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?

So, other than to recommend that you assign at least 41 (!) pages of reading a week so as not to fall afoul of Arum and Roksa’s follow-up study, I will suggest (as you already know) that there is no magical formula by which you can arrive at an abstract optimal number of pages that students should be reading each week. Instead, I’ll try to provide some suggestions for ways that you can think about this in order to come up with something that works for you (and, more importantly, for your students).

(1) Perhaps the most important starting point when thinking about assigning reading is: What do you want the reading to do? Is reading assigned as a background that will inform the week’s lectures but won’t be directly discussed in class? Are you expecting that, as in a seminar, it will generate the entire classroom discussion? Should students be reading for detail or for narrative argument? Do you have in mind the exact arguments you want your students to get from the reading, or do you really want them to explore in a more “free-writing” kind of way? The first point, then, is that the amount of reading you assign needs to be associated with what you want it to accomplish. Students will have a hard time successfully completing a close reading of 60 pages of text, whereas a longer text-book reading of material that they will go back to frequently as they clarify points raised in lecture can be longer. Unfamiliar language (whether English texts from the 18th century, texts in foreign languages, deeply theoretical texts, etc.) will take much more work. Students may “read” the entire text (i.e. their eyes will “touch” each word), but they won’t be reading it.

(2) A second point to consider is where the reading comes in the course, a question which relates to the issue of what role reading itself will play in your course. Is one of the overall learning goals in your course teaching student how to read sociology, anthropology, physics, or musical scores?  This may sounds a bit unusual since our students, by and large, need to be very well prepared in order to even be here. But being well prepared doesn’t mean that they know what is involved in reading at a college level.  I am most familiar with how students are prepared in history, and it’s very clear to me that even the best prepared students have not had practice in reading history monographs in high school, so they will not know how to get through a 220-page text in a week. And they won’t be able to do this because reading history in high school often means reading to memorize details which will later “be on the test.” The same thing will be true for literature students who certainly have read novels in high school, but not necessarily with the tools of textual analysis and close reading technique. Students often come in as consumers of texts, comprehending content and relying on us to give me some guidance as to what is relevant, the points at which they should question the text, etc. Since one of my overall learning goals in my introductory courses is to help students learn how to read college-level history, I try to assign shorter, more directed readings in the earlier part of the semester and only build up to more lengthy reading later in the class. But even in upper-level courses, I will start slowly just to get a sense of where the students are in their practice of reading.

(3) Less can be more. Timothy Burke, who teaches history at Swarthmore, observes that the reading we assign bears little or no resemblance to the sort of reading we do for pleasure, or for our own work. In fact, we assign more than anyone, let alone an undergraduate, can possibly read in any “normal” fashion. When I was in college, we carried around as a pretty twisted badge of honor the excessive amount of reading we had to do each week. No, I didn’t do all that reading, but it was assigned, and I think that as faculty, many of us carry that practice along with us to our own syllabi. Many colleges survey their students’ self-rated study practices. Invariably, when students are asked what percent of time they come to classes “well prepared,” the number hovers around 70%. When faculty are asked to rate what percent of time they think their students come prepared to class “well prepared,” the number falls to around 30%. Does that mean that students aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing or that we faculty are requiring too much preparation? I can’t answer that, but it’s likely somewhere in the middle. None of us wants to sacrifice the reading we think essential for our own classes…but, is there a price we are paying in student learning when the overall student reading load is excessive?

Unhappy with how discussions went when I assigned a 200-page monograph in an intermediate-level class, even when I felt that I had scaffolded my students’ learning appropriately by preparing discussion questions and study tips, I began instead to assign an article by the same author that (at least in history) is always published in a top quality journal prior to the book’s publication. Discussions improved. Similarly, assigning four different articles in one week might mean than they aren’t getting as much as they could out of any of them. Less can be more.

(4) Novices and experts. Many of the above points relate to the fact that we read as experts while our students are still novices and are really learning how to read appropriately to build up their expertise. There are a lot of excellent guides for how to help undergraduates read effectively in their discipline, but let me suggest just a few here. As faculty, we wouldn’t have made it this far (we wouldn’t have finished those 800+ page weeks) without knowing how to skim. Novice readers don’t know how to skim, or rather, they think that skimming involves making sure their eyes “touch” each word but at a quicker rate than regular reading. Timothy Burke (referenced above), who writes a lovely blog called, “Easily Distracted,” uses Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (Verso Press) as an example for how to help students skim for arguments.

In an 2008 article in Teaching Sociology (“Deep Reading, Cost/Benefit, and the Construction of Meaning: Enhancing Reading Comprehension and Deep Learning in Sociology Courses”), Judith C. and Keith A. Roberts suggest a number of ways to use reading responses to help student develop stronger reading practices. These include:

  • Connecting to the text—Underlining key ideas and making marks and comments in the margins. Students are encouraged to go back through the reading and write five “big” questions on key concepts in the chapter. They can then answer some of those questions or write a commentary on why they think these are the core issues in the reading.
  • Summarizing the readings and visualizing the key ideas—Summarizing the reading by using visual or graphic approaches, charts, lists, etc.
  • Reading response journal—Each portion of the reading assignment is responded to with a question or comment.
  • Studying as a group—Two or three students discuss the readings, focusing on key concepts. Ideas are recorded and then written up.

(5) Don’t lose track of the calendar (or your syllabus). Always try to keep in mind where in the school year you are and where in your syllabus you are. We all know this, and most of us ignore it anyway. Very lengthy reading assignments during mid-term week or at the end of the semester will not be read. We may feel that we have to squeeze that extra bit of reading in, but it is generally expecting something that won’t happen as students have much too much else going on during those weeks. Similarly, assigning a heavy reading load during the same week that you have assigned a paper or an exam is not likely to produce the results that you were hoping for. Keep those calendars in mind.

So, how much reading should you assign each week? Try 72 pages and call me in the morning!

For some additional tips on reading, Eric H. Hobson has written a nice paper on “Getting Students to Read: 14 Tips” .

Finally, many disciplines have prepared their own guides for reading in their discipline. History, for example, has The History Guide: A Student’s Guide to the Study of History: 2.1 How to Read a History Assignment.”

If you have a particularly good guide for your discipline, please send it to me or write it in the comments below. (Other comments, as always, are welcome!)

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