Episode 6: Samantha Sharman explores student perspectives on reading lists
The Teach Learn Collaborate Repeat podcast is a teaching and learning podcast hosted by Talis. We’ll be talking teaching and tech with experts from across higher education.
In this episode, Matt East from Talis talks to Samantha Sharman, a Classical Studies BA student from the University of Lincoln, about their joint research project exploring student perspectives on reading lists. Find out more about the role reading lists play in the digital space and how these findings can inform best practice for how students engage with academic material.
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Matt: Hi, and welcome to the Teach, Learn, Collaborate, Repeat podcast. I’m Matt East, Education Lead here at Talis. And today, I’m delighted to be discussing student perspectives on reading lists with our undergraduate research student, Sam Sharman.
Sam: Well, thank you. Hello.
Matt: Good stuff. So, I guess really to start this off a bit of context for help for how we got here. Many of you will be aware that we have recently been involved in a QAA research project looking into active online reading to how students engage with reading across their studies in a digital world. Sam was actually one of our student researchers who was part of that project. So, we were talking throughout the project about how we continue doing work together. And, actually, as we were doing the analysis of the QAA project, we were very much focused on the kind of the digital reading aspects of learning in an organised setting. So, from a kind of lecture or seminar perspective, and actually a lot of the feedback that we were seeing throughout that the responses talked about independent study, it talks about how students find the right resources, which led us to looking into actually what’s going on with reading lists, and what role reading lists play in this space. And actually, there’s a gap in knowledge at the moment around the student perspective – there’s lots of smaller, institution focused projects that are going on. But we actually wanted to do something at a national level, particularly following some of the research we’ve been doing at Talis recently around the academic experience of reading this. So you know, we’re discussing opportunities and it actually turned out that the University of Lincoln have an initiative called the Undergraduate Research Opportunity scheme, or URO as they call them. So with massive thanks to the University of Lincoln, we’ve collaborated to get Sam to work with us to lead this project. Sam has been involved from all parts of this project from the research design in the methodology to doing the analysis. The whole works, really, so Sam is absolutely the best person to be talking about all of this. So Sam, let’s get into it, but before we do, tell us a bit about yourself, what you’re studying and all that stuff.
Sam: As you’ve already mentioned, I go to the University of Lincoln and I’m a classical studies student. I’ve been involved in the active online reading project and also did a bit of work on the post pandemic pedagogies project too, that’s about it!
Matt: So you’re getting heavily involved in any opportunities around research, which is great. Can you just give us a bit of a summary around what this project was kind of really about? From your perspective, what are we trying to find out?
Sam: The overall gist of it is essentially trying to understand how students view reading lists with an understanding of what they deemed to be a good reading list or a bad reading list and what made a good experience with it so that we can take that understanding and use it to mold future practice and implement better advice on how to improve a reading list for students.
Matt: So essentially, what’s good, what’s bad, to help them pretty much? We’re also using this to inform product development as well, which is really important. So talk to us a bit about the approach for this research, what did you actually do, what was the research approach you took?
Sam: It was a survey and some focus groups, so it was a mixed method approach. So the survey had a load of respondents, and it was more of an international audience in terms of the survey responses in the focus groups. There were three focus groups, five ish participants in each, I think 11 participants in total., and they were more UK based. So we asked questions about how they viewed their approach to learning, how they’d experienced reading lists in the past. It was a survey in a series of focus groups that happened.
Matt: Just building on what you were touching on around the survey, I think we had something like 200 or 250 responses. But, what was interesting for me was that we covered all subject disciplines. We covered undergraduate, post-graduate research and post-graduate school and foundation actually, which was useful. We had quite a number of respondents from institutions who weren’t using Talis Aspire as a reading list as well. Across I think it was Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and a number of countries in mainland Europe as well. So it was a pretty broad response, right? Can you just talk a bit about some of the kind of areas that we were diving into as well, what kinds of questions we were trying to get answers to?
Sam: There were quite specific ones about a good experience and asking them why their good experience was good. What was it specifically that they appreciated or found beneficial about reading lists that improved their experience? And then, on the flip side, we also asked if they’d had a bad experience and why was it bad? And how, if they could speak to somebody, what they would suggest to improve reading lists in the future. It was very much getting all forms of experiences that they’d have and just asking the specifics about what made it so.
Matt: There were more specific questions in there as well, and they were around things like preference, so what’s your preference for kinds of content types or organisation, but also, we were trying to find out more from students around their engagement and use of rigor. So I think there were some questions about how often do you actually go back and make use of these things?
Sam: The initial background and initial few questions to the survey, were asking them to write their profile, just asking them background questions about how often they’re engaging with their reading lists, whether they would write themselves as like planning in advance or so on and so forth, just so we could see the general approach with the students who are responding to the survey.
Matt: So, I think we should talk about that a little bit more, actually, Sam, because that was a really interesting approach that you outlined. And it was really trying to get an understanding of students learning traits, wasn’t it? I think we included, as you say, are you typically someone who plans in advance, or do you do last minute? We asked questions around digital capability as well from memory, didn’t we? Do you see yourself as digitally literate or digitally illiterate? What were the others?
Sam: There was whether people were independent or collaborative learners. And then just the basic question about whether they enjoyed their course.
Matt: That was it, and spoiler alert, I think 90% of the students who responded to this said that they really enjoyed the course. And, calling that out straightaway is a limitation, I guess, on this project. It could be seen that the responses that we got from students who are typically more engaged, but it’s an indicator, or at least something we can delve into. And actually, I’ll give another spoiler here. We ask these questions around learning traits. And I think that’s potentially a really valuable thing to continue doing. We didn’t actually see any significant variance in the kinds of responses and the findings from those that describe themselves.
It was consistent across the board in pretty much all disciplines. The key takeaways from the research were hammered home by the vast majority, regardless of the learner profile or discipline of study.
Okay. So actually, you start touching on that. Now let’s talk about the findings a little bit more. You’ve led this, you led the analysis here? What were your main takeaways?
Sam: I mean, going through all the survey responses, it was phenomenally clear that signposting of reading lists was essential. Pretty much in all the questions asking about a good reading list experience. When I’m talking about signposting, I mean stating the chapters students should be engaged with or specific pages or perhaps themes and ideas to consider when engaging with the text, just so they’re not going in blind to a book that’s been put on a list.
Matt: You actually mean more around context. So, actually, just giving students instruction about how to use this resource or what’s good.
Sam: It’s not just a series of texts that have been put on a list and students are told to crack at it. They’re given more guidance on where to go within the text and potentially what are things to consider whilst reading. But signposting such as that was always reinforced in the good experiences with a good reading list as the key factor as to why it was such a positive experience. There was a lot of strong signposting, and students knew what to do with the text and they felt a lot more confident going into the readings. Whereas, on the flip side, a lot of the experiences with a “bad reading” list or more negative experiences, lack of signposting came up as a constant reason behind such negative aspects. Because just having a list of texts without any suggestions to where to go with them was confusing. It restricted students abilities to get on with the work and they often felt overwhelmed, especially if it was a quite a big reading list with lots of texts on there or materials. Signposting was reinforced in nearly every single response.
Matt: So, guiding students through how to use the stuff that’s on this list is a big number one, and you touched on length there and this is an interesting conversation we have across the board, with our communities, and everyone. So many people want the ideal number, right? And the ideal number doesn’t exist is what I keep saying, but what did you find out about length? What is a good length of a reading list?
Sam: There were a few responses which suggested, say, three essential texts a week, maybe a push, but generally the gist was a longer reading list is acceptable, as long as it’s signposted well and has good organisation. It’s when a long reading list lacks signposting and organisation that things get confusing and students just don’t feel like it’s an approachable task. And thus, just don’t engage with a list. You can have quite a few materials on there. So long as your sessions up for success with signposting and organisation.
Matt: Some will do by topic, some will do a bit of both. Some don’t have any organisation at all. It’s just as you’ve commented on a list of stuff. What came out from students, what was the preference? And I guess what I’m actually really interested in is, was there any variance based on discipline as well?
Sam: There was a minor amount of variance. I think those leaning more towards the science and technology areas preferred somatic, potentially, simply because when they went back towards their exams, it was easier to go back to a theme and a topic as opposed to going through it chronologically. But, looking at the broader distribution of responses, chronological somatic across disciplines was a pretty even split in terms of student preferences. The main factors to consider was just simply consistency, in terms of making sure that when you have one reading list, it’s the same structure and organisation throughout the entirety of that reading list, as opposed to like, chopping and changing it up. So just one sort of format for a reading list, not across all reading lists, but for specific circumstances. So if it’s more suitable to have a somatic approach, sort of sticking with that somatic approach and making it clearly organised into different sections.
Matt: So, I guess, one question here, what you’ve just said is: it’s not important that every single reading list across the university follows the same structure. But, if you’re learning introduction to dogs, and then that single list should always follow the same pattern, but actually, did it come up in the focus groups in the survey about consistency within a course? For example, if you study history should all the reading lists be structured in the same way?
Sam: Indirectly, there were a lot of students mentioning how different modules they’ve had have had different approaches and it’s a little bit confusing, especially when it’s such varying qualities in terms of reading lists. So, perhaps within disciplines or within the school of history and heritage having a more standardised format that can be used as a base model, and then everything can be worked on top of that might be a suitable suggestion. Just because for students it seems to be easier to have a more regular layout so that they know what they’re dealing with and they know roughly where the information is going to be that they need and they know how to approach it a bit better.
Matt: Well, actually, I’ll ask you the question with your, if you take off your researcher hat and put on your student hat, from your experience what has an inconsistent approach and what challenges have occurred, if any, for you, as a student?
Sam: It’s kind of demotivating when you have a reading list, which starts out being really well organised, and then as the course progresses, it just becomes that dreaded list of resources that you should be engaging with. Or there’s loads of recommended resources whacked on the various weeks towards the end. So it’s not an even distribution, it’s just overwhelming a little bit, because you kind of get used to following one method of organisation and knowing what you need to do. Then you’re you’re a bit lost as to where to go when you’ve got a complete, massive list.
Matt: So, actually, you’ve just touched on something there that I think came out quite strongly in some of the focus groups around being overwhelmed and the negative impact that a poorly organised reading list can have. Please correct me if I’m misquoting here, but I recall from some of the focus groups that students were saying things like, if they’ve worked with an academic or a module that was really, well organised a really, well structured reading this made it really easy for them to find to use and to prioritise work. But, the inverse of that actually had a negative impact on the whole kind of module studied. Because the students felt, as you say, overwhelmed, unclear, and weren’t comfortable prioritising, and that knock on impact I found actually quite profound. I mean, it makes perfect sense. But I’d never really heard of students talk about a bad reading list having such a negative impact on their studies.
Sam: Absolutely spot on with what you’re talking about. I think it’s all well and good expecting students to be dependent learners, because, obviously, that’s the whole thing at university as you have more independence, and you have to manage your own studies. But, at the same time, a lot of students are approaching specific modules for the first time, so they’ve never learned it before. So, if you just give them a reading list expecting them to know how to use it, that’s extremely overwhelming. And, obviously, it’s a natural instinct, if you face a really difficult barrier to walk away if you don’t know how to approach it. Coming to a completely new topic and just being left your own devices with absolutely no guidance, it’s not going to entice students to learn the content or engage with it. It’s just going to overwhelm them and put them off it.
Matt: Yeah, I can completely understand that. I guess the final thing that can we were just sort of touching on was actually around, it’s not signposting, but how this technology is actually used in teaching, right? So, helps students introduced to the way that reading lists are organised and structured the way that they should be encouraged to engage with them that was something that came up as well.
Sam: Quite a few of the responses, I know from institutions who use Talis, a lot of the responses from students, which were asking for recommendations and recommendations on what to do to the platform to make it more student friendly. They were suggesting things that were already part of the reading list platforms. So a few hadn’t had the best education on how to use them, which is another problem in itself because if you’re not showing students how to use the tools then it’s just going to end in a bit of a disaster.
Matt: Yeah, completely agree. So, to summarise, I think there’s five key takeaways really: their organisation, signposting, and that those kind of include both the annotation of items to explain what to do with them. So that’s everything from saying if something actually is essential, or if it’s recommended, or if it’s supplementary, but also, look out for X in chapter two, or just region two, that kind of stuff around length. It sounds like length isn’t necessarily a factor, as long as the organisation and the structure is right there.
Sam: Also, as long as it’s an achievable amount as well. You can’t expect students to read twenty articles for just one module when they’ve got four other modules they’re taking.
Matt: For one week as well. So actually, let’s pull out the key findings as well. So, setting realistic reading requirements. Alliteration is not necessarily but okay, so that’s an important one. Onboarding as well. Now that could be just introducing students to the reading list, how to use one, what to do. That could be just part of the first module. But, as long as there’s that, that’s pretty important. Okay. Those are kind of real, top level findings. There was one point that really jumped out to me that was around student preference and student choice. We asked a question about what’s important to them regarding content on the list. And from looking at the results that you pulled together, there was a lot of stuff about using a variety of resource types. Students don’t just want books, and they don’t just want journals. We gave students a choice around ranking order, effectively on a load of preset examples. There was something in there that came out that was really highly rated by students. I think it was the second most popular choice really, around having a variety of voices represented on the reading list as well. How do you interpret that?
Sam: I think the gist that I got from it, because it came up in the focus groups as well, which was great to expand on the survey results. It’s not just having one sort of school of thought or one dominant opinion in your readings. It’s reading one side, and then another, and just getting a weight of all the arguments that might potentially be relevant to a topic. But, there was also the aspect of staff putting their own resources on reading lists that came from the focus groups. It was sort of, I’m trying to think of a way towards this the most diplomatically. It was frowned upon by the students because they felt like they were just only getting the lecturer’s point of view. A lot of the students felt like it was just the staff putting their books on there so they got bought, as opposed to giving them a genuine survey and reflection of the arguments and opinions relevant to the course.
Matt: Sure, it’s a difficult point to bring up so I understand. I think it’s particularly important if it’s the book, you know, or the only resources on the list are the only resources use weekly. You know, that’s a problem anyway, right? We’re teaching our students to be critical appraisers of content and you can’t really be overly critical, or you can’t see two sides of the story from one content. So, what I’m taking home from that is, it’s not just about where it comes, it comes back to what we were saying earlier around having a variety of voices, but also utilising resources that bring in counter arguments and that type of thing. I’ve showed both sides of the story. That obviously works really nicely in humanities and social sciences. I’m thinking history, for example, you’re gonna have people writing from two sides of an argument, on many occasions, aren’t you? So, there’s this really, really useful insight there, I think, and some very manageable tips. But actually, based on what you’ve learned from this project, if you were going to give recommendations to either libraries or to academics directly, what would they be?
Sam: It would have to be organisation and signposting. They make or break a reading list. Realistically, if you don’t do it, well, you’re just risking students not engaging with your list because it’s hard to navigate, or it’s hard to actually understand what they need to do.
Matt: But, as we heard from the findings, it’s not just about not engaging with the list, it’s not engaging with the module.
Sam: There’s a knock on effect for the wider engagement with the university and the higher education levels overall.
Matt: What about for students, if we’re gonna give students any kind of advice or recommendations, what would that be?
Sam: From the perspective of a fellow student, don’t be too scared to email staff about reading lists. If you think it’s not been well organised, then contact them about it, because chances are the staff are probably under the assumption that most students don’t do the reading anyway. So why do I need to have a good reading list? If you take a proactive stance then things can change quite quickly and for the better.
Matt: Sam, you’ve just touched on something there that we can definitely delve into a little bit more. Students don’t do the reading in this kind of opinion. Students don’t do the reading. Is there anything that came out from your research that countered that belief?
Sam: Well, I think the thing which starkly contrast that for me was reading the results from the ranking bit. The vast majority of students loved it when a reading list had further or recommended reading. So, they weren’t just doing the essential reading, they wanted to be able to go further and expand. Next, which for me, if a student doesn’t do the reading, they’re not not going to want that on a reading list. And I think something like 80% of students rank that really highly in terms of priorities for what to include on a reading list. So, the 200+ participants, being able to expand on essential reading and read around the topic was ranked quite highly as a priority for them. So, having that contrast of quite clearly the notion that students don’t do the reading, because if they didn’t do the reading, they wouldn’t want to go the extra mile.
Matt: Sure. Again, big disclaimer, we think we’re probably talking to students who are more of the highly engaged. But yes, your point is valid. So I mean, based on all that, what should we, like, me or you or Talis or colleagues listening to this podcast now, what are the points of research that we should be focusing on next to find out the next bit about this this area of work?
Sam: I think it would be really interesting to go into a more discipline specific approach. So we were quite broad in who we spoke to for serving the focus groups, because we just wanted to get a wide cross-section and see if there were any general trends and student opinions. But, perhaps approaching it for a subject specific demographic might be interesting, because then we can get an understanding of student needs in certain disciplines, because there was an element in the focus groups, and a little bit in the server responses that science and technology students have different needs for reading lists than the humanities students. Exploring that more might be really beneficial. We can recommend specific subject advice to really improve the standard for all students, but they’re even less as opposed to just like, giving the best advice we can at the time.
Matt: And, is that something you feel should be done at an institution level or nationally?
Sam: I think it’d be interesting to get nationally, to be honest.
Matt: Cool. Thanks for a really comprehensive overview on what is a really great piece of research that you’ve led there. Thank you again. For those of you who have made it to the end of this podcast, we will be writing up the findings from this project, and sharing those throughout the community. They will also go onto our TLCR podcast reading list. So, if you haven’t seen that yet, go to talis.com/tlcrpodcast. We have a reading list that’s for the whole podcast every week. Every section is related to one of the podcasts that we have run, they are annotated, it is organised. Hopefully you find that useful. We will also be running a Talis Aspire community webinar where Sam will be playing back the findings and that will also be shared on the reading list. So, if you haven’t done already, like and subscribe, thank you very much and we’ll see you at the next one.