Academics claim students "lack attention span" to read entire books

Academics have claimed that students struggle to read whole books due to shorter attention spans and inability to focus on complex ideas.

Top academics told Times Higher Education that they thought students' attention spans were getting shorter, and one claimed they tended not to set whole books any more, as they would "overwhelm" the students.

Students have hit back, saying that it's more to do with unreasonable deadlines set by universities, and an over-emphasis on assessment.

Unwilling to read

Jenny Pickerill, a professor in environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, said that students were unwilling or unable to engage with more difficult texts, and that she now avoided setting these texts as a result.

“Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard,” she told Times Higher Education magazine.

"I recently had a student suggest an alternative book for a module I am teaching which they found easier to engage with."

"It was a good book, but it was not really academic enough and I am still unsure if that matters or whether I should be recommending more readable books. There is currently a disjuncture between the types of reading we want students to engage with and the types students feel able or willing to do.”

Another academic claimed that she avoided setting whole books all together.

"Graduates and postgraduate students seem mainly not to be avid readers” Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at Leicester University. She went on to claim that recommending whole books would "overwhelm them", so she tended not to do so.

She added she would like to read more, to "enable them to make more considered arguments in their coursework or examinations, and to demonstrate to us as assessors that they have considered the debates and controversies the literature and arrived at reasoned conclusion on that basis.”

Official figures, however, show that the number of students attaining a first has doubled in the past decade, and overall grades have gone up all over the country.

Bizarre comments in support of the academics point of view, underneath the Times Higher Education article.

"We're not given the time or thinking space"

Students hit back hard at the claims that they lack attention span, saying that if students hadn't done the reading, it was because they aren't given enough time due to constant assessment whilst at university.

“It’s just not true that students find reading whole books too challenging. The reason some students don’t read whole books isn’t because they struggle to, but because of problems with how we’re assessed, and the over-emphasis universities place on assessment.” Education Officer at University of Sheffield Students’ Union, Minesh Parekh, told the Independent.

“This over-emphasis on assessment - as opposed to genuine learning - means that when writing an essay or preparing for exams it makes more sense to read a journal article or a chapter of a book because we’re not given the time or thinking space.”

Another student, Chantelle Francis, Academic and Inclusions Officer for the Sheffield University English Society, also said that it was time constraints that led to students' lack of reading.

"I’m sure that if students had longer to read a text, they’d likely understand it better, because they’ve had more time to engage with it and appreciate it. But to suggest that students’ attention spans are low or that we are of insufficient ability is unfair.”

“I would argue that it is the time constraints that students struggle with as opposed to the actual material in most cases."

One student, who exists only in the mind of Times Higher Education commenters, hit back at claims they have short attention spans, saying:

"That's just completely untrue, I have read many books from cover to cover, like Percy the Park Keeper and a novelisation of the movie Shrek 3 and... what were we talking about again?"

At this point the student was distracted by a passing squirrel, and we were unable to regain their attention.

"Do you finish a book or do you complete the seminar work that's due tomorrow? I know what I'd choose."

One student told The Independent that they rarely finished a course book within deadlines required.

“I would say that it is simply a case of needing to prioritise. Do you finish a book that you probably won't write your essay on, or do you complete the seminar work that's due in for the next day? I know what I'd rather choose.”

However, Ms Francis also said that students enjoyed the challenge of reading, despite what the academics thought.

"I remember having to read Derrida and thinking I'd lost the plot - but these materials are supposed to be engaging and difficult.”

“It's fine for students to not understand something first-time - that's what our professors are there for. We are not expected to have all the answers.”

“I think most students do thoroughly enjoy the challenge of reading."

Steve Fenster, a masters student, added support to the idea that standards had changed, rather than students' attention spans:

"Thirty years after finishing a doctorate I decided to do a master's in a completely different discipline. In the current class I am taking we are expected to read six books in eight weeks. The idea that there is insufficient time allowed by to work with the material might well have validity."

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