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How can we help our students read effectively in a digital-first world? 

In this guest blog post, Matt East, Education Lead at Talis, introduces a project investigating how we can help our students read effectively in a digital-first world. 

We’re delighted that Talis are one of our sponsors for the LILAC 2022 conference. If you are attending the conference this year, do visit their stand in our exhibition space.

There’s no doubt that students’ reading skills are a critical component of academic success. Students’ reading practices have transformed over the past 20 years, with the increasing digitisation of resources, the ubiquity of virtual learning environments and the widespread use of mobile technologies. The pandemic has accelerated these developments, with the rapid roll-out of online and blended learning, and the rapid expansion of e-first content. Yet, we know strikingly little about how students read online, how this relates to their overall learning, and which pedagogic strategies are effective. 

A team from the University of Lincoln, UCL, and the University of Nottingham have partnered with Talis to undertake a QAA-funded collaborative enhancement project on ‘Active Online Reading’. The goal of this project is to better understand students’ reading skills and practices in digital contexts. The project recently ran an international survey, gathering insight from over 650 students and 100 academics. We’ve analysed the results and a key question they raise for us is: are we prioritising reading literacies as much as we should?

This post highlights some of the more pertinent preliminary findings from our survey analysis. You can find out more about the project and outputs on our project website

There’s a mismatch between student and academic expectations

We asked both academics and students about their perceptions of reading capability. Over 40% of students felt positive about their reading skills, whilst 40% academics had a negative perception of student capability. Qualitative academic feedback highlighted a number of potential causes, including students not prioritising reading on a personal level, to lack of pedagogic support for developing key disciplinary literacies.

Some of the challenges the students cited were:

  • Understanding Higher Level academic language
  • Getting used to different resource categories used in Higher Education (e.g. journals)
  • Lack of support with the transition to Higher Education
  • Lack of support with reading skills, or only providing subject-level support once at the start of study 
  • Disconnect between available reading literacy activities and what was required for specific disciplines

 “Students often struggle with academic reading. In particular, unfamiliar vocabulary or theories can be a big barrier for less confident students, who do not have the skill or confidence to get the gist of a work (or read around unfamiliar material) and then go back and tackle questions or issues with the reading.” Librarian, UK University 

A number of academics highlighted the subject-level support that was offered to students for developing ‘discipline specific literacies’. Support typically focussed on skills like skim reading, rather than deep/critical reading skills, felt to be more fundamental for humanities subjects by academics. The role of the library and individual course-level support was seen as crucial for developing students’ reading skills by academics. Student feedback suggested that additional instruction had to be sought independently due to lack of signposting, embedding, or awareness, if available at all. 

“I believe some limited guidance was offered in the first year module ‘Critical Thinking and Writing’ and that further guidance was offered in the optional PASS sessions, however, reading guidance was very limited and was something that we had to learn for ourselves, although I don’t believe this process was too difficult and helped develop vital research skills.”  Student, Advanced Undergraduate*, University of Lincoln  

Are we helping students create good digital reading habits?

Academics highlighted the critical importance of reading is for their subjects, with over 40% rating it as ‘indispensable’. However, students’ responses indicate a significant mismatch, with over 40% students self-reported spending less than 5 hours a week reading across all of their modules. 

Students were asked about the benefits and challenges of digital reading. The benefits list included ease of access, convenience, collaboration (e.g. collaborative annotation and collaborative note taking). By far the most common challenge was that digital spaces offered opportunities for distraction. There was also a common feeling that reading in digital spaces is less effective for developing knowledge and understanding. Some commented on the importance of accessibility in online reading spaces, such as read aloud and user customisation features. Students also cited challenges around screen fatigue, and finding it challenging to read on screen as effectively as a physical book.

There is clearly still a challenge relating to resource availability. Some responses included comments on resources being unavailable within the library, broken links on reading lists, and lack of skills to find and search through platforms like library discovery systems, evidencing the need for further embedding of information skills deeper into student learning journeys. 

What can we do to better support students?

From our early analysis, it is clear that we need to further prioritise the support for developing students’ reading literacies. There are a number of possible solutions that surfaced:

  • Exploring how we can prioritise and embed course-specific literacies more effectively 
  • Recognising that academic skills develop over time, this should not just be seen as a ‘transitional task’ for the first year only, but a focus throughout a students’ journey through their degree
  • Identifying how we can make academic reading more accessible for students
  • Helping students organise and prioritise their reading 
  • Providing greater coordination and awareness-raising within institutions on the skills development options centrally (e.g. via the library)
  • Better signposting at course level on relevant literacy sessions to students, aligning them with discipline-level practices and literacy-based priorities 
  • Institutions to carry out audits of their support for digital reading skills development and its relationship to established literacy and critical thinking development work

In a perfect world, institutions would more broadly review the key skills support offered and made available to students, for both compulsory and optional modules. In particular, helping students develop effective digital reading skills/practices, how to establish good digital reading habits, and critical thinking/literacies, should be reviewed as capabilities all graduates should leave Higher Education with. 

The Active Online Reading project is ongoing. Details of further findings and activities can be found on the project website.

In May 2022, we will be organising a face-to-face workshop, seeking to collaboratively tackle some of the challenges we’ve identified from this survey analysis. If you’d like to be kept up to date on these workshops, please sign up to our project mailing list.

*Students were segmented into the following categories for this research due to the volume of respondents:

  • Early years undergraduate (Foundation/First year) 
  • Advanced Undergraduate (2nd year onwards on undergraduate programme) 
  • Postgraduate Taught 
  • Postgraduate Research 


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