Make academic literature more accessible to students with varied learning needs

“The UK STEM skills shortage is a well-documented phenomenon, costing employers £ 1.5bn per year in additional training costs, recruitment, temporary staff and inflated salaries.”1

Quality higher education is fundamental to closing this gap, but whether they are just starting a course or returning to study to continue their careers, students face a series of challenges in 2021. Financial issues were cited. as a major factor contributing to ‘record dropout rate’2 during the 2020/21 school year, but there are also concerns that many students “have lost the discipline of learning”2 due to absence from school and exams during the pandemic.

Adapt to more demanding reading demands

Aside from the interruption of education in the past 18 months, the transition from school or employment to self-directed study at university is often overwhelming for new students. It’s not uncommon for undergraduates to find themselves with a reading requirement of 30 or more hours per week, and there is a big cognitive leap from A-level textbooks to university-level literature.

A good percentage of those entering higher education will never have read a primary research paper, and many will struggle to complete even the required reading list for their course. In the 2016 article, ‘Why College Students Don’t Read: What Faculty Can Do to Increase Complianceone of the results of a study assessing ‘reading compliance’ among new students was:

“46% of the students said they read homework, but only 55% of these students were able to demonstrate the most basic level of understanding of the material they claimed to have read.”3

The perception that students do not take the time to read their course material is not always correct. Often times, they just don’t know how to approach these more complex texts without getting overwhelmed and abandoned. It is also well documented that the barrier to entry to primary research literature is increasing and studies have shown that scientific articles are increasingly difficult to read.4

Support more diverse learning needs

Given the growing number of undergraduates requiring additional support due to a specific learning difference (SpLD) such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, mental health issue or whose language kindergarten is not English, it’s easy to see how many might feel overwhelmed by self-study.

Yet if we are to address the skills shortage in STEM jobs alone, we must attract and retain students from more diverse backgrounds and prepare them for success. Universities need to attract students from a wider talent pool and help them become adept at reading and evaluating primary research, so that they remain engaged, motivated, and more likely to complete their studies. These same students must come out of higher education with skills that match the demands of new and emerging industries.

The role of technology in making course material more accessible

New technologies can make a significant contribution to assisting students in their information literacy and self-directed studies. A range of knowledge extraction applications have emerged over the past two years designed to make complex and dense literature more accessible by breaking it down into bite-sized sections. They help build and reinforce knowledge by explaining new terminology, highlighting key learning points, and encouraging deeper reading on a topic.

When a research paper or book chapter is presented as a series of short, interactive sections that can be explored in a non-linear fashion, the barrier to learning is lowered. Simply isolating and defining the most important concepts and terms in a text can provide a student with the knowledge and confidence to explore it further.

Wider reading is encouraged by these technologies, which generate direct links from any text to its referenced sources. And the ability to save interactive article or chapter summaries to come back to later for review and essay writing can help students feel more in control of their reading.

Information extraction and synthesis tools are growing in popularity, especially among students who study in a non-native language and those with a specific learning difference. Simply presenting the content of an academic text in a more structured way can improve concentration and facilitate comprehension.

The aim here is not to “cheat”, or to exclude or overlook sections of an article or chapter, but rather to make their content more immediately accessible and to encourage further exploration of the text. with greater confidence.

Self-study and self-directed learning were already on the rise before the pandemic. Now, with distance and hybrid learning here to stay, educators will need to put more learning technology in the hands of their students to help them succeed.

About the scholarship

Scholarcy is a UK based EdTech company. Its AI-powered technology reads research articles and book chapters in any format and breaks them down into easy-to-digest, interactive summary sheets. Scholarcy helps students around the world to familiarize themselves with their course material.

The references:

[1] Enlighten. 2021. UK STEM skills shortage. [online] Available at: [2] the Guardian. 2021. UK universities predict record dropout rate for students. [online] Available at: [3] Hoeft, M., 2012. Why College Students Don’t Read: What Faculty Can Do to Increase Compliance. International Journal for the Teaching and Learning Fellowship, 6 (2). Available at: [4] Plavén-Sigray, P., Matheson, G., Schiffler, B. and Thompson, W., 2017. The readability of scientific texts decreases over time. eLife, 6: e27725. Available at:
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About Adam Gray

Adam Gray

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