Students have reacted to claims from university professors that they struggle to read books from cover to cover by admitting it is true – but insisting it’s because universities don’t give them enough time to finish them.
University academics caused a furore this week by claiming many students found the thought of reading books all the way to the end “daunting”, due to shorter attention spans and an inability to focus on complex philosophies.
Jenny Pickerill, a professor in environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, told Times Higher Education magazine: “Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard”.
“I recently had a student suggest an alternative book for a module I am teaching which they found easier to engage with. It was a good book, but it was not really academic enough and I am still unsure if that matters or whether I should be recommending more readable books. There is currently a disjuncture between the types of reading we want students to engage with and the types students feel able or willing to do.”
Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at Leicester University, weighed in saying “graduates and postgraduate students seem mainly not to be avid readers”. Recommending whole books would overwhelm them, she added, and she tended not to do so.
Students have been quick to reject the claims, insisting the reason they struggle to read is because they don’t have enough time.
Minesh Parekh, Education Officer at University of Sheffield Students’ Union said: “It’s just not true that students find reading whole books too challenging. The reason some students don’t read whole books isn’t because they struggle to, but because of problems with how we’re assessed, and the over-emphasis universities place on assessment.”
“This over-emphasis on assessment—as opposed to genuine learning—means that when writing an essay or preparing for exams it makes more sense to read a journal article or a chapter of a book because we’re not given the time or thinking space.”
Mr Parekh pointed out that the way in which undergraduates are assessed is according to methods set by the very same professors who criticise their abilities.
Chantelle Francis, Academic and Inclusions Officer for the Sheffield University English Society, said: “I would argue that it is the time constraints that students struggle with as opposed to the actual material in most cases. I’m sure that if students had longer to read a text, they’d likely understand it better, because they’ve had more time to engage with it and appreciate it. But to suggest that students’ attention spans are low or that we are of insufficient ability is unfair.”
Professor Brewis said that she would like her students to read more because “it would enable them to make more considered arguments in their coursework or examinations, and to demonstrate to us as assessors tha they have considered the debates and controversies the literature and arrived at reasoned conclusion on that basis.”
An undergraduate course such as English Literature – arguably a subject which requires intensive reading – has a typical reading list of between 20 and 30 books per term according to the University of Sheffield English Department.
The majority of students who spoke to The Independent admitted that they would rarely finish a course book within deadlines required.
“I would say that it is simply a case of needing to prioritise,” said Ms Francis, “do you finish a book that you probably won’t write your essay on, or do you complete the seminar work that’s due in for the next day? I know what I’d rather choose.”
At the beginning of the last academic year it was reported that record numbers of students were seeking help for stress and anxiety related issues.
Ruth Caleb, chair of Universities UK’s mental well-being working group said that counselling services are facing an annual rise in demand of around 10 per cent on previous years, suggesting that undergraduates are feeling increasing amounts of pressure to succeed.
“I think most students do thoroughly enjoy the challenge of reading,” said Ms Francis. “I remember having to read Derrida and thinking I’d lost the plot – but these materials are supposed to be engaging and difficult.”
“It’s fine for students to not understand something first-time – that’s what our professors are there for. We are not expected to have all the answers.”
Lizzy Kelly, a history student at Sheffield added: “Students might be more inclined to read what academics want them to if our curricula weren’t overwhelmingly white, male and indicative of a society and structures we fundamentally disagree with because they don’t work for us.”