Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Academic Reading Retreats: Discovering criticality together

By Angela Rhead, Student Learning, Keele University 


Academic Reading Retreats are one-day learning and teaching events that explore the purpose and structure of academic journal articles and the dark art of ‘critical reading’. They offer learning opportunities for both students and academic staff: students gain confidence in handling academic papers, but also in becoming disciplinary enquirers, with a new understanding of why they read. Academics gain insight into the challenges students face in this aspect and often into their own assumptions about students’ reading behaviours, which in turn encourages critical reflection on curriculum design.

In conversation with students and colleagues from across the disciplines, reading emerges as an almost universally ‘sticky’ (Schon, 1987) concept for higher level learning, persistently frustrating for both students and academics alike. This seems particularly acute in the humanities and social sciences, with their disciplinary view of criticality often emerging from a student’s individual engagement with reading and their positioning in terms of that discourse (Moore, 2013). However, whilst the retreat has emerged from an interpretive perspective, I’ve come to realise that reading research articles for academic purpose is equally challenging for many students studying sciences. Whilst I always ‘warn’ applicants from scientific disciplines that the retreat does not focus on methods or statistics, those students that persist report positive learning experiences. Their participation has also enriched my own understanding of criticality and improved my ability to adapt to individual concerns and challenges in an interdisciplinary setting.

Academic Reading Retreats consist of three cycles of teaching, individual silent reading and reflective group discussion. Participants from any discipline bring an article they have selected for a specific enquiry or assessment, to which they apply the taught strategies throughout the day. Student participants are usually undergraduate second and third years approaching or already engaged in dissertations or independent projects, although postgraduate students can also benefit. One novel aspect of the retreats is to have academics reading alongside students to expose the continuing and inevitable challenge of reading for academic purposes. Ideally, two academics participate as ‘readers-in’ residence’ in a group of twelve to twenty (larger groups may require more academic participants).

Background and History 

Moving to Keele in 2015, metamorphosing from an Education lecturer into a ‘Learning Developer’, I was confident of strategies that could support students in reading and exploring intertextual relationships, but I continued to wrestle with the ‘stickiness’ around literature selection and those initial scanning stages. With a much wider remit now, and access to threshold concept discussions (Meyer and Land, 2013) across a range of disciplines, it became increasingly clear that these more fundamental practices, which unless addressed would make the later practices meaningless, needed closer attention in the curriculum. I began to experiment with two strategies aimed at engaging students in understanding the purpose of academic reading (and enquiry) and exploring the implication of that for literature selection and initial reading: the ‘stage’ and the ‘scroll’.

For more detail, background and to find out how to use the stage follow this link 
The Stage: Early work on selecting literature

For more detail and background about how to use scrolling follow this link 
Scrolling: Early work on initial reading of journal articles

Academic Reading Retreats: The early days 

In many ways, Academic Reading Retreats appear to work against the direction of travel I have been pursuing by bringing academic practice development back out of curriculum programmes. As a ‘Learning Developer’ I have concentrated on three aspects in my work with students and academics: firstly, a move from generic to contextualised content that locates the development of academic practices such as reading or writing within the discipline. Secondly, a move from extra-curricular to embedded delivery that sits inside the student’s programme and timetable with, hopefully, a reduced sense of the remedial or extraneous (Wingate, 2006). Thirdly, a change in relationship with academics from doing ‘for’ to doing ‘with’, which includes collaborative reflection, planning and delivery. However, I had become frustrated in curriculum-restricted one or two hour sessions by the limited space for deeper engagement with academic texts and reading. Additionally, students had also suggested more time and a whole day event might be more effective. Coincidentally, after presenting scrolling at a Keele Teaching and Learning Conference, two academics asked to observe the next scrolling workshop… 

…So, inspired by attending a writing retreat, I designed ‘academic reading retreats’. Loosely based on the same format as writing retreats, with scheduled silent time and group discussion, academic reading retreats are offered as open learning events, distinctly driven by formal delivery of key reading strategies, which take the content of a one or two hour workshop on academic and critical reading and lengthen the practical application phases. I invited both academics to attend as participant ‘readers-in-residence’ rather than observers and teachers, and advertised places to the second year undergraduate students. The impact of the first retreat was powerful for all participants, with overwhelmingly positive feedback from students and academics alike. For students, the combination of teaching with time for individual practice and group discussion gained most comment; for academics, the opportunity to gain insight into the challenges students face and to uncover their own previous assumptions. Whilst the retreats were wholly interdisciplinary, the individual learning was entirely embedded within the discipline and subject.

As a result of this pilot academic reading retreat, we collaboratively designed, and I facilitated, curriculum-based reading retreats in both programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, with a range of academics participating as readers-in-residence. This seemed to be taking the retreats back into the curriculum programme itself, where they belonged, as it were. However, in many ways the learning was less powerful, less rich than that in the smaller, interdisciplinary events and poses interesting questions for curriculum design.

Academic Reading Retreats: What next?

This is an exciting innovation, which has struck a chord across disciplines, and which I hope will begin to reach further into other programmes as I share this practice more widely at Keele and further afield, I have a strong commitment to inclusion and an awareness of the continuing barrier that common curriculum design and delivery practices present to that cause. The barriers are often laid down unknowingly, based on dangerous assumptions most of ‘us’ have about ‘them’ and their reading habits (MacMillan, 2014), which leads to student difficulties then being cast as a remedial matter, for which ‘they’ are responsible (Wingate, 2006). This transmission-based curriculum approach, coupled with the lack of confidence and real skills in practices of academic reading amongst many graduates and undergraduates alike, results in high levels of anxiety and concern. That anxiety is increased where students have little previous exposure to the HE academic community and its cultural norms. The importance of embedding both the purpose (in epistemological terms) and the processes of academic reading cannot be underestimated in supporting all students’ to achieve their best outcomes.

Open interdisciplinary Academic Reading Retreats will continue to be offered and developed. Their capacity to support both learning and teaching development offers a range of opportunities for further development. Where programme-specific reading retreats are planned, it is important to look for ways to recover the rich and powerful learning observe din the small-scale and interdisciplinary setting.

Academic Reading Retreat Programme and Materials

Follow this link to a detailed breakdown of how a Reading Retreat works

All I ask is you attribute me according to the creative commons licence but most importantly get in contact and let me know how it worked (


Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hill, P. & Tinker, A. (2013) Integrating Learning Development into the Student Experience Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, Vol 5. Available at:

Macmillan, M. (2014). Student connections with academic texts: a phenomenographic study of reading. Teaching in Higher Education, 19:8, 943-954

Meyer, Jan H. F., & Land, Ray. (2005). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 49(3), 373-388.

Middlebrook, R.D. (1994). Instructional Benefits of Textmapping [Online]. Available at:

Moore, T. (2013). Critical thinking: seven definitions in search of a concept, Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 38 (4): 506–522

Schön, D. A. (1987) .Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with study skills. Teaching in Higher Education, Vol 11 (4):457-469

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Academic Reading Retreats: Discovering criticality together by By Angela Rhead, Keele University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.