Are You Assigning Too Much Reading? Or Just Too Much Boring Reading?

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Image:   Aum Oer, Creative Commons

Let’s cut to the chase: Most of my students are not doing much of the course reading. Increasingly frustrated by that, I decided this year to ask them why. Here are a few representative comments:

  • "I honestly have not read half of anything I have ever been assigned (and have maintained about a 3.2 GPA)."
  • "I tend to read the first short story/poem/article assigned, and then everything after that is all SparkNotes and shmoop."
  • "I have read about 30 to 40 percent of the given material throughout all of college so far."

My students are, on average, really terrific. I teach humanities and social-science courses at a STEM university, so my classes are filled with bright, eager, self-disciplined young adults. But because STEM students are so overloaded with requirements in their majors, they often give their elective and gen-ed coursework short shrift.

I have learned not to take that personally. I see them struggling to juggle their massive engineering workloads with extracurricular activities, and I can see how much pressure they are under to compete for internships and positions in their increasingly competitive fields. Colleagues in literature, psychology, chemistry and other fields — including some who teach at institutions less focused on science and technology than mine — tell me their students, too, aren’t doing much of the reading.

Over the five years I’ve been teaching undergraduates, I’ve noticed that fewer and fewer are reading the materials I assign. On a good day, maybe 30 percent of any given class has done the reading. Even when I tell students that they will have to write responses to their assigned reading in class — and that those responses will account for a hefty part of the final grade — it’s clear that around a quarter of them still don’t read anything before they show up to class. (Many students admitted that they don’t read their engineering homework, either, but usually do the problem sets after looking at lecture slides.)

That’s why, this academic year, near the breaking point of frustration, I started asking them why. I asked them to be direct with me, explaining that I was trying to figure out how best to deliver course content. I received similar responses whether the students were in intro or advanced courses, and whether they were first-years, seniors, or somewhere in between.

Through this informal ethnographic research, I’ve learned some hard truths and valuable lessons about how to design a syllabus for a humanities or social-sciences class for nonmajors. Long story short: Don’t assign too much reading — and don’t assume you know how much reading is too much for your students.

When it comes to reading, less really is more. Less is more especially when undergraduates are reading the types of scholarly articles that many of us typically assign. In my own courses, I’ve come to the conclusion that assigning students to read more than one five-page academic-journal article for a particular class session is, in sum, too much.

Before you decry my less-is-more suggestion please read on.

Most undergraduates today are supremely practical. They have learned — like the rest of us living in the 21st century — to ruthlessly prioritize their workload. They read only if they have time and if the readings are relatively easy to digest. Most of the time, students tell me, they skim. In an era of digitized information, listicles, and sound bites, they have become expert skimmers and rarely dive deeply into a longer text.

The reasons for that are fairly obvious:

They don’t have the luxury of time and are easily distracted. Students feel like they’re in a constant time crunch — balancing their school workloads with family and work obligations, not to mention their social lives. (Quite honestly, who doesn’t feel like that?).

Students are also easily distracted from the task of reading. Some told me they have trouble focusing on more than a few pages at a time. That makes sense, considering that they grew up looking at texts on digital screens. As one student admitted, "I usually end up not doing many readings or skimming/reading summaries because I get occupied with other things. They could be important or unimportant things, but I get occupied nevertheless."

Students get distracted by all kinds of things — including their social-media apps and other digital entertainments. But then, so do we. Whenever I ask fellow academics how well they are keeping up with the literature in their respective fields, the answer varies, but typically goes something like this: "Not as much as I’d like. I just don’t have time to read anymore, but I usually manage to read the abstracts or the book reviews. Sometimes I skim the introduction or a few chapters of a book if it looks promising."

It turns out that none of us are really reading as much anymore, either. But we feel like we can get away with it, because …

Skimming effectively allows all of us to fake it. We don’t have to read deeply anymore, because someone else has done that work for us. Students know this as well as anyone and are adept at finding alternative sources online:

  • "If there’s a lot of reading material," one student told me, "then there would be times that I would use SparkNotes or scroll through websites to see what other people had to say about it, so I would get a better understanding of what I was reading as well as saving time."
  • Another said: "I read just enough to have a gist of what the material is about. I don’t have time for much more."

Lots of students (and professors) have figured out the chicanery behind being able to say something intelligent in class without actually reading all (or even most) of the assigned material.

Research supports this. "About 80 percent of the students normally did the readings in 1981, but only 20 percent of them did in 1997,"wrote the sociologist and pedagogical expert Linda B. Nilson, in her best-selling 1998 book (updated most recently in 2016), Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors.

One can only imagine what that data looks like now, in the era of smartphones and YouTube.

Nilson comments on the long list of fallback strategies that students use to avoid actually reading the assigned material — from looking at lecture notes posted online to asking friends who did do the reading for their crib notes.

"When you examine all the possible reasons that students habitually don’t do the reading," Nilson wrote, "they boil down to three: (1) They don’t want to (due to poor reading skills or compared to other activities), (2) they don’t think they have to, and (3) they really don’t have to — that is, they face no dire consequences if they don’t."

Even if we quiz them or otherwise try to enforce the reading, as Nilson points out, students are often talented enough to get away with still not doing it. They are, in a word, savvy.

Nothing bores students more than long, dry academic texts. A serious difficulty in engaging students today is that they are easily bored. "Being brutally honest," wrote one of my students, "I usually don’t read unless it really peaks [sic] my interest."

Lack of interest was a common theme. In fact, it may be the biggest reason students are no longer reading the things we assign. They have complained over and over again that a lot of assigned texts are just too boring or too long or — the deadliest of combinations — both at once.

Nilson’s book cites recent studies to suggest that students do learn better if they are interested in the material being covered. So why do we insist on assigning the sort of readings that we as academics like, but that most students loathe?

I once assigned Roland Barthes’s "Rhetoric of the Image" in a course on the anthropology of technology, because it gets at the work that images perform in a way that makes sense for the digital age, and because I love it. Guess what: It was my students most hated reading of the term. And why? Because of its dense, philosophical language.

Now, instead of Barthes, I have students read something like this 2018 essay in The New Yorker: "In the Age of A.I., Is Seeing Still Believing?," and then I would lecture on Barthes. That way everyone is happy: I get to introduce them to Barthes, and they can actually digest the hyperreal, because they are tying it to something they are interested in (artificial intelligence and advanced technology).

Interest in the topic aside, students have admitted to me that they struggle to fit everything into their schedule. "Even when I’m interested in a subject matter or even a specific book," one of them lamented, "I will not finish it on deadline for a class." So you can imagine what happens when they aren’t interested.

Here’s the cold, hard truth: Students are, on average, most likely to do the reading only if the assigned articles or chapters are short and few in number (a maximum of two five-page articles for any one class session). Anything more than that doesn’t get read.

Nilson offers two solutions: Make students do homework based on the readings (writing a summary or applying concepts is best) or give quizzes (and not periodically, but every time a reading is assigned). But even then, many students may not do the reading, and some will be smart enough to get by without doing it.

So, as professors, what are we supposed to do?

I know the purists are going to disagree with any notion that we might adapt our syllabi to better fit Generation Z, but opposition to changing the way we assign material strikes me as less and less realistic as we tromp further into the digital age. If no one is reading the texts we assign, then assigning them amounts to not much more than virtue-signaling to other professors. In this case, the virtue being signaled is "academic rigor."

In the end, I’ve decided to assign only a few key scholarly texts throughout the semester. I use them to ground the class and then expand the boundaries of what can be considered appropriate for an undergraduate reading list — documentaries, podcasts, and articles by journalists (long the object of academic scorn for their perceived lack of depth and rigor) or other nonacademics.

My students are getting the information — but in the formats with which they are most comfortable. Instead of reading more, they are doing more research and writing. And, so far, their understanding and application of difficult social-scientific concepts and ideas haven’t seemed to dip.

Call me unrigorous if you like, but rethinking reading lists has reinvigorated my classroom and my students’ writing in some surprising ways. In a future post, I’ll talk about including podcasts, interactive texts, and videos as part of students’ final "writing" projects.

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