What is a reading list for?

Teachers create reading lists to tell students which are the best books and then students read the books on the list and learn about their subject. That is what reading lists are for – it’s all very simple really!

What is a reading list for?

Or is it? To properly address this question we first need to ask some more fundamental questions, starting with: what is learning?

One school of learning theorists – the constructivists – say that ‘learning’ is when a person uses their experiences to build their own mental model of the world (and it is ‘learning’ whether or not their mental model accurately reflects the world and/or aligns with other people’s mental models). Building on this theory (pun intended), constructivist educational scholars have asked how teachers can put in place the conditions so that learning (in the setting of formal education) is more likely to happen and that the mental model that the student is building is the desired one.

John Biggs and Catherine Tang invented a particular strain of constructivism called Constructive Alignment. This is the idea that all learning activities should be designed to provide the student with a series of active experiences through which they achieve a set of predetermined learning outcomes. As you can probably tell, Biggs and Tang are strongly in favour of structure and planning!

For example, Biggs and Tang take issue with the traditional lecture because we know what the teacher is doing (lecturing) but what the student is doing (listening) is usually passive and unstructured. In other words students sat in the lecture might be learning something useful but the design of the traditional lecture could – and should – be improved to make it more likely (read more in their book Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student doesavailable in print and online from Oxford Brookes Library).

We can apply this same criticism to reading lists: we know what teachers are doing (creating the list) but what do students actually do with it? We might say that they are ‘reading’, but (similarly to ‘listening’ in a lecture) this is passive and unstructured. The result is a disconnect: teachers expect students to read deeply and explore beyond the reading list but in reality students choose a minimum number of texts only from the reading list and read primarily for assessment purposes (for more on the research literature on reading lists see my journal article ‘Embedding constructive alignment of reading lists in course design’).

So how can the reading list – following Biggs and Tang – be designed so that students are active and will achieve a predetermined set of learning outcomes? The simple answer is by knowing what we want students to achieve from the reading, explicitly telling students what we want them to gain from the reading, relating the reading to the other aspects of teaching (e.g. face-to-face sessions and assessment), and by including activities that will prompt students to engage with and apply the information in the texts.  

You can read about this in much more detail in What is a reading list for? A guide for module leaders on aligning reading with learning outcomes. This guide – produced by an Oxford Brookes Library research project – describes four levels of practice that teachers can employ to make the reading list and ‘reading’ (in the broader sense of independent study) an integral and invaluable part of teaching. The practice in the guide also provides a constructivist answer to our starting question…

So, what is a reading list for? It is for working in combination with all the other aspects of teaching to provide an active learning experience through which students build the mental model of the subject intended by their teacher.

— Dan Croft, Scholarly Communications and Research Team Leader

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