I’m (not) an academic … get me out of here!

Paul Stevens


I’m (not) an academic … get me out of here! is a reading workshop in development at Solent University Southampton. It is run primarily with second-year media production undergraduates (mostly 19- to 20-year-olds).

The workshop promotes high-quality academic reading through active learning. The problem is that students are not reading — research tells us 27 per cent of expectations is a high estimate — and they are afraid to engage with some of the reading university-level study requires. So, this workshop offers an active learning approach to getting students reading high-quality academic sources, understanding their structure, and helping them with comprehension, interpretation, paraphrasing, synthesis, but above all boosting their confidence.


In academia, we see academic reading as purposeful and critical for our students, but we also understand it is challenging (Gorzycki et al., 2019). One obstacle is that students can believe they are better at it than they really are (Gorzycki et al. 2019). This ‘Dunning-Kruger-esque’ situation (Kruger & Dunning, 1999) can lead to an inflated sense of ability in some, combined with a fear of how challenging it will be in others.

So, the initial objective was to develop a classroom-based activity promoting and scaffolding high-quality academic reading through active learning (Ryan, 2006). The workshop addresses a specific problem we identified, i.e. students were not reading at the level they needed to in order to write at the level we required of them.

This workshop facilitates students reading high-quality academic sources, understanding their structure, helping them with comprehension, interpretation, paraphrasing, and synthesis. But above all, it boosts their confidence, as they realise over time that they can understand texts they previously thought they could not.

The key to achieving this is collaborative interrogation of what they are reading. What it purposely does not ask students to do is decipher a whole document on their own: they work on a section of the whole text, while classmates work on other parts.

The students end the workshop by pooling what they have discovered, so that each individual student ultimately arrives at an understanding of the whole text, without having read it all.

We now have both anecdotal and grade-based evidence that improving the quality of the texts students engage with also improves the quality of their subsequent academic writing, as they seek out higher-quality sources than perhaps they would have done, and apply what they read to their practical work, and synthesise it into formative and summative reflections on that work.

An example text that I have used for my second-year undergraduates can be found in the references, below.

The module’s summative assessments were to:

(a) create an audio-based experience via an app (a bit like a soundwalk); and

(b), write a critical reflection about the process, including what informed it, what was learned, what went well, what went less well, what should be done differently on a future occasion, and why.

The workshops run three times per class in any given 12-week teaching period. How often you run it is up to you, as appropriate.

‘Too long, didn’t read’ (tldr) version; the idea is to make challenging academic writing ‘less scary’!


You will need:

(i) Sufficient hard copies of a ‘text’. This choice is crucial: challenging, but not so challenging students will be discouraged. They also need to connect what the text is about with something their studies require of them (Ryan 2006 in Baier et al 2011). The ‘text’ does not have to be factual, or even written: the workshop has been successfully delivered using audio, video and photographic media as ‘texts’.

(iii) A whiteboard (the bigger the better) divided up into however many sections you divide the text into (experience suggests four or five sections is more than enough).

(iv) er, there is no (iv): that is it!

Start by explaining not just what your students will do, but why they’ll do it. Research suggests nearly 90 per cent of students believe they can get a C, and just over 31 per cent think they can get an A, without doing any reading at all (Baier et al., 2011), so they might not initially see the point! Dunning-Kruger again?

First pass: individually or in groups, students highlight what they immediately ‘get’, and ignore (for now) what they do not get. They orally report to the class what they have discovered, and add quotes/paraphrases/key points to their section of the whiteboard.

Second pass: in groups, the students identify what they ‘sort of got’ the first time around, but were not absolutely sure about. The groups ‘drill down’ and discuss this content to arrive at conclusions. Again, they report back to the class and add more content to the whiteboard.

Third pass: the students, still in their groups, tackle the most challenging passages to arrive at an understanding of content they ‘think’ could be relevant, but still do not quite ‘get’ … yet! Again, they orally report back and add final content to the whiteboard.

It is important to stress to the students at all stages that it is far less important that they are ‘right’ and more important that they ‘have a go’ at decoding what the text is saying and be able to explain that in their own words.

Plenary: by the end the whiteboard should contain quotes/paraphrases, key concepts and explanations for each section of the text, which the students can photograph, and/or you as the teacher can capture the board’s content for the students.

Our students are then encouraged to read the whole text in their own time, and write about it informally in course blogs (which they must keep, and use in assessments, across their degree). You could devise similar subsequent activities as self-directed study and/or via follow-up in-class activities.


Researchers suggest ‘developing innovative techniques to ensure students are reading their assignments on a regular basis’ (Baier et al., 2011). Whether this is such a technique, modesty forbids: but it would be interesting to hear how you get on with it, especially if you adapt the undergraduate workshop for your college, sixth-form, secondary, primary, or even infant school!

And speaking of adapting, during the 2020-21 pandemic we teamed up with Talis Elevate (https://talis.com/talis-elevate/) and have ported the workshop to online delivery via Microsoft Teams and its channels/breakout rooms. Using Talis Elevate this way, students are able to access a digital version of a text uploaded by a lecturer, annotate it both individually (and anonymously if they choose) and as part of a group. They can also discuss and debate in the channels/breakout rooms.

Good luck with the workshop! Please check out the video below if you want to find out more.


Video: https://vimeo.com/444892212

Example text:
Indans, R., Hauthal E, & Burghardt, D. (2018). Towards an audio-locative mobile application for immersive storytelling, Journal of Cartography and Geographic Information, 69, 41-50. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42489-019-00007-1


Baier, K., Hendricks, C., Warren-Gorden, K., Hendricks, J. E., & Cochran, L. (2011). College students’ textbook reading, or not! American Reading Forum Annual Yearbook (Vol. 31, pp. 4-11). http://americanreadingforum.org/yearbook/11_yearbook/documents/ BAIER%20ET%20AL%20PAPER.pdf

Gorzycki, M., Desa, G., Howard, P. J., & Allen, D. D. (2019). Reading is important, but ‘I don’t read’: Undergraduates’ experiences with academic reading. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 63(5), 499–508. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.1020

Kruger, J., & D. Dunning, (1999). Unskilled and unaware of It: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-34. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121

Ryan, T. E., (2006). Motivating novice students to read their textbooks. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 33(2), 135–140.

About the author

Before becoming a university lecturer, Paul worked in the creative industries for more than 25 years: as a newspaper reporter, sub-editor and later a radio presenter. He mainly teaches audio production, including radio, podcasting and sound design. Paul is researching podcasting and immersive audio for a possible PhD proposal.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Paul Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Share This Book