Is There a Place for Reading Lists in Today’s Curriculum?

Given the difficulty most faculty have getting students to read for courses, even assigned reading in required textbooks, reading lists may not be used as extensively now as they were 20 years ago. Nonetheless, they still figure prominently in the delivery of independent studies, special topics courses, and senior and graduate seminars.

One recently discovered article from a British journal describes an interview project in which tutors (faculty members) and students were interviewed about experiences with reading lists. Courses are not designed and delivered in North America as they are in the British educational system, so some of the findings and issues are not the same, but reading the article raised a number of questions that are relevant to faculty in North America who use reading lists.

How are reading lists constructed? Among those interviewed, most faculty reported that they create reading lists out of their own favorite sources—readings that were especially helpful in their initial explorations of a topic. The article expresses some legitimate concerns over the currency of reading lists and whether faculty regularly update them to reflect emerging ideas, theories, and research results.

What role do they play in the learning process? The faculty interviewed saw reading lists as guides, helpful to students as they began exploration of an unfamiliar subject area. Rather than having to find their own way through a forest of potential sources, the reading list allows students to follow a path through unfamiliar territory. Faculty also hoped their reading lists served motivational purposes—that students would discover the inherent intrigue of the area and be inspired to read further on their own.

How do students use reading lists? There was a good deal of divergence between faculty perceptions of the role of reading lists and the practices students reported in relation to them. Uniformly, students reported looking at the “main” or “most important” texts on the lists. Some instructors indicate those priorities by listing materials in categories. Others do so by mentioning sources in class, either using material from them or making statements about their importance. Students reported reading less as opposed to more from their course reading lists, and many had little interest in discussing what they read with the instructor or in class. That’s something that most faculty will not find surprising.

How might students be motivated to explore readings beyond those “required” for the course? This has become such a conundrum for faculty. If reading is not required, there is virtually no chance that students will read at all. But as soon as reading material is required, students tackle it because they have to, and that definitely affects their attitudes toward the material. The ideal is for students to discover for themselves how much can be learned from reading. Perhaps instructors can help to make that happen by raising questions (interesting, relevant ones) in class that are answered in the reading. It might also help if instructors share with students the role of a particular reading in their own intellectual development.

How should reading lists be incorporated into a course? The question here relates to whether some discussion of readings should occur and how students might participate in such an exchange. Should they be able to answer or ask questions about the readings? Should they be asked to write as a means of preparing for discussion? Should they do follow-up reading and writing after a discussion?

Many faculty fondly remember reading lists from their favorite courses. They were the way in to new, unexplored, and extremely interesting areas. Most faculty can still name individual readings that captured their imagination, changed the way they thought, or opened whole new vistas of understanding. The readings that accomplished these results haven’t changed (maybe students have), but the power of a set of reading materials is still there. The questions, more challenging now than they once were, are how faculty can get students connected with these powerful intellectual stimuli and how reading experiences in a course can be used to develop a lifelong commitment to reading.

Reference: Stokes, P. and Martin, L. (2008). Reading lists: A study of tutor and student perceptions, expectations and realities. Studies in Higher Education, 33 (2), 113-125.

Excerpted from The Use of Reading Lists, February 2009, The Teaching Professor.