compatible for TAPs and the learning management system Blackboard. This fostered an interactive conversation about student’s sources and the early stages of their research process.

[9] Students were given open resources to help them record, including how-to’s for use of ScreenPal (formerly called Screencast-O-Matic), Audacity, and YouTube. (Students were permitted to use software other than these three if they wished to do so.) Having choices allowed the freedom for students to be comfortable as this was their first experience with TAPs. Each week my recordings for students used Screencast-O-Matic. The first TAPs assignment had an extremely low completion rate. As the instructor, I sent out a survey asking which portion of the assignment was most difficult. It was difficult to decipher if TAPs was the culprit or if research itself was the research portion or the interactive, recording portion. Students responded to the survey saying that the directions for the assignment made it seem like they had to respond in writing or they had to record rather than do both.

3. Peer Workshop: Think Aloud: Using Writing As Reflection for Feedback

[10] Four weeks after the students’ first TAPs, it was time for students to peer workshop a draft of their research essay. Students were asked to utilize Peter Elbow’s (1973) peer workshop methodology–Bless, Press, Address– from Writing Without Teachers, to give feedback to two classmates. Like the first TAPS, students had a writing portion and then were asked to incorporate the conversation portion of their writing. See Figure 5 below for the instructions for the second TAPS.

Figure 5: Instructions for the Second TAPs

So much of what we write gets misconstrued in writing but speaking and listening are also important tools in the writing process. For this assignment, you will open up the drafts of the writing you reviewed for Thursday of this week. You will also need to have your feedback handy. You will record yourself reading the introduction paragraph with the thesis statement and the first body paragraph only. Afterward, I want you to share your feedback that you wrote verbally. Please don’t just read the list you typed.

Share a short recording either audio or video. You can use whatever format you see fit: your cell phone, audacity (this is a free audio recording software), youtube, etc. Youtube has a free video recorder. You can use whatever you feel most comfortable with for recording. There are tons of free recording apps and tools on the internet.

[11] As the instructor, I went in and modeled myself doing this very TAPs with a student’s writing in the class. I logged into the Blackboard discussion where the students papers were located and in the “student preview” mode, I recorded myself giving feedback on a students' paper in freeform. As I spoke, I modeled how I wanted the tone of the writing to be as well as speaking slowly and pausing. Students then could see how the tone of speaking for this assignment was much more conversational to model a F2F conversation. This TAPs models the listening portion of a peer workshop where a writer is asked to listen as a peer reads the author’s work aloud.

[12] Often writers interrupt their peers in an attempt to defend their writing. This use of TAPs had a higher completion rate from students. Peer Workshop TAPs allowed an interactive workshop where students could speak to their fellow classmates, a scenario often overlooked in an online course and which may otherwise only be found in a face-to-face classroom. These recordings were shared using the discussion board option in Blackboard. Students posted their initial writing and then students chose classmates they wanted to respond to.

4. Revisions: A Moment for Reflection

[13] During this week students submitted a revised draft and followed up with their TAPs revision assignment. This use of TAPs was another conversational dialogue. This time, students were not expected to complete a formal write up. I asked students to review the comments they were given on their writing and discuss how those comments were incorporated into their revised research draft; e.g., if the student was told they didn’t have a thesis statement, the student could point out where their thesis statement was incorporated. If a student did not have correct citations, the student could then identify where the in-text citations were revised in the draft.

[14] Rather than have students write a formal reflection of their revisions, this TAPs allowed students to process through their revisions verbally. I also saw students hold themselves accountable for making more significant revisions rather than just making sentence level edits. Again, here I modeled in a screencast video how I would make my revisions. The completion rate for this TAP was about 80%.

    5. Reflecting on Research: What Did You Accomplish?

    [15] The very last example of TAPs was used as a moment of reflection after the final research assignment was complete. The directions of the assignment were as follows (see Figure 6).

    Figure 6: Reflecting on Research Assignment Instructions

    Reflecting on the research process is an opportunity for you to think back on what you have learned, to recognize your achievements, and to identify the challenges that you faced. This is your opportunity to describe your research strategy, process, and what you learned from it.

    You can organize the information here as you like, keeping in mind that you will be assessed on how the essays address the four points listed below. Some prompting questions follow each point that may help you reflect on the process that you followed in your research. They are not intended to be answered directly, but to be included as appropriate.

    Your reflection must be completed in a digital form where you are either recording a video OR sharing an audio recording. You are permitted to use personal pronouns as this is a reflective piece, however proper mechanics and grammatical conventions should be used as this is for a college course.

    1. Consider the process: how you crafted your argument/message, selected your search tools, developed search techniques, and chose which Library collections to explore.

    • How did you think about and refine your preliminary research topic? Reflect on the process of adapting your interests into the scope of the project, and how you may have modified your topic given the time you had available for research and writing, the project requirements.
    • What specific strategies did you develop for finding relevant information? Which discoveries did you make by chance and which through planned search strategies?
    • What specific library search tools did you use and why?
    2. Consider your sources: the types and formats that you chose, how deeply or widely you explored your topic area, how you evaluated and selected materials, and how carefully you cited what you selected.

    • Did you have trouble finding some types or formats of information and if so, how did you overcome this challenge?
    • Did your assumptions about what information would be available change throughout the research process?
    • Did you have some reasons for not selecting specific resources, even though they appeared promising?

    3. Pull it all together: how you used these sources to support your thesis and what original ideas stemmed from the synthesis of your research.

    • How much did the sources you used provide support for your argument/message?
    • How did you balance the evidence that you found with your voice?
    4. What you learned: how your understanding of library research changed and how you have grown as an independent researcher.
    • What did you learn about your own research process and style?
    • What expertise have you gained as a researcher?
    • What do you still need to learn?
    • What would you change about your process if you had another chance?

    Grading Criteria

    Reflections will be judged based on how well they demonstrate the following:

    1. sophistication, originality, or unusual depth or breadth in the use of library collections, including, but not limited to, printed resources, databases, primary sources, and materials in all media;
    2. exceptional ability to locate, select, evaluate, and synthesize library resources and to use them in the creation of the essay and/or has the potential to lead to original research in the future;
    3. evidence of significant personal learning and the development of a habit of research and inquiry that shows the likelihood of persisting in the future; and
    4. creative use of digital technologies to express research reflection.

    [16] This last assignment asked students to use TAPs with creativity (since this was their very last assignment). I found students’ last TAPs to be diverse; students did recordings in the form of screencasts with slides to showcase their writing and specific examples while some students just had various tabs open on their computer while they spoke, highlighting specific parts of assignments they completed such as synthesis in an assignment. Most students chose to video record themselves using Youtube, Screenplay, or Screencastify.

    6. Conclusion

    [17] My goal for this project was to connect speaking and writing together for online students. Many students were apprehensive of TAPs initially with the source summary assignment, but I could have placed more emphasis on these recordings not having to be “perfect.” I did find my worries regarding student engagement in asynchronous online courses to be confirmed when I incorporate TAPs. This fear was that many students take online writing courses and don’t have any “engagement” or “live” discussion with each other. While the students had to become comfortable with speaking to other students, they simultaneously had to use technology and speak at the same time. Students can have interactive experiences in an online course if facilitated correctly. I may have had better initial results with TAPs if I started the semester with a simple “record introducing yourself” video assignment.

    [18] As the instructor, I wanted to leave it open for students as to what technology students could use while giving them a small amount of guidance using a few tools, such as Screenpal, Audacity, and Youtube. But I didn’t want to restrict other technology if students felt more comfortable using a different website or source. If I did TAPs in my courses again, I would provide students with a written, step-by-step guide on how to use technology versus just recording a video tutorial. Another drawback of TAPs in my class was students were not watching the instructor videos so then in turn students were skipping the assignment all together.

    [19] For the students that completed TAPs in English 1102, the students were able to work with new technologies, talk about their experiences with research, and connect with their classmates. Most importantly TAPs gave the opportunity for students to reflect on their experiences and their writing. This was my first opportunity and experience using TAPs and adapting this for a writing course. I will continue to utilize TAPs to not only allow students the opportunity for communication with their fellow classmates, but also for the conversation about writing using technologies.

    7. References

    Asmuth, Charlotte. (2021). Using think-aloud protocols to model metacognitive reading strategies. OLOR Effective Practices. gsole.org/olor/ep/2021.06.01.

    Elbow, Peter. (1973). Writing without teachers (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

    Fischer, Karin. (2012). The shrinking of higher ed: In the past, colleges grew their way out of enrollment crises. This time looks different. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-shrinking-of-higher-ed

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