Reading and Learning in Higher Education

Reading and Learning in Higher Education

Jesse Martin 12/11/2018 5

The importance of reading in education can't be overstated, and yet we know that reading is in decline for all levels of education across most subjects.

Reading, like most activities, is influenced largely by peers. The social acceptability of any activity is defined by others within a peer group. Among adolescents, females read far more frequently than males by a ratio of about 2:1 (Clark, 2013). We also know that the number of females entering higher education now significantly outnumbers the number of males in higher education. I wonder if the two are linked (no causation implied because correlation does not imply causation). Addressing this gender gap in reading must start much earlier than higher education, but there are a few things we can do once they arrive. What kind of talent are we missing because they decide not to engage?

Reading habits must be addressed early (Gallik, 1999) putting higher education in a difficult position. However, there are some things that we can try to do. We know that engaging in reading with others addresses some of these problems (Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Sénécha & LeFevre, 2003), although some of the underlying benefits slow down the more independent a reader becomes. Too many of our students, especially males, come to higher education with poorly developed skills that are associated with infrequent reading. The vocabulary skills, among others, of males, lag behind females (Stanovich & Cunningham, 1998) and this has been attributed to poorer average reading fluency (Torgesen, Rashotte & Alexander, 2001).

With peer group pressure being the primary driver for gaining reading fluency, it might be useful for colleges and universities to encourage the formation of recreational book clubs where reading becomes a social activity. Demanding more reading in higher education classes will also lead to more reading and learning because "the expectation of significant others, including teachers, are important for facilitating educational success" (Arum & Roska, 2011, page 93). Reading is important for academic success.

Across all disciplines, the average proportion of courses that require at least 40 pages of reading a week is only 0.64, with business (0.58), engineering (0.45), and health (0.55) courses all requiring significantly fewer pages (Arum & Roska, 2011). We need to raise our expectations. Students will respond to what we expect. We may not be able to address the problem that begins years before students enter higher education (Gallik, 1999), but we can do something about it once the students arrive.


Arum, R., and Roska, J, (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Bus, A. G., Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Pellegrini, A. D. (1995). Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read: A meta-analysis on intergenerational transmission of literacy. Review of educational research65(1), 1-21.

Clark, C. (2013). Children’s and Young People’s Reading in 2012. Findings from the 2012 National Literacy Trust’s annual survey. London: National Literacy Trust.

Gallik, J. D. (1999). Do they read for pleasure? Recreational reading habits of college students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy42(6), 480-488.

Stanovich, K. E., & Cunningham, A. E. (2001). What reading does for the mind. Journal of Direct Instructions1(2), 137-149.

Torgesen, J. K. (2002). The prevention of reading difficulties. Journal of school psychology40(1), 7-26.

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  • Pablo Ainsworth

    I really wish I could have lived inside books.

  • Rob West

    Never felt so illiterate until now !

  • Martin Davison

    This is inspiring to read

  • Kumar Mohit

    Powerful read

  • Aaron Harford

    Wow! I am inspired to know more about this. You outdid yourself Jesse.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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