How to... Help digestion in your reading diet

January 5, 2001

Moira Peelo argues that giving speed-reading tips can spoil the study menu

As life goes by, I wish I had not wasted so much time reading. I wish I had known in advance which six books would have been worth the effort. Of course, people tell me, you needed to read the rest to recognise the six. But so many others?

It is a part of my job to pass on what I know about reading to students. As a study consultant, there is often an expectation that I will teach students to read more quickly. This is a bit like being employed by a luxury restaurant to teach diners to stuff more food into themselves in less time.

Discernment becomes a matter of which tastes can still be distinguished after a session of speedy bingeing.

There are tips students can use to make reading more effective and enjoyable. Some speed up reading, but usually as a side-effect and rarely as the primary aim. These include:

* Overviews - using introductory paragraphs and headings to construct a simple summary of a chosen passage

  • Listing key concepts, facts and vocabulary
  • Using sticky markers to pinpoint interesting passages and quotations
  • Learning how to make notes after reading
  • Describing the author's main message and the type of data and evidence used
  • Listing important steps in the argument and important experiments, seminal studies or data sets
  • Exploring one's own response - convinced? interested? bored?

So what is my problem? Helping students to dissect, fillet, gut, baste, grill and lightly poach a text is clearly of help to many. My discomfort is that it promotes a view of reading as a kind of consumption: trawling through large quantities of text, picking out morsels to swallow speedily before moving on rapidly to the next helping of juicy titbits. The quantities alone, piled up at each sitting, give me a sense of indigestion.

No matter how efficiently and effectively students learn to read, is this really education?

The study-skills approach has been liberating for many students. At their best, study skills foster a sense of control and encourage students to develop the ability to tackle academic challenges. Study techniques are useful in helping knock the idea that the world is divided into two groups: those who are clever enough to get a degree and those who are not.

Learning support people, however, often struggle to avoid using the expression "study skills" because it implies a deficit theory of learning: that someone does not know how to do something effectively because they have not been told how to do it.

There is an emphasis on "inoculation" - telling people about specific study techniques in advance of a course - an overly mechanical approach that naively ignores the variety of content in courses and the different ways people learn.

Embedded in every government initiative on higher education are confident assumptions about what learning is and what it should be. We are in a period typified by monitoring, guidelines and agreement on what is best practice. All education activities must be ranked against others as our main way of understanding their worth.

It is left to agencies that implement government policy to come up with detailed criteria to achieve comparisons. Benchmarks and performance indicators need to be seen as transparent and measurable, based on clear and comparable criteria.

In the consumption model of learning the old is constantly replaced by the new, no matter how good or bad. This reinforces the notion that speedy coverage of more and more material is somehow a good thing. So while I know various reading strategies can be revolutionary and empowering for students, I also know learning support work can, in the wrong light, be seen as a conservative activity.

This work can slide into maintaining the political status quo, endorsing the idea that learning can be reduced to a series of tricks and performances. Now that "learning to learn" is recognised as a legitimate curriculum design matter, it would be good to see more courses where reading is central to the curriculum. Rather than being based on a long reading list, the curriculum could focus on a few older classics - oddities within the subject - to be read slowly and digested fully. Writing would be a means of entering into dialogue with those texts.

The drive for efficient and effective reading is similar to the drive to produce efficient and effective universities. It produces many desirable and tidy habits. But it misses ideas not dressed in the proper way, overlooks books with dingy covers, pushes aside ideas not instantly useful.

Efficiency is good, but so is offering a full menu.

Moira Peelo is a study consultant at the Higher Education Development Centre, Lonsdale College, University of Lancaster.

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