Tag Archives: recommended reading

Literature review findings: Discovery

This blog entry focuses on the findings of our literature review research, as discussed in an earlier post. The results of this research theme revealed some major benefits to students and academics at institutions using reading list systems, not least that the core principles of information literacy (to scope, gather, present and evaluate information) can all be demonstrated within a reading list. At some institutions reading list systems have been connected to a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and the VLE has become be the place where students go to get everything they need for their academic study.

This has been well-received by academics who state that such integration increases students’ engagement with their course reading. At the same time, it is also apparent that some reading lists are not realising their full potential, often because they are not being kept up to date by academics who believe the effort involved in maintaining reading lists is disproportionate to the benefits they bring to students.

“Pick a text, any text”: understanding what students are asked to read


A fundamental part of getting the e-book project here at Manchester off the ground has been establishing effective ways to work with faculties and schools in the efficient identification and mapping of recommended texts. This might sound easy but was actually very complex!

After getting buy-in to the principles of the project as a whole, the Academic Engagement team carried out a consultation process across campus, with discussions focused on the coordinated collation of the key texts being recommended for each module.

Our interest lay not only in finding out how we might improve the ways we get hold of this information but also in the degree of flexibility regarding the texts being recommended. If an e-book version of a key text is not available, would a lecturer consider recommending an alternative? Are issues of access enough of a reason to change a recommendation, or are certain textbooks absolutely fundamental to the teaching of a particular unit?

Initial responses to the principles of the project were very positive:

“It’s a no-brainer. I suggest that if publishers do not agree to negotiate, lecturers would consider changing core texts to put pressure on them.”

“This is clearly a timely and much-needed innovation by the library’”

Our discussions also helped us identify and understand a number of issues or potential barriers we will need to take account of during the project:

Discipline specific issues

  • Some lecturers do not use even one ‘core text’ in their teaching
  • Some lecturers are resistant to working with e-books, often based on their own and their students’ previous experiences – “…they keep crashing, take a long time to load and it’s difficult to concentrate for a long period of time on screen”
  • There are concerns about dictating to students which of the texts on their reading lists should be considered essential (with the implication that others can be ignored)
  • Programmes with smaller cohorts have far fewer problems with the availability of core recommended texts

School specific

  • Some schools have complex internal structures and organisational models, making school-level coordination of processes difficult – “It’s a good idea in theory but difficult in practice for a multidiscipline school to keep up to date”
  • Ideally, schools would identify an individual to take on the responsibility of coordination for the entire school and ensure that all staff were sending in details of their chosen texts, but this is easier said than done


  • There are concerns about time constraints and placing additional administrative burdens on staff
  • Some staff cited the difficulty of choosing one key text from a list of books that were all considered ‘core reading’
  • Submitting changes each year well in advance of the teaching timetable is a problem as decisions on which text will be used are not always made that early (though the implementation of a university policy regarding inclusive teaching will push this issue to the fore over the coming year)

So, what is the upshot of all this work?

We know that we will need to take into account all the different ways that schools and academics work but also that we need to introduce much simpler ways of obtaining this information – and working with it!

Olivia Walsby, Academic Engagement Librarian, University of Manchester Library

photo credit: Science Online Book Display via photopin (license)

The meaning of lists: a student’s view



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

photo credit: oemebamo via photopin cc