“The UK’s STEM skills shortage is a well-documented phenomenon, costing employers £1.5billion a year in additional training costs, recruitment, temporary staffing and inflated salaries.”1
Quality higher education is fundamental to closing this gap, but whether they are just starting a degree course or returning to study to further their careers, students are facing a range of challenges in 2021. Financial issues were cited as a major contributing factor to ‘record dropout rates’2 during the 2020/21 academic year, but there are also concerns that many students ‘have lost the discipline of learning’2 as a result of missed schooling and exams during the pandemic.
Adjusting to more demanding reading requirements
Disruption to education over the past 18 months aside, 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 hours or more per week, and there’s a big cognitive jump from A-level textbooks to degree-level literature.
A good percentage of those entering higher education will never have read a primary research paper and many will struggle to finish even the required reading list for their course. In the 2016 paper, ‘Why university students don’t read: What professors can to do increase compliance’ one of the findings from a study assessing ‘reading compliance’ in new students was:
“46% of students reported that they read assignments, yet only 55% of those students were able to demonstrate the most basic level of comprehension of the material they claimed to have read.”3
The perception that students don’t take the time to read their course material is not always accurate. Often, they just don’t know how to tackle these more complex texts without getting overwhelmed and giving up. It’s also well documented that the entry barrier to primary research literature is getting higher and studies have shown that scientific papers are getting harder to read.4
Supporting more diverse learning needs
Given the growing number of undergraduates requiring additional support because of a Specific Learning Difference (SpLD) such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, a mental health condition, or whose first language isn’t English, it’s easy to see how many might feel overwhelmed by self-study.
Yet if we’re going to address the skills shortage in STEM jobs alone, we need to attract and retain students from more diverse backgrounds and set them up to succeed. Universities need to be attracting students from a wider pool of talent and helping them become adept at reading and appraising primary research, so that they remain engaged, motivated, and more likely to complete their studies. These same students need to be emerging from higher education with skills that match the requirements of new and emerging industries.
The role of technology in making course material more accessible
New technologies can contribute significantly to helping students with information literacy and self-directed study. A range of knowledge extraction applications have emerged over the past couple of years that are designed to make dense complex 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 further reading on a subject.
When a research paper or book chapter is presented as a series of short, interactive sections that can be explored in a non-linear way, the barrier to learning is lowered. Simply isolating and defining the most significant 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 being able to save interactive digests of articles or chapters to return to later for revision and essay-writing can help students feel more in control of their reading.
Information extraction and summarization tools are growing in popularity, particularly among students studying in a non-native language and those with a Specific Learning Difference. Simply presenting the contents of an academic text in a more structured way can improve focus and aid comprehension.
The aim here is not to ‘cheat’, or to exclude or overlook sections of a paper or chapter, but rather make their contents more immediately accessible and encourage further exploration of the text with greater confidence.
Autonomous study and self-directed learning were already on the rise before the pandemic. Now, with remote and hybrid learning here to stay, educators will need to put more learning technology in the hands of their students to help them succeed.
Scholarcy is a UK-based EdTech company. Its AI powered technology reads research papers and book chapters in any format and breaks them down into easy-to-digest, interactive summary cards. Scholarcy is helping students worldwide get to grips with their course material.
 Luminate. 2021. The UK’s STEM skills shortage. [online] Available at: https://luminate.prospects.ac.uk/the-uks-stem-skills-shortage
 the Guardian. 2021. UK universities predict record student dropout rate. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/19/uk-universities-predict-record-student-dropout-rate
 Hoeft, M., 2012. Why University Students Don’t Read: What Professors Can Do To Increase Compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(2). Available at: https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/ij-sotl/vol6/iss2/12/
 Plavén-Sigray, P., Matheson, G., Schiffler, B. and Thompson, W., 2017. The readability of scientific texts is decreasing over time. eLife, 6:e27725. Available at: https://elifesciences.org/articles/27725