Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables)

Steven Volk, September 24, 2012

One question that comes up often for beginning faculty, but reappears almost every year you plan a syllabus is: How much reading should we be assigning in our classes? Is there an amount that is so reduced that students will think that my course is a “gut” (do they still call it that?); is there an amount so large that its only purpose is to signal how hard the class is? Obviously, any answer will depend on the course, the topic, the placement in the syllabus, etc. Five pages of a physics article may take as much time to “read” (more on why this is in quotes later) as 100 pages of history or a 200-page novel…but maybe not. Hence we keep asking ourselves the question.

Higher Education seems to be beset by a lot of hand wringing these days, or at least that’s the case for pundits who write on trends in higher education. Some of this angst has been spurred by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2011 which argued, very briefly, that student aren’t learning what they should in college and much of this is due to the fact that they aren’t being challenged. Among other factors, students are not reading enough, they are not writing enough, they are not studying enough. The authors highlight as an example of this that 32% of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of assigned reading per week. One of the concerns I have about Academically Adrift is that I don’t know exactly what to make of this. Should we be happy that nearly 70% of the students are reading more? Are the 32% of the “light-reading” courses in the sciences, math, poetry, creative writing, studio art, etc? And finally, for the purpose of this discussion, do we have any research to suggest that more is better? Continue reading