The format and quality and of reading lists differs greatly. Not just between universities, but between schools, courses, and even individual academic staff. The best examples tend to be very structured, with the core texts and recommended reading for each topic clearly laid out, and the majority of seminar readings provided via Blackboard as digitised extracts. Reading lists at the opposite end of the scale simply provide a long list of texts – they don’t identify which are essential and which are recommended – while the majority seem to lie somewhere in between these two extremes.
As well as differing in style, reading lists currently lack a fixed, common terminology to differentiate between essential and non-essential texts. This can cause confusion, particularly for first year students. If you’re studying six different modules and are given a list of ten books for each, the idea of reading 60 books cover to cover, which may or may not be essential reading, is quite daunting.
It would be useful to have a consistent structure and common vocabulary for reading lists. The following are terms I have seen used in reading lists, along with my understanding of what they mean:
Core texts/ Essential texts/ Required reading
These are books that are necessary for the course. More often than not, these texts must be read in preparation for lectures, seminar discussions and assignments. They contain key information and ideas, and are essential in order to participate fully, understand a topic and achieve a good grade.
As these books are going to be read by every student on the course, many course tutors suggest that they should be purchased before teaching begins. This is particularly true for literature courses, where you may be required to read and annotate several books each week. Although library copies are usually available, the level of demand can often result in a long waiting period, leaving you with a limited amount of time to prepare for a lecture or seminar. Additionally, if the book you need is recalled, you won’t be able to take a copy to the lesson with you.
For these reasons, having core texts available in e-book format is invaluable – they are portable, can be accessed quickly and easily and allow you to annotate your own copy.
Recommended reading/ Suggested reading/ Secondary reading/ Additional texts
Recommended reading consists of any extra books which aren’t essential but could help you to achieve a higher grade. Generally, they allow you to understand a topic in more detail and act as a springboard for further, independent research.
Although it’s reasonable to expect recommended texts to be available in the library, there is not the same impetus to purchase a personal copy or wait for one to become available. It is highly unlikely that there will be time to read everything on a recommended reading list, making it important to be selective.
Reading lists may evolve to reflect the interests of the class, while students are also encouraged to discover their own sources for use in assignments. Some reading lists – particularly for postgraduate level courses – don’t include any recommended reading, though key texts may be mentioned in lectures and seminars.
Even allowing for flexibility of approach in terms of reading list structure, it would be really useful to have consistent terminology so that we all – students, academics and librarians – know what to expect.
Helen Saxton, University of Manchester
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