Book Review: Manarin, Karen, et al. Critical Reading in Higher Education: Academic Goals and Social Engagement

Reviewed by Beth Powell, Tennessee Tech University

Critical Reading in Higher Education begins by acknowledging a familiar discussion: many university teachers lament their students’ low reading comprehension skills. The authors offer this discussion as context for their endeavor, which is to conduct empirical research on their college students’ reading comprehension, analytic, and critical reading skills. In addition to the common stereotype that students read very little or lack motivation to read, the authors ground their research in an impressive breadth of theory, looking at reader-response theory, the transactional model of reading, critical reading theories such as constructivist approaches and critical pedagogy, and schema theory.

Drawing on the theories mentioned above, the authors conduct research at Mount Royal University in Canada, gathering data from four classes in four different disciplines: “Controversies in Science,” taught by a biologist; “Texts and Ideas—Genocide,” taught by an historian; “Communities and Societies,” taught by a political scientist; and “Critical Writing and Reading,” taught by an English instructor. Chapter 2 of the book describes the courses, with an emphasis on the multidisciplinary nature of the study, and the methods by which they collected and analyzed their data. Moreover, and very usefully, the authors provide their protocols and rubrics in an appendix.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 offer the authors’ findings, which they have again grounded in literacy and critical reading theories. Their findings reveal that students across the board have reading comprehension skills “with at least benchmark proficiency” (page 71), but they tend to have lower skills in evaluation, analysis, and motivation to read. Moreover, they find that students fail to show development in these skills over the course of the semester. In regards to writing with sources, which requires skill in analysis and synthesis, the authors found that students failed to think critically about the source material, opting instead for patch-writing or pulling out a sentence or two from a source to fit into their paper.

Based on the findings, the authors offer recommendations in Chapter 5, including five “needs,” such as “students need to be held accountable for reading,” and “the quality of reading needs to be assessed,” in addition to needs pertaining to assessment, writing, and making personal connections to the reading (90).

The researchers’ project is admirable, though their findings merely confirm what practicing instructors (including the authors themselves) have known for a long time. For example, their results offer empirical evidence that teaching reading and writing skills in college is challenging, research papers in university classes often lack the academic rigor and spirit of inquiry that teachers expect, and teachers and students often have different goals when reading. What would be an interesting addition to the text is a discussion that moves beyond higher education, that acknowledges that students may have stronger motivations to read texts critically outside of the classroom, that school-sanctioned reading and writing tasks are often perceived by students as arbitrary, and thus students may be likely to adopt efficient methods of completing assignments that are at odds with instructor goals. Within the context of students’ motivations and non-school sanctioned habits, we could begin to discuss how to create conditions within our classrooms that will encourage engagement. In addition, the text assumes that teaching critical reading skills is an important and worthy goal, with the expectation that readers will be in agreement; to make their case even stronger and for a wider audience, perhaps more theory from the field of educational psychology would be useful for outlining practical impacts of critical reading skills.

Works Cited

Manarin, Karen, Melanie Rathburn, and Miriam Carey. Critical Reading in Higher Education: Academic Goals and Social Engagement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015.