Reading lists as a pedagogical tool: Lessons learnt from Covid-19

The context

During the first UK lockdown in spring 2020, like our colleagues around the country, Oxford Brookes Academic Liaison Librarians (ALLs) had scrambled to locate alternative online access to key resources for panicking students who had left Oxford at very short notice, and who were trying to finish assignments and dissertations without physical access to the Library. This experience made us determined to work with our academic colleagues to plan for easier, more seamless access for students in the 2020/21 academic year, whatever form that year took. Over summer 2020, the University developed a Framework for Ensuring Digitally Enabled Programmes which focused on ensuring “coherence, consistency, community and choice”.

Like many UK universities we use reading list software (in our case, Talis Aspire) as a key means of three-way communication between lecturers, librarians and students about what students should be reading and how they can access resources, with direct links to material available online. For 2020/21, reading lists became critical to ensuring students had:

  • coherent guidance on what to read;
  • consistent online access to essential reading;
  • choice as to how to divide their time between Essential, Recommended and Optional reading; and
  • communities of online discussion and study based on everyone having had equal access to key reading.

Lecturers and librarians who have access to reading list software can use many of its features to increase student engagement with reading, particularly those which enable integration of reading lists with the VLE.

Making the most of your reading list

  1. Your reading list is a powerful tool: teach students how to use it. Reading lists can be a powerful pedagogic tool if used strategically by staff. Dan Croft’s open-access guide, What is a reading list for?, helps lecturers think through how their reading lists can become a proactive pedagogic tool and not just another piece of paperwork. Whether or not reading list software is used, there is a growing body of research (Brewerton, 2014; Croft, 2020; Jackson, 2021; Siddall & Rose, 2014; Vickers et al., 2016) highlighting the importance of reading lists that are constructively aligned with the rest of a module’s or course’s teaching.
  1. Be clear about your expectations for your reading list. We knew from student feedback that without face-to-face teaching, students felt in need of additional scaffolding around reading. We thus recommend giving students extra guidance on how, when and why to focus on particular reading. Indicating which reading is essential and which is recommended would communicate reading importance to students, as well as to Library colleagues.
  1. Signpost students to relevant sections of the reading list. As ALLs, we promoted to academic colleagues a key feature of our reading lists: a tool which enables embedding of specific sections of a list into the corresponding section of the module on the University’s virtual learning environment (in our case, Moodle). This way, students were reminded about key reading in the place where their key study materials were, and could see how their reading aligned with the rest of the module.
  1. Use data to understand how students are engaging with your reading list. From Semester 1 2020/21, we made regular use of our Talis Aspire Google Analytics account to enable us to track student engagement with reading lists and embedded key reading. We found that usage of our online reading lists in the 2020/21 academic year increased 36% over 2019/20. We also saw that embedding readings in Moodle (see point above) demonstrably increased student engagement: we noted one striking example of a course which received 597 views for its whole reading list in 2019/20, to over 17,600 views of embedded list sections in 2020/21. In general, throughout 2020/21, embedded sections were viewed many more times than whole reading lists. Librarians who are able to use their reading list software’s reporting tools, or data tools such as Google Analytics, can mine data in order to understand how students are engaging with reading lists. This can be combined with qualitative feedback (for instance from module evaluations) to gain an in-depth view of the impact of reading lists on student engagement.


Brewerton, G. (2014). Implications of student and lecturer qualitative views on reading lists: A case study at Loughborough University, UK’. New Review of Academic Librarianship, 20(1), 78–90. 

Croft, D. (2020). Embedding constructive alignment of reading lists in course design. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 52(1), 67–74. 

Jackson, A. (2021). The expectation gap II: Students’ hopes for learning and teaching in the next normal. London: WonkHE. Retrieved 5 August 2021, from 

Siddall, G., & Rose, H. (2014). Reading lists – time for a reality check? An investigation into the use of reading lists as a pedagogical tool to support the development of information skills amongst Foundation Degree students. Library and Information Research, 38(118), 52–73. 

Vickers, R., et al. (2016). ‘Digital Magpies’: The academic reading habits of undergraduate students. Salford: University of Salford. Retrieved 5 August 2021, from



  • Hazel Rothera

    Leader of the Humanities & Social Sciences Academic Liaison Team at Oxford Brookes Library. When not at work, runner, swimmer, very bad amateur oboeist, and wrangler of cats and teenage sons.

How to cite

Rothera, H. (2021) Reading lists as a pedagogical tool: Lessons learnt from Covid-19. Teaching Insights, Available at: (Accessed: 21 September 2023)

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