Sort the wheat the chaff

November 4, 2005

Don't assume that freshers have mastered the art of reading when they arrive at your door, says Harriet Swain. Many will still not know how to distinguish useful material from 'pretentious gibberish'

It's hard to believe that students arrive at university still needing help with reading. The trouble is, they expect a load of tricks and short cuts to avoid ploughing through every word on a reading list.

Fair enough. Don't you use such tricks all the time yourself? Gavin Fairbairrn, co-author of Reading at University: A Guide for Students , says you need to teach students to discriminate between texts that are worthwhile and not worthwhile. "Let them in on one of the best-kept academic secrets - that a huge proportion of the published output of academics is pretentious gibberish," he says.

Mary Pillai, principal lecturer in the student advisory service at De Montfort University, says you mustn't make students feel stupid about asking for help with reading because it is already hard for them to admit it. "You have to make it OK for them to acknowledge that their reading strategies might not be adequate for higher education," she says. At De Montfort, all new undergraduates learn structured approaches to reading as part of their induction week. These include using colour coding to highlight passages relating to different topics, and flow charts, mind maps and grids to organise their thinking and make them feel more in control.

Pillai says it is important to teach these techniques early so that students can build on them and start to experiment.

"Often it is the keenest students who get themselves into stressful situations with reading," she says. "By providing these simple, structured approaches you are giving students permission to use what seem like tricks that seasoned academics use all the time." She says you have to give students confidence and reduce the amount of ineffective reading they do so that they have more time to read in detail what is really necessary. "It is about seeing reading as part of the whole process of completing an assignment," she says.

Mike Prosser, director of research and evaluation at the Higher Education Academy, has researched student approaches to learning. He says most students tend to summarise every bit of their reading and fit these bits together for an essay. The best marks, however, go to those who take a more holistic approach, reading through a book or an article with the essay topic in mind, then going back for the details.

He advises talking to students in their first tutorials about how to read for an essay and returning to the subject once the essay is written. One suggestion, he says, is to get them to practise by summarising a couple of readings for an essay topic and then comparing their summaries.

Working with students within their discipline is important, he says, because useful techniques will vary from subject to subject.

Moira Peelo, co-ordinator of the Student Learning Development Centre at Lancaster University, says not all techniques will work for everyone and individuals will have to sort out which are most helpful. Make sure students think about the text before they start to read it, she advises.

They should consider whether it is a key text and, if so, why, who is the author and why is he or she important.

Cathia Jenainati, co-ordinator of the academic writing programme at Warwick University, says you need to get students to think about the conclusion of a piece of writing and the reasons for that conclusion. What words or phrases are ambiguous? What assumptions does the conclusion make and are there any failures in the reasoning? Is the evidence based on personal experience or on research? Is other significant information omitted and are other reasonable conclusions possible?

Fairbairrn suggests starting students with very short texts and then building up to longer passages. After they have done the reading, spend the first ten minutes of the next tutorial going over it with them, he says.

Help them to track the argument, decide what is being said and relate the ideas in the passage to other things they have read. He uses an exercise in which students locate journal articles that impinge on a topic and write four sentences about each: the first summing up the theme or themes of the article, the second outlining one point made, the third offering support or challenging one aspect of the article, and the last making a direct citation to it as if in an essay.

Fairbairrn says you need to encourage students to use contents lists and indexes, abstracts and footnotes as a way of locating interesting ideas and deciding how best to use them. However, he warns that encouraging them to use too many citations in their own essays can have a negative effect on their reading.

"Let them know that you will ignore any citation that does not help to build the text and demonstrate how their work relates to that of others,"

he says. Whenever students cite a source they should be encouraged to include the author's name in the text and ensure that they tell something about what the author believes, argues, demonstrates or has done, rather than just making a statement and including a reference in brackets, he says.

He also stresses how important it is to teach students how to read their own work in a critical way. He warns: "There is a great temptation, once we have given birth to an idea, example or argument, or to a beautifully crafted phrase or sentence perhaps, to wallow in the glory of having done so."

Further information

Reading at University: A Guide for Students , by Gavin and Susan Fairbairrn, Open University Press, 2001

Reading, Writing and Reasoning , by Gavin Fairbairrn and Christopher Winch, Open University Press,1996

Helping students with Study Problems , by Moira Peelo, Open University Press, 1994.

Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking by Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley, Prentice Hall, 2004


Acknowledge that reading techniques exist and need to be taught

Talk to students about effective reading early in their university careers

Stress the value of reading critically rather than reading quantities

Make sure reading is done with a purpose in mind

Admit that some things are unreadable

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