“Fighting the academic machine”: using illustration to depict student reading experiences.

Dr Will Mason (SMI) & Dr Meesha Warmington (School of Education) investigated student reading experiences in HE. In this blog, Will and Meesha unpack the results of the study, introducing 4 illustration by Harry Venning.

A cartoon of a student having academic text thrown at them by an academic machine

Social science has a communication problem. Our outputs are often unnecessarily complex and tedious.

At university we learn to speak languages that many people find difficult to understand. Reading academic work is difficult. This was the basis of our recent study, which set out to explore students’ experience of reading in the social sciences. We spoke to 30 undergraduate students at a research-intensive UK university. We wanted to know (i) how students felt about academic reading (ii) how they approached their reading and (iii) how educators can support students with the reading that they ask them to do.

Doing dissemination differently

Dissemination refers to the process of sharing knowledge. There would be a cruel irony in sharing findings about reading difficulty, through a series of densely written, academic texts. As researchers, we were wary of this trap. We were also reminded of it by the students in our study, who hoped that the research would produce accessible outputs that could influence teaching practice and make a difference for future cohorts.

We are working on several project outputs in response to this concern. These outputs include teaching guidance for staff, reading guidance for students and a short animated film. In this blog, we introduce four illustrations, commissioned by the artist Harry Venning to depict some of the themes generated from our analysis. We would like to thank Harry for the contribution he has made to this work and for helping us to add another dimension to findings of our study.

Lightbulb moments 

A cartoon of student having a Lightbulb moment after academic reading

Our students derived considerable enjoyment from the experience of learning at university. Much of this enjoyment was attributed to reading. Students liked the excitement of finding relevant texts. They also liked it when what they had read felt like it “clicked” and their learning was “embedded”. These experiences were important for students because they provided the reinforcement that they needed to persevere with difficult content. In this image, the enjoyment of learning is depicted as a ‘lightbulb moment’, shining brightly in a university library.

Impenetrable academic language

A cartoon of student trying to navigate an impenetrable wood of academic language

Academic language was one of the key barriers to reading shared with us by the students. The challenges of navigating “flowery” and “convoluted” language were universally experienced. However, these issues were also exacerbated for those experiencing language barriers or specific learning difficulties. This image depicts the challenge of navigating impenetrable academic language, illustrated as a dense forest, with students struggling to find their way through the trees.

The academic machine

A cartoon of a student having academic text thrown at them by an academic machine

Many of the students in our study struggled with the volume and the content of reading at university. The combination of required weekly reading and reading for assessments left some feeling like they never had the time to slow down and enjoy reading for understanding. In one metaphor a student told us that they loved learning, but the demands of staying afloat at university felt more like “flighting the academic machine”. This image imagines the ‘academic machine’ and depicts a student, struggling to keep pace with the reading it generates. 

Academic guidance here 

A cartoon of a lecturer holding a billboard saying Academic Guidance Here

Academic reading is an advanced skill. Our research findings suggest that more could be done to support students to develop this skill at university. We have published five recommendations for practice here. Importantly, we also heard that students were most likely to access and benefit from such guidance if it was embedded into their modules and departments. Universities commonly offer centralised study skills supports and services. However, our findings suggests that students do not always have a clear understanding of what support are available or how to access them. This image depicts an academic staff member holding a billboard over their head that says ‘Academic Guidance Here’.

Using the images

We are using these images to share our research findings and to start conversations about student reading experiences at university. Our research has surfaced the importance of normalising reading difficult and being more honest about our experiences of reading, as students and staff. We would like others to be able to benefit from these images too.

If you would like to access and use the images in your own teaching please contact Dr Will Mason (w.j.mason@sheffield.ac.uk) and credit Harry Venning directly with a link to his website (www.harryvenning.co.uk).    

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