Reading? It’s still critical

Patrice_Jones_US_54-XL (1)

Image by Patrice Jones

In many introductory business courses, we consistently hear lecturers lament that students come to class having not read the book or completed the assignment. Reading remains a core and essential foundational skill, and with the ubiquity of information today, it could be argued that "critical reading" is more important than ever. From “critical reading” stem the core academic skills of “critical thinking” and “critical writing”.

Students not reading the core course content is just one of the many challenges facing UK business schools. They’re also dealing with increased student pressure to provide regular personalised feedback, being asked to evidence effective use of contact and non-contact time, all whilst worrying about improving results and decreasing drop-out rates.

There are plenty of approaches to address these issues being implemented across institutions, from introducing flipped learning and using classroom response systems to setting assessments via the VLE and devising tutor or peer-to-peer support structures. However, students understanding the core concepts of a course is still fundamental to the success of all these strategies. At Pearson, we’ve been looking at ways to motivate students to engage in the regular and effective study of core course content.

The first thing we learned is that students expect and respond well to a mix of media: from text-based reading materials and interactive exercises to video segments and social features. The second thing we reflected upon was the fact that not all students are intrinsically motivated to learn, many of them need an incentive. In universities, lecturers often provide a small percentage of course marks for attendance, participation or for completion of homework. This has the two-fold benefit of encouraging the majority of their students to consolidate learning throughout the course, rather than leaving it all until the revision period, and also allowing the lecturer to identify students who are particularly disengaged or struggling.

The flipped learning method (Bergmann & Sams, 2012), of assigning material prior to face-to-face sessions allows lecturers to facilitate more interactive and/or higher order learning with students and relies on students being motivated to study the pre-lecture preparation materials. This pre-lecture content is best designed in a way which requires learners to actively engage rather than passively consume, and research has shown that a variety of media, not just video versions of lectures, can be used to achieve this (Raine & Gratton, 2016). The value of active pauses between chunks of content lies in the opportunity for learners to stop and process information using encoding and retrieval processes in the brain (Cheon, Crooks, & Chung, 2014), which in turn should lead to your students being able to apply what they have remembered in face-to-face sessions.

Tied to this, is the learning design principal that students should read a little, do a little to reinforce their understanding and improve retrieval as they go (McDaniel, Anderson, Derbish & Morrisette, 2007; Wiliam 2007). Assigning students regular but short quizzes via an online method such as a VLE, even if they’re only 4 or 5 questions long, can be useful for students to check their understanding of key concepts and help them remember for longer. As students read and learn the key concepts of a course, the aim is to get them to start critically reading; to seek out other sources with alternative opinions, and to begin to form their own opinions. Effective learning content can be designed to guide students to reflect, analyse and evaluate as they read, so that they can being to develop and apply these skills.

We know that it’s often tutor-led seminars that are most effective in supporting students to further develop their critical thinking and academic writing skills. It is, quite simply, practice that builds students’ confidence in these areas. Hence regularly assigning, marking and providing feedback on their writing would be great, but it’s just not practically possible. One alternative solution is to provide an arena in which students provide peer-to-peer support to each other in developing sound academic opinions. By using an online forum space to do this, you can monitor, contribute and provide scaffolding.

Pearson is conducting research with Swansea University and University of Sheffield to understand the impact of providing core learning content in new ways, motivating and engaging students to read critically, think critically and write critically. We look forward to sharing the results of these pilots in a future update.

To find out more about our latest work in developing tools based on solid learning design principles, visit or contact


Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2012). Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. International Society for Technology in Education

Cheon, J., Crooks, S. & Chung, S. (2014). Does segmenting principle counteract modality principle in instructional animation? British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(1), 56–64.

McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H. & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, (4-5), 494–513. doi: 10.1080/09541440701326154.

Raine, D. & Gratton, S. (2016) The Flipped Classroom: A Teaching Enhancement Fund Report

Wiliam, D. & Thompson, M. (2007). Integrating Assessment with Instruction: What Will It Take to Make It Work? In The Future of Assessment: Shaping Teaching and Learning, edited by Carol A. Dwyer. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.