Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Helping students to read to good effect

Arguably there is a crisis in terms of students’ reading at university. In the past we talked about students ‘reading for a degree’, with the implication that the curriculum was not ‘delivered’, like a postman delivering a parcel, but that students themselves bore the responsibility for their learning.

Students have always been selective about what they actually do with reading lists, which is probably sensible because not all academics are meticulous in keeping them current and clarifying their status as core texts, required reading, useful options or relating to specialist sub-topics. Although it is now, with ready electronic access, much easier for students to locate and use texts than when packs of students would run to the library after lectures to seek out rare copies of recommended texts, hide reference books in unexpected places to ensure other students wouldn’t have access to them, or rip out pages of journals because they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for photocopying, there are often still issues about students being prepared to hunt for texts they need. In recent years, there has been a higher expectation among many students at all types of universities that significant guidance will be given on exactly what to read, and many Higher Education institutions provide electronic or hard-copy course readers, particularly for first-year students, which contain the core readings, including for example, chapters from different books and relevant journal articles and ‘grey material’ like newspaper cuttings.

Students don’t seem to have an expectation of putting in numerous hours poring over books within their independent study time, and some consider it an imposition when their teachers expect them to read material prior to class activities, as is often the case with a ‘flipped classroom’ approach, where the focus in the classroom is primarily on interaction, and content is gleaned largely from students’ own text and web-based reading.

Certainly attitudes to book buying are changing. Anecdotally, students regard book purchases as being temporary events, since online suppliers regularly contact students asking if they want to re-sell or part-exchange previous purchases within months of selling them. University libraries nowadays often replace hard-copy text purchases with electronic licences that allow several students to use them simultaneously, and journal articles are widely available electronically at home. It is possible nowadays to undertake a degree and only rarely visit a library in person, since electronic access to core readings in some nations is ubiquitous. And students (as well as staff) demonstrate limited patience in seeking and locating texts: if it’s not available within four clicks, many will give up the search. Reading on screen is a qualitatively different experience from reading on a page.

Traditionally we have exhorted students to become active readers, with a pen and Post-its™ in hand, rather than passive ones, just looking at pages or screens. We don’t yet know the extent to which comprehension and absorption of information is different in the different modes. What we do know is that fitting in the task alongside television and other noisy distractions doesn’t help, and it seems likely that multiple interruptions associated with a continuous online presence (the siren call of Twitter, texts, Facebook updates and so on) changes the nature of interactions with academic texts. It can be really helpful to work during induction to help students understand that different kinds of approaches are needed for reading depending on whether they are reading for pleasure, for information, for understanding or reading around a topic.

Some advice in helping students read to good effect:

  • Give them short reading tasks in early class sessions, emphasising that different people read at very different rates, and that reading fast is not always an advantage. Then talk to them about how they read and how they worked on retaining the content as well as talking about the content itself.
  • Give students clear guidance in the early stages of a programme about how much they need to read and what kinds of materials they need to focus on, so they establish good academic literacy habits early on.
  • Talk to them about the value of re-reading, deliberately reading slowly, reading material aloud with the intention of focusing on the sounds or the sense of the words, intense reading, reading to reinforce their own scholarly thinking, reading to and with others and reading just for fun.


Coonan, E. (2015) Helping students to read effectively in ways that support learning, in Brown, S. (2015) Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global perspectives, London: Palgrave.

Adapted from Chapter 6 of Brown, S. (2015) Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global perspectives, London: Palgrave.