Guest Blog: Exploring the reading practices of undergraduate students

by Helen St Clair-Thompson,  School of Psychology

In 2015/16 I took part in the university EQuATE programme (Equal Acclaim for Teaching Excellence). This introduced me to staff elsewhere in the university who were interested in similar aspects of learning and teaching, and I soon found myself in a conversation about students’ reading habits. Given the importance of reading we wondered how much time and effort student invest in reading material related to their course.

Working with Alison Graham and Sara Marsham from the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, I then began some research into students’ reading practices.  Using a questionnaire we examined how long students spend reading academic material, finding that students report spending an average of 14.1 hours per week reading a range of sources. However, this reported time may not have included reading lecture slides or reading whilst preparing for assignments. In a later diary study students reported spending an average of 6.5 hours per day engaged in academic activities, including attending lectures or seminars, preparing for assignments and exams, and reading academic material. This is not far off the time spent in focussed activity during a typical working day. This finding was perhaps a surprise to some academic staff, and suggests that it is not as simple as thinking that better outcomes may result from more time on academic tasks.

During the research we also ran focus groups to investigate students’ perceptions about reading. These revealed several factors which may influence reading practices. Two of these factors were reported to potentially act as a barrier to reading; a lack of confidence and a lack of time for reading. These factors can be considered by course teams. For example, several deadlines within a short space of time may exacerbate students’ perceptions of having little time for reading. Programme teams may also want to consider ways to enhance students’ confidence with reading. This could involve further supporting students to develop and practice skills such as how to read journal articles, or perhaps the provision of materials such as annotated examples. An additional approach may be to consider using peer support for reading activities.

If teaching staff are interested in promoting and developing students reading practices, the findings also suggest that it would be useful to focus on the process that students use whilst reading. Students seem to be allocating time to reading. However, perhaps the challenge is how to encourage students to engage more critically with material during this time.

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