A new survey documents what most teachers already know: students don’t devote much time to their course-assigned readings (Sharma, Van Hoof, & Ramsay, 2019). And that’s not counting students who are doing their very best to get through a course without reading. In this survey, more than 1,100 students enrolled in five general education courses and taking an average of 17 credits reported reading for only 7.52 hours per week. That’s 30 minutes per week per credit, or 90 minutes for a three-credit course. The students who are reading more than the average are earning higher grades—also not a surprise, but it’s good to have this confirmed.
How should we respond? With concern? Most of us have already expressed it. Some of us have moved on to moaning; others decry the reasons and question their legitimacy. Students regularly report that they lack the time to do the reading. They also tell us they don’t like to read, which often really means they struggle to read course material. The vocabulary is beyond them. The content challenges them way more than the texts and tweets they exchange. Are any of the reasons that keep students from doing the reading things we might do something about? Trying to answer that raises more questions, some of them pretty pointed.
Clearly, students don’t think the kind of reading we ask them to do is important. They don’t see reading as a professional skill—something they’ll be doing in most jobs, where it’s often not “easy” reading. More fundamentally, I don’t think a lot of students understand that they can learn by reading. They do all the time, but somehow when they look something up on their phones, it’s not the same as learning course content. Content, they seem to think, can only be learned if the teacher speaks it to them. How well are we communicating the importance of reading as both a professional skill and a vehicle for learning course content? Is there course content we don’t “cover” that students are responsible for learning on their own? How do we use assigned reading to develop the skills students need for “difficult” reading?
Do students earn “average” grades when they do average amounts of reading? Teachers regularly tell students that they “have to do” the reading, but students have discovered that’s not the case in every course. If a small amount of time devoted to reading the night before an exam can still produce a “decent” grade (think a gentleperson’s B), that’s the option many students will take. It’s easy to tell ourselves that students who don’t much read aren’t getting decent grades. But how do we know? Have we collected any evidence?
And then there’s a rarely discussed question: What’s a reasonable amount of assigned reading for a three-credit course? Is our thinking influenced by the mantra that more is always better? Standards and our need to uphold them further tangle issues here: assign less and worry about diluting academic standards. We must maintain standards, but they needn’t prevent us from exploring what’s a reasonable reading assignment.
It’s also useful to ask about the relationship(s) between content explored in class or in online exchanges and content that’s in the assigned readings. Is it repeated in both places? Is it explained more fully during the course session or in the text, or does that depend on the topic? Does the teacher set up the conceptual framework using the examples the text provides? Is one position presented in class and another proposed in the reading? There is multitude of different possible relationships. Were students asked what the relationship between what’s in the text and what’s covered in class is, would they answer correctly?
And finally, what are we doing with the reading in the course? Do we refer to it, defer to it, point to it, and ask about it? Teachers can demonstrate the value of reading material in some quite convincing ways.
Students who don’t devote much time or energy to course readings lose a lot of learning opportunities. And that is their problem. But their learning is also our responsibility. We can’t make them read and we can’t make them learn, but we can take actions that show the value of reading and that encourage them to discover what they can learn by reading.
Sharma, A., Van Hoof, H. B., & Ramsay, C. (2019). The influence of time on the decisions that students make about their academic reading. Active Learning in Higher Education, 20(1), 79–92. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787417731200