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Widening participation has significantly increased the number of non-traditional students in higher education.  Within this context, there has also been unacknowledged paradigm shift back to coursework, with ever higher expectations been placed on students.  Given the increase in numbers of this type of student, there is arguably a need to consider how these new higher education stakeholders manage the demands of university, particularly in terms of their study skills, of which reading is of key importance.  Therefore, the first part of this literature review critically considers the wider context of higher education in a New University, in particular the demands and pressures made of students.  The second part discusses differing forms of critical reading strategies which can arguably enable these new student stakeholders to be empowered and engaged learners.  As this is an evolving literature review, the final objective is to highlight some of the construction processes students may find useful to engage with in order for them to understand the shape and aims of a literature review.





This literature review will critically explore different methods of reading, considering to what extend reading can be an empowering practice for students.  Firstly, I outline the key theoretical concepts I deploy in this review, before moving on to consider the wider political context in contemporary HE.   Moving on, consideration is given to the power of the text, the role of coursework, possible over assessment, teaching provision before examining why and how reading strategies can respond to some of these challenges.  Finally I outline some key reading strategies including the structured brainstorm method and the QOOQRRR method, before concluding with further discussion of key findings emerging form this literature review. 




Key theoretical concepts


Bourdieu’s theory of practice may be seen as a probing reflection on one of the oldest problems in the Western intellectual tradition, namely the relationship between the individual and society (Swartz, 1997: 96).


Habitus, a key concept underpinning Bourdieu’s Outline of a theory of practice, was developed by Bourdieu in an attempt to illuminate the relationship between the individual and wider society in terms of the ways in which society imposes upon, shapes and influences an individual.  Habitus theory can offer insight into any impact of social structures on the individual by critically considering the “durable dispositions”, that is the ways in which people have and use their choices.  It is the dispositions that an individual acquires via socialisation within the family, school and higher education (HE) institution that become, according to Bourdieu (1977), embodied, thus acting as markers, or signifiers, of their habitus, which can in turn illuminate an individual’s social class location.  By analysing these habitual dispositions possessed and embodied by an individual, it is possible to gain insights into and, understanding of, the behaviour and the choices an individual makes and their reasons for these behaviours and choices.  Although dispositions is a central facet of habitus, it takes its place alongside other key factors such as; the role of the environment in which the habitus is formed; the ways in which habitus is formed; the boundaries of an individual’s habitus; the phenomenon of institutional habitus and the perhaps somewhat inevitable clash of habituses that can occur between some individuals and some structures.  To critically discuss why habitus is useful to this research, in what follows, I attempt to map each of these key facets of habitus, discussing their potential for offering some understanding of the complexity of my respondent’s experiences, particularly their choices and choice making processes.  This section also offers a brief discussion of the limitations of habitus and the relationship between culture and habitus, before concluding.




In Outline of a theory of practice, Bourdieu (1977: 72, italics as original) explains a marginally reformulated version of habitus in the following terms;


The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class location) produce habitus, systems of durable transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adopted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.


This outline of habitus points to a concept that is specific to the conditions present in the structure of the environment in which it is formulated and also a concept that is embodied and manifested in an individual via dispositions which are accrued within the environmental structure, present in the family, community, school and higher education institutions.  Thus, habitus represents the structuring of an individual’s ‘practices and representations’ via the inculcation of cultural norms and values, accrued and embodied in the form of dispositions.






To break this concept down, I draw on the work of Reay (2004, p.435), who argues that habitus can be “viewed as a complex internalized core from which everyday experiences emanate”.  Reay (ibid, p. 432-434) discusses habitus as a multi-faceted concept with four key aspects; habitus as embodiment, habitus and agency, habitus as a complication of collective and individual trajectories and habitus as a complex interplay between past and present.  Taking each of these in turn, habitus as embodiment “demonstrates the ways in which not only is the body in the social world, but also the ways in which the social world is in the body” (ibid, p.432).  Thus, an individual is arguably disposed to choose certain embodied signifiers of difference which will be intrinsically inscribed and therefore evident for all to see and judge.  Moving on, habitus and agency refers to


“habitus as potentially generating a wide repertoire of possible actions, simultaneously enabling the individual to draw on transformative and constraining courses of action” (ibid, p. 433).


The facet of habitus defined as agency is perhaps the most appealing in terms of this research study as it will enable me to critically unpick the choices, the dispositions that constrain or transform my respondent’s ‘courses of action’ (ibid, p.433).  The idea of habitus as a compilation of collective and individual trajectories considers the role of the individual and society where


“a person’s individual history is constitutive of habitus, but so also is the whole collective history of family and class that the individual is a member of” (ibid, p.434). 


Finally, habitus as a complex interplay between past and present “refers to something historical, it is linked to individual history” (Bourdieu, 1990c, p. 86).  At this stage Reay’s (2004) mapping the field of habitus begins to take shape, and it is possible to see how the concept is useful for describing the way individuals view and experience the world and the effect of internalising discourses about the world. 




Furthermore, and to complicate any generalisations, whilst individuals have habitus, so too does collective society, including higher education institutions, which are bound up in and by their habitus.  Consequently, factors such as power relations, social class locations and valued forms of knowledge are tightly woven into institutional habitus.  The idea of habitus as an institutional phenomenon will be returned to below.  To sum up, habitus will be used in this research to explore the differential impact of disposition to chose, alongside the impact of familial, school and higher education institutions of my respondents (Thomas, 2001).  My intention is to move beyond any deterministic approach in the research through drawing on habitus with the promise of agency and subjectivity that is embedded in this perspective.  I hope that I can uncover the sorts of dispositions possessed by non-traditional learners to highlight the extent to which social structures can offer the potential for agency – i.e. the ways in which non traditional students can choose (or not) within their class/gender and ethnic identities.




Cultural / social capital


The theory of cultural capital was developed by Bourdieu (1977) and it is a concept used to, “explain how the middle classes are able to maintain their position in the process of social reproduction while making this inequality legitimate.  By claming to be a meritocracy the education system helps to keep social order and perpetuate the existing inequalities” (Bartlett, Burton & Peim, 2001 p.9).  This concept could particularly useful to allow for critical understanding of the impact widening participation can have, particularly for non traditional students who tend not to possess such a degree of cultural and social capital.




Policy context:  Widening participation     


This literature review is shaped by the experiences of non traditional students, and their attempt to access educational capital (Bourdieu, 1977).  This increase in non traditional students participation in higher education is partly through New Labour’s policy initiative to widen participation (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/speeches/, March 20007).  Partly as a result of this government policy, effective study strategies (of which reading arguably is a key tool for active and critical engagement) for non traditional students are topical as a result of higher education institutions enrolling students who historically have been excluded from higher education, i.e. the working classes, females, mature students and ethnic minorities (Burns, Sinfield and Holley, 2006).  When New Labour returned to government in 1997, prime Minster Blair stated that his party’s key priority was “education, education, education” (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/speeches/, March 20007).  As part of this commitment to education, New Labour “set a target for 50 per cent of the under-30s population to have participated in HE by 2010” (Medway et al, 2003, p.7).  This increased provision of higher education is “based on the belief that a nation’s economic competitiveness can be enhanced if a greater proportion of its population gain the kinds of knowledge, skills and understanding fostered by higher education and a social justice rationale where the concern is to extend the benefits of higher education beyond a middle-class elite” (Woodrow et al, 1998, cited in Medway et al, 2003,  p.7). 




Whilst some might interrogate these purely economic rationale, there is also a need to interrogate what is meant by participation in higher education – does it refer to an academic university education, or does it refer to a vocational collegial education?  If widening participation is an attempt to level the playing field between the classes, the type of higher education on offer is hugely important in a society which places differing values on different subjects.  For example, within compulsory schooling, mathematics, science and English command compulsory status, whereas art, textiles, home economics, geography and history command only optional status (Barlett, Burton & Peim, 2001).  Thus, it is crucial that, in process of widening participation, a two tier system does not emerge, which favours one social group over another and consequently maintaining the status quo.  It is important to note that there is an emerging body of argument that says that the widening participation policy is actually creating this two tier system (Thomas, 2001).




Non traditional students


The term non traditional student has been used increasingly during New Labour’s term in government (1997-present), referring to a diverse group including the working classes, females, mature students and ethnic minorities.  This paper will focus on increased opportunity to access higher education, in the context of New Labour’s policy initiative to widen participation amongst school leavers.  Whilst non traditional students include the working classes, females, mature students and ethnic minorities, due to the limited space in this paper, I will focus on the working classes increased access to higher education. 




My decision to focus on class is informed by my belief that class inequalities remain a persistent facet of life in contemporary Britain.  Indeed, according to Reay (2001, p.1) working-class relationships to education have always been deeply problematic and emotionally charged, inscribing academic failure rather than success”.  Therefore, it seems crucial to attempt to understand how and why the working class student tends to fail, rather than succeed, particularly in light of their increased participation in higher education.  The concern here is that experiences of higher education via widening participation could also inscribe failure rather than success. 




Another key issue is that of degree value; if more working class people get degrees the qualification’s integrity is arguably questioned by middle class parents, who themselves, have “an educational inheritance with which to endow their children” (Jackson and Marsden, 1962, p.42).  Moreover, if we agree with Kuhn (1995, p.98), that “class is something beneath your clothes, under your skin, in your reflexes, in your psyche, at the very core of your being”, then class can be seen as a powerful discourse which affects every aspect of an individual.  However, whilst this paper will offer a partial account of the complexities associated with non traditional students’ participation in higher education, any analysis offered within this paper can obviously be complicated and problematised by issues of gender, ethnicity and age.




Non traditional students tend to be seen as deficit and it is possible to see that such a deficit model is bound up in the concept of institutional habitus, where working class students are on the outside of the institution’s habitus (Reay, 2001).  Indeed, according to Medway et al (2003, p.16), 


"HEI’s (higher educational institutions) need to undergo more deep-seated changes in their ‘institutional habitus’, that is the nature of the cultural practices, values, priorities and social relationships which characterise the institution”.




This deficit model can shape and influence non traditional students’ perception of themselves as learners.  A non traditional student’s learner identity tends to be fragile, perhaps unsurprisingly given the way they are positioned within the wider discourses of the higher education institution (Reay, 2001).  Arguably, the non traditional student tends to find themselves as needed within higher education to meet the governments targets, yet perhaps not wanted, evident via the exclusionary practices of institutional habitus.




Finally, it is worth noting Freire’s (1977) criticisms of traditional education and the way it positions learners as accepting and passive in his text Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Freire (ibid) views education as an opportunity for ‘empowerment’, where there are links between “knowing, learning and action” (Thomas, 2001, p.32).    Crucially, “Freire sees the primary function of education and educative processes to be the dynamic development of critical consciousness, which involves critical thought and action” (ibid, p.32).  Therefore, Freire (1977) sees learning as a reflexive and critical endeavour, and if these tools are developed, they operate as a means to challenge disempowering, political practices.  If we accept Freire’s (ibid) view, the consequences for the non traditional student (who is becoming less and less empowered by their class or gender or ethnic position), indicates a student body being actively disposed of its means to contest and struggle against dominant political discourses.  Thus, equality of opportunity remains elusive.




The power of the text


Within the context of higher education, the text book is frequently viewed as a powerful medium for knowledge transmission.  This can mean that students, particularly non traditional ones, are sometimes unsure of how to take ownership of their reading because the text is positioned as all powerful and they can feel like outsiders to this insider knowledge (Burns and Sinfield, 2004).  Whilst this is somewhat unavoidable in a university because of the key role that the written text plays in the process of knowledge transmission, it is useful to challenge the power of the text in terms of finding practical strategies which have the potential to enable students to take control of their reading.  To critically unpick the power of the text, it is useful to draw on Foucault’s notion of discourse.  According to Ball (1990, p.2),


 “Discourses are about what can be said and thought, but also about who can speak, when, and with what authority.  Discourses embody meaning and social relationships; they constitute both subjectivity and power relations”.


Whilst discourses can be spoken, they also exist in textual form.  Thus, it follows that the university text book can be seen as a form of discourse and is subjected to those power relations outlined by Ball (ibid).  More pressing is that this means,


“Discourses constrain the possibilities of thought.  They order and combine words in particular ways and exclude or displace other combinations” (ibid, p.2).


So, what do these power relations and constraints, exclusions and or dispositions mean for the non-traditional student who is attempting to navigate their way through the academy?  It means that to provide non-traditional students with the academic toolkit necessary to progress through their undergraduate courses, they need understanding about the purpose of their reading and moreover, practical ways to engage with it, which can simultaneously serve to dismantle, or perhaps less ambitiously to problematise, the power relations embedded in the discourse.  To summarize then, it seems necessary to unpick the power of the text, particularly in terms of uncovering strategies that will allow students to critically engage with their reading. 



The role of coursework


It seems that within higher education, and to some extent compulsory education, there has been an unacknowledged paradigm shift back to course work picking up where left off in the 1960s and 1970s.  In policy terms, the 1988 Education Act, which introduced the National Curriculum, also brought about an increased emphasis on coursework as a means of assessment.  This seems to be reflected within higher education, where this paradigm shift to course work has brought an also unacknowledged extra emphasis on reading – on average 10-15 references for every assignment.   



For non traditional students in the higher education context, such an emphasis on reading can be problematic; many non traditional students have part time or full time work commitments to ease the burden of debts created by increased fees; many have to juggle the demands of dependent families.  To a great extent, in universities with high proportions of non-traditional students, gone are the possibilities of long days spent studying in the library, or attending society meetings or participating in conferences.  It tends to be hard enough for them to manage the weekly module reading.



Because of these pressures and other key factors, non-traditional students need practical reading skills which they can rely on to enable them to critically unpack the power of the text.  It is however, important to note that research (Warren, REF) indicates that what benefits non traditional students, tends to benefit all students and therefore, different strategies are increasingly utilised in order to engage all learners, which sometimes draws on a holistic approach to higher education (ibid).




Over assessed


According to Burns and Sinfield (2004, p.75), “students today are assessed across a broader range of skills and knowledge than ever before”.  Burns and Sinfield (ibid) go on to argue that the key issue to do with the over-assessing of non traditional students in the new universities (they are set more work than their traditional student peers) is perhaps because new universities are under attack for dumbing down and consequently, marking their students too hard.  The reason for this are complex, but in part is due to the increasing number of non-traditional students, largely as a result of widening participation policy.  Many non-traditional students tend to be in paid employment, whilst accruing huge debt and therefore “to fail is demoralising – and to re-sit expensive” (ibid, p.75).  The combination of shorter teaching weeks, an assessment paradigm shift to coursework and extensive assessment has argued contributed to making contemporary HE a difficult terrain to navigate.




Teaching provision


From my own experience as a visiting university lecturer at a new university, a key issue that can impact on the amount of reading that students need to complete for each module is partly to do with the current length of modules, which tend to be taught over 11 teaching weeks.  When short modules are coupled with multiple assignments per module, the expectations of reading that students need to undertake can be very high.  A senior lecturer, from a working class background, at the new university where I teach explained to me that when she participated in higher education during the seventies and eighties, the expectation was that students should think first, and then undertake their reading.  Now, she is constantly surprised by the volume of reading and subsequent references that students need to draw on to support their writing – perhaps this is linked to the paradigm shift back to coursework?  Or perhaps this is due to a moral panic around standards which has been peddled by the media, higher education institutions and the some quarters of the middle classes….




Why reading strategies?


In the 1950s, around 5% of the school population made it to university (Thomas, 2001), whereas by the late 1990s around 70% of students participate in some form of higher education (Gleeson, 1996).  Thus, with an evolving non traditional student body, increasing numbers of students entering higher education, and with recent governments becoming increasingly preoccupied with performance measures such as league tables (Burns, Sinfield and Holley, 2006), there is a need to examine the practices that enable students to be successful.  With often insufficient time to read and make notes, students tend to struggle with their courses.  According to one lecturer at a London university, “I’ve had a few people who’ve said that they’re dropping out because they can’t do the reading and I think a lot of that is down to not really having had it explained to them what exactly is involved.  People will get a twenty page reading list and just go, ‘I can’t possibly do this’ and panic” (Medway et al, 2003, p.39).  But reading is highly valued in the academy and students who read are better positioned at assessment times than those who do not. 




Learning Development


Briefly outline the role of Learning Development, the university department who are funding this research.




Introduction to different reading strategies:


The reading strategies I’ve chosen to draw on are taken from Burns and Sinfield (2004) and Cottrell (2003).  The strategies include: structured brainstorm and QOOQRRR (pronounced cooker).  Whilst the Burns and Sinfield (ibid) text is aimed at tutors, it is equally effective for students.  This sort of strategic approach to reading may seem mechanical, but it is a way in for students, particularly non traditional students, who may have not studied for some time.  These non traditional students can benefit from a structured, practical approach.  However, it is important to note that research (Warren, REF) indicates that what benefits non traditional students, tends to benefit all students and therefore, different strategies are increasingly utilised in order to engage all learners, which sometimes draws on a holistic approach to higher education (ibid).




Reading strategy – structured brainstorm


The structured brainstorm is a useful strategy that can empower students to take ownership of their reading.  What makes this strategy work is the focus it offers on why reading is necessary at university and the ways in which it can be useful.  Furthermore, Burns and Sinfield (2004, p.78) encapsulate how non-traditional students typically may feel about their academic reading, evident when they point out that;


as a preamble to the structured brainstorm, we might say something like this: as a university student you will be expected to read continually and extensively.  However, many of us are unclear as to why we are reading at all, we might be unsure as to what to read, and we do not really know how to read academically other than thinking that it will either be ‘really hard’ or completely different form anything else that we have ever done.


So the structured brainstorm attempts to redress this balance.  To do this, it requires us to critically brainstorm the following questions about our academic reading;


Why do we read?


How do you know what to read?


How much should you read for one assignment?


How easy or difficult do you find academic reading?


For full coverage of the answers of these questions see Burns and Sinfield (ibid, p.79 – 81).  The key point to note here is that by brainstorming from the outset of any academic reading task, these questions it is possible to clarify understanding about why, how much and how we read academically – all of which is very useful for non-traditional students.  In particular, non-traditional students could benefit from brainstorming this set of questions for each module assignment they have to undertake, perhaps excluding the last question from the list.  This would provide structure and focus to the reading and subsequent writing, allowing students to begin to take ownership of what they read.  Therefore, reading strategies, like other study skill sets, can be seen as empowering practices for non-traditional and traditional students.




Reading strategy - QOOQRRR


Burns and Sinfield (ibid) QOOQRR reading strategy (pronounced cooker) can also enable students to engage with their reading and subsequent writing.  The QOOQRR method stands for; “question, overview, overview, question, read, re-read and review” (ibid: 82).  Although each of these points is interrelated, I’m going to take each aspect in turn,




Question – why am I reading?


The first stage in the QOOQRRR process asks students to critically consider why they are reading; for example, it could be the weekly required reading or it could be reading for an assignment task.  By understanding why you are reading will “help students become active and successful academic readers” (ibid: 82).



Overview – reading with a context


The second stage involves students understanding the context in which they are reading, for example, reading for an assessment task as opposed to reading for further knowledge.  Students need to understand the context within which they are reading as this will enable them to stay focused on why they are reading.



Overview – choosing what to read and knowing what you are reading


Moving on to stage three; when a student knows why they are the reading and the context of that reading, the next key step is to decide what to read.  To do this, students need to move to another overview process to decide what to read; they can draw on several resources for this aspect of the overview process, for example, journal articles, chapters in a book or newspaper articles.  Students need to be selective in their reading as it can take up so much time – use book indexes to find out which bits are relevant to them.  Search for topic related journal articles.  The main point here is for students to take control of their reading practices.



Question – and question again


In stage four, students need to ask themselves once again why I am reading this now.  This stage in the process is reflexive and requires students to critically consider if the reading they are undertaking is beneficial to their studies.  This stage in the process can help students to stay on task.  Students need to brainstorm their ideas about why they are reading and the effectiveness of their reading, as this will sharpen their focus.



Read – read again


Stage five requires students to read again because while academic reading can intimidate students, practice makes perfect.  As time goes by, students should be better able to engage in active and interactive reading, which should be undertaken in manageable chunks – a paragraph or sub-heading at a time.  Active reading requires that students should “ask a series of questions as they go” and interactive in that students need to “get physical with texts when reading – they need to underline, highlight, make margin notes and comments” (ibid: 85).





Stage six recommends that students should avoid making notes on the first attempt at reading an academic text, but rather should re-read and make notes on a second read through.  This can allow students to understand their knowledge, and to identify any gaps in their knowledge which indicates they will need to undertake further reading.





Finally, in stage seven students should have produced a meaningful set of notes based on their reading, which they can review to ensure they have understood their reading.    Whilst this reading method can seem functional, it facilitates students’ attempts to find a way into their studies.  The key point is that students should undertake reading in some form whilst at university, for academic reasons and socio-politically because this positions them more powerfully within academic discourse.



Reading strategy – critical reading


Cottrell (2003: 222) offers a critical reading strategy for students, which encourages them to focus on “developing a detective-like mind”, whereby they engage with the broader purpose of their reading.  Cottrell (ibid: 222-223) describes the process as follows:



Critical thinking when reading involves the following:


  1. Identifying the line of reasoning in the text,


  2. Critically evaluating the line of reasoning


  3. Questioning surface appearances and checking for hidden assumptions or agendas


  4. Identifying evidence in the text


  5. Evaluating the evidence according to valid criteria


  6. Identifying the writer’s conclusions


  7. Deciding whether the evidence given supports these conclusions


The overarching aim here is for students to remember “what are the main things this writer wants me to accept?  What reasons does she present to encourage me to accept this?” (ibid: 223).



This method arguably engages students in the mechanics of reading – i.e. reading must be done so here is a way to do it with purpose and focus.  Further, this method offers students the opportunity to take responsibility for their own critical engagement with their work.





This literature review has considered reading as a socio-political activity set within the widening participation context.  I have attempted to highlight some key reading strategies that can empower students and facilitate their attempts to become critical learners.  I have also attempted to show the extent to which non traditional students can find themselves positioned as outsiders to the university’s habitus – like fish out of water (REF). Through the teaching of study skills, initiatives such as learn higher, non-traditional students can gain key skills such as note making and reading, which can help them to unlock their potential; whilst the methods themselves are not a silver bullet or panacea, they can empower non traditional students by a practical approach; a way in.  According to Bourdieu and Passeron note that (1979, p.190) education could be “the royal road to the democratisation of culture if it did not consecrate the initial cultural inequalities by ignoring them”.   




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