What is a reading list for?… Revisited

Lecturers can spend hours and hours putting them together; students sometimes spend just as long puzzling over them trying to work out where to start, which bits are essential, or how to find the books, journal articles and other resources on them; and the Library relies on them to help us prioritise our permanently-stretched budgets – but what is a reading list actually for?..

Front cover of the report: What is a reading list for? A guide for module leaders on aligning reading with learning outcomes

Research both at Oxford Brookes (Croft, 2020) and in other universities (Brewerton 2014, Siddall & Rose 2014, Vickers et al 2016) demonstrates that there is a big mismatch between students’ versus lecturers’ expectations of how students use and understand reading lists – and an even bigger mismatch between how much reading lecturers expect, and how much students actually do. (And this applies to using other resources that are put on reading lists as well – watching videos, listening to audio, etc…)

According to the research, one of the issues is that just putting a lot of references on a reading list doesn’t really help students understand why they should be reading, which reading they should be prioritising, how they should be reading, or what they should be aiming to get out of their reading.

Fortunately, here at Oxford Brookes the Library provides access to online reading list software, Talis Aspire, which gives lecturers lots of handy tools to make their reading lists more helpful to students – but how?

Dan Croft, from Oxford Brookes Library, did a research project on this a few years ago which came up with What is a reading list for? – a guide to four key levels through which lecturers can redesign reading lists so they fit better with how modules are taught (they’re “constructively aligned” in the education jargon) and so help students understand when, what, how and why to read.

Those four levels, from the simplest to the most complex, are:

  • Organise (the reading list so it matches the themes or weeks of the module)
  • Annotate (each item on the reading list so students understand why readings are there, and which are essential, recommended or optional)
  • Engage (the students by building reading-related activities into the module and the assessments), and
  • Flip (the entire module so that the reading list is used to deliver content information before the taught sessions, while contact time is used for discussion of that content).

What is a reading list for? has received a lot of positive feedback from the sector, and recently Talis, the company behind the Aspire reading list software, wanted to spread the good news a bit wider by featuring it in their educational podcast series, Teach Learn Collaborate Repeat. Dan Croft, the guide’s author, and Hazel Rothera, leader of the Academic Liaison team for Humanities and Social Sciences in the Library, talked to Matt East from Talis about the project.

You can watch or listen to the whole conversation or jump straight to key sections:

  • 1:04 Background to the project 
  • 2:25 how the research was done
  • 5:16 the research findings
  • 7:20 the guide and its four levels 
  • 11:16 the guide’s implementation in the School of Education
  • 14:48 the guide’s implementation more widely at Oxford Brookes 
  • 19:45 increased student engagement
  • 21:57 what might happen next 
  • 29:04 … what a reading list is for.

You can also read a transcript of the conversation and explore further materials related to this podcast episode.

— Hazel Rothera, Academic Development Team Leader & Academic Liaison Librarian, Education


Brewerton, G (2014) ‘Implications of Student and Lecturer Qualitative Views on Reading Lists: A Case Study at Loughborough University, UK’, New Review of Academic Librarianship, 20(1), pp 78-90

Croft, D (2020) ‘Embedding constructive alignment of reading lists in course design’, Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 52(1), pp 67-74

Siddall, G & Rose, H (2014) ‘Reading lists – time for a reality check? An investigation into the use of reading lists as a pedagogical tool to support the development of information skills amongst Foundation Degree students’, Library and Information Research 38(118), pp 52-73Vickers, R, et al (2016) ‘Digital Magpies’: The academic reading habits of undergraduate students. Salford: University of Salford. Available at: http://usir.salford.ac.uk/id/eprint/42136/ (Accessed: 1st February 2021)

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