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How to compile an effective reading list

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Creating an effective reading list

The following are some recommendations which will help make the list more effective in terms of developing students' learning.

1. Remember that the list provides an outline, a guide, to the particular subject in question

The function of the reading list is to cover the main dimensions of the subject, and help students familiarize themselves with the most important sources.

What those sources are will vary from subject to subject. Some subjects will have a particular textbook which dominates the area; others will have several, requiring choice, and a judgement as to whether it is really necessary to have the most recent edition (for example, could the new information be obtained from articles in the library's database, thus saving money on purchase of a new edition?).

Other subjects will need to refer to primary texts – for example, a twentieth century European literature course will draw on a selection of novels. Newer areas – such as media studies, or tourism and hospitality – may not have textbooks and the reading list is likely to comprise articles and websites.

Whatever the case, your own preferences will dictate the list to a certain extent – which is fine, as you are passing on your knowledge to the student. If you are teaching a familiar subject, you will already have your favourite resources. However, you will still want to get inspection copies of new textbooks, new editions, etc., as well as checking what else has been written.

If you are teaching a topic with which you are not familiar, and don't know the main authors and topics, then try keyword rather than author searches.

2. Provide added value by annotation, alternatives and prioritization

The essential task of the reading list is to give a course overview. However, in the words of one learning technologist, the list is

" ... often enriched with commentary, notes and explanations that give [it] a pedagogical value, and make it an important learning resource in its own right" (Secker, 2005).

Explain why you find a particular resource valuable – what it covers, why you have included it, and what the student will gain from looking at it.

It is also helpful to include a variety of texts, to allow for different abilities.

Prioritize: divide the list into essential reading, and further reading. This will help students manage their time, and their money, if you are suggesting that they purchase certain items.

3. Include articles as well as books

Include a range of material: articles as well as books, especially for third year and master's students. These should include a balance of literature reviews, case studies, etc., and should be current, although in some cases, you may wish to include older articles because they are the source of a particular concept.

Case studies are particularly important: they can illustrate a concept, and people tend to learn better from application than from the abstract.

The difference between textbooks and papers is that the latter are seldom written with teaching purposes in mind, while you can expect a textbook to have a clear pedagogical structure and writing style.

Check that the paper is well written, can be understood on a first read and does not have too much difficult statistical information, has a clear methodology, sound conclusions and relevant arguments.

4. Include non-print, non-text-based media

Reading lists have moved from print to electronic, in terms both of the list and the resources. The list is often available online, in the virtual learning environment (VLE), and contains electronic as well as print resources.

This reflects a trend in education towards greater interactivity, as seen for example in the growth of blended learning, where face-to-face study is complemented by online research.

Electronic resources have the practical advantage that they can easily be accessed from the library database or direct from the Web. Some see this as spoon feeding, and have criticized the way that the Web encourages students to take their information in bite-size chunks, and rely on summaries, rather than read whole volumes.

However there is virtually no subject where important information does not exist on the Web, and inclusion of websites should be subject to many of the criteria for print resources – is it up to date, authoritative, well structured, easy to read etc.?

Including electronic resources which have passed your own quality criteria will help in the student's training in information literacy, and with appropriate guidance they should become more, not less, critical, and develop research skills.

You may also wish to include other media such as videos, for example from YouTube.

5. See your role as acting as an information guide

Reading lists are fundamental in the development of students' information literacy skills. A good reading list should act as scaffolding for learning, and a way of avoiding information overload.

"Tools such as reading and resource lists can be regarded as essential signposts to guide the user", maintains Secker (2005), writing about a project to integrate digital libraries and VLEs focusing on the requirements of the online reading system.

The amount of scaffolding required will diminish as the student progresses in their academic career. Most direction is needed in the first year, whereas by their third year they should be capable of some independent searching and reading, as the students move from dependency to autonomy, and are able to approach information with increasing discernment (see Martin and Stokes, 2006).

At the same time, with the wealth of information available to students both online and in print, some sort of guided reading advice is more important than ever.

Morgan (2007) argues that giving students a hand in finding basic resources frees up their time for independent searching and reading, and quotes a study of an online reading project at Sheffield University which saw improvement in students' work and an increase in citations.

6. Think carefully about presentation

The format of the reading list should be easy to read and follow; there should be one main list, with electronic and print media integrated. Avoid the temptation to present a separate list of URLs.

The reading list can be uploaded to the course VLE, along with the rest of the module information. However a growing trend is for the list to be presented in such a fashion that it be integrated with the library catalogue, so that the catalogue entry appears when the student clicks on that item. In some cases (as with an electronic article, or a URL), it may be possible to access the item itself.

7. Consult existing solutions for providing reading lists in academic setting

There are a variety of tools for creating reading lists available including:

Commercial and open source software

Commercial software which facilitates management of reading lists includes TalisList, which has been developed by Talis, a company specializing in the management of library resources (see http://www.talis.com/list/).

Open source solutions include the Loughborough Online Reading List System or LORLS, see Brewerton and Knight (2003).

The main principle of such tools is that reading lists are available as online collections comprising various types of resource such as books, journals, websites and video clips. Items are linked either directly to the library catalogue, or in the case of an electronic resource, to the resource in question. The basic principle is to have the resource actually available as few clicks as possible from the student.

8. Consider access and engage with your librarian

As described at the outset, if one resource is prescribed there is often a scrum at the library resulting in only a few people being able to get hold of copies.

A good way around this problem is to have a strategy which considers access as well as content (Martin and Stokes, 2006).

Possibilities include maximizing use of short loan, recommending purchase of a particular item, linking to electronic versions of articles in the library's databases, or printed photocopy packs.

The latter option obviously means that you will need copyright permission. In the UK, the Copyright Licensing Agency offers licences to educational institutions: see http://www.cla.co.uk/licences/licences_available/he/.

Investing time on the creation of a reading list is futile if it doesn't actually bear any relation to library holdings. The librarian should be a critical player in the development of reading lists, which should ideally be developed by the academic working closely with the subject librarian.

The latter can help not only by pointing out available resources, but also in uploading to software tools as mentioned above. It's a partnership that can help ensure that students are well informed, use library resources more, are less reliant on Google, and learn to develop good research skills.