ACADEMICS WORK HARD TO DISCOURAGE STUDENTS FROM READING!
An interesting article in Business Insider UK (May 2017) discussed the importance for new students of reading. It came up with ten key ways in which reading can help – see below.
While I wouldn’t challenge the principle of reading being a key part of academic learning – I think the volume we now give them to read is out of synch with how they live their lives. So in the process of encouraging reading – academics are actually encouraging them to avoid it altogether.
In this blog I outline what I am seeing first-hand with students and my own tips to get around this. I think this is a pragmatic approach – or is it admitting defeat for the whole academic rigour process?
First, that list of ten key ways that reading can help students:
- You’re more empathetic
- Your vocabulary is richer
- You understand that patience is a virtue
- You become calmer
- You sleep better
- You’ll have stronger critical thinking skills
- Your writing skills will improve
- You’ll be more creative
- Your memory gets a boost
- You’ll be a more well-rounded person
There’s no doubt at all of the benefits of reading, but what the article probably failed to take into account was that the world has moved on over the last 20 or 30 years. When I was a student, reading was very much the background to your academic studies, but there weren’t any alternatives. It was books… or books and perhaps the occasional academic article. As we move through the generations to a time when students are now principally Millennials or Generation Z, so we’re in an era when long term reading is not necessarily that fashionable or popular. Instant access to answers is what students want. Googling or YouTubing to get that information nugget, example or soundbite is what students really focus on.
And yet, that old fashioned skill of reading, looking at a subject in greater depth actually provides those important life skills.
At universities we should, as academics, be encouraging our students to engage with the printed word. But it appears to me that academics, people who live by the printed word, are inadvertently encouraging quite the opposite.
The problem is that we tend to see everything through our own world/job where depth of knowledge is everything rather than the student’s world where the treadmill of academic study leads to a focus on the next assignment, the next examination, the grade, the result.
My academic activity is focused on business schools. So I looked at directed reading of a couple of highly respected business school courses.
The first was an undergraduate year 3, 10 credit course. Firstly, there’s the text book. A medium sized academic text book. Directed reading accounted for 268 pages. Next, I looked at the recommended academic article reading. There were 71 journal articles accounting for some 1220 pages. That’s 1488 pages in total.
The second was for a 10-credit executive MBA course, typically studied over four days. Exec MBA students lead pressurised lives – big time management jobs, family commitments and of course the MBA. The text book reading list required them to study 308 pages. The directed academic journal articles totalled 110 with a total number of pages to read of 1212.That’s 1520 pages in total.
Neither of the directed reading lists contained any weighting, direction or quantification. Doubtless the course leaders, the academics, had read everything. But if you’re a third-year undergraduate on that nonstop treadmill of study, or an executive MBA student just trying to get through week, how are you going to approach such text intense reading lists?
The answer is simple. Students ignore the reading and go to Google instead. I know this because it’s what students tell me.
I’ve taken a different approach:
- I always try and select a short academic text book, maybe 350 pages rather than 950 pages. Typically it contains the same amount of information as in the larger book. But, psychologically students will pick up the 350 page book and get into it. That 950 page book just remains on the shelf. Something uncomfortable to be avoided.
- For journal reading, I suggest one journal article for each study session. And, if time permits, I’ll ask students to dissect one or two of these in class – What does the article tell you? How can the findings be used in practice? Do you have any criticisms of the article itself?
And I find that when faced with a more manageable reading list students readily embrace the content.
Of course, this approach might appear to some academics as a dumbing down approach, a defeat to the soundbite society. But this misses the point. Don’t we want our students to leave university education remembering some of the reading, taking it into the outside world of management, gaining those 10 really important reading skills?
Academic or student, what do you think? This is surely a discussion to be had.