Saturday, December 30, 2006

How Much Reading Can We Expect Our Students to Do?

Here is a vexing topic, at least for this instructor of cultural foundations of education. What can you expect students to read in a typical semester? In a 500 (master’s level, but open to advanced undergraduates) course that I teach on higher education in film and fiction, I am assigning 6 novels with a total number of pages around 2200.

So, over 16 weeks we are talking about 140 pages per week. I have been advised both ways, that this is too much for some of our students, especially those who work, while some of my professorial colleagues say this is not too much. After all, we are talking about current literary fiction such as Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, not dense theoretical or philosophical texts.

Part of the problem is that students, even graduate students, generally do not do reading these days. This commonly known fact was not the case when I went to college, or at least not for me. But today, as Rebekah Nathan points out in her book My Freshman Year, students cut corners when they can, and if reading is not tested upon or part of one’s grade, very few do it.

So, I ask you dear readers, what is the appropriate amount of reading that we can expect of students at various levels? Are 150 pages of fiction per week too much even for graduate students (for comparison, for an undergraduate course in modern literature where I went to college the professor assigned Proust, Mann, Joyce, and other large texts, one per week)? Should we give students “reading quizzes” to assure that the reading is done?

One strategy regarding readings that a friend of mine suggests is this, and I quote him: “Talk about this problem frankly with them at the beginning of term, and say 'okay, you are graduate students in the philosophy of education. Here's an educational-philosophy issue par excellence. How do you get students to do all the readings assigned? I am sympathetic to the fact that many of you have full-time jobs *outside* Purdue. But, that said, this class is a serious responsibility that you have shouldered voluntarily for the time being. After all, I only have you for a VERY SHORT TIME. I may never get to educate you again after this term. So for these 16 short weeks, I am going to require that you really do ‘shuffle this course up to the top of the heap,' as it were, and make these readings a priority in your life while you're enrolled in it."

My friend goes on to talk of another strategy he uses: “What I do sometimes in my undergrad courses, if I suspect [know] that they are slacking, is to give a POP quiz, very early in the term, and let them crash & burn. I go so far as to collect the papers. I let them baste in their own juices for a few moments. Then I tear up the quizzes and say, ‘that was an educational moment all its own. You get a free pass THIS TIME. Next time, though, it *will* count. So be sure you do the reading.' Invariably on the next quiz they all get almost 100%."

Let me hear your reading expectations and strategies for getting students to do the readings.


Kathryn M. Benson said...

Of course, the key to reading is motivation tied to interests and needs. No, your assignments are not too lengthy or demanding. Lack of time is not an option, I think. We all make time for what we want to do. Does anyone lack time to watch television, surf the net, text message, and on and on? That said, we live in such an "instant" society that slowing down long enough to read texts is not palatable to most. You have to be still and quiet and think, for gosh's sake. We readers are dinosaurs. I grew up in tv land too, but I always read voraciously. I learned to teach myself. However, that up front approach of stating the necessity to read the assignments, asking students for feedback, suggestions to solve the "reading" problem raises consciousness of teacher expectations and students' needs regarding the importance of reading. I like to put together assignments, projects, research tasks that are tied to what I call "close textual analysis." In other words, there's no way to do the work without reading carefully and thinking a bit. Double draft entry journals are an example of this. Learning Log topics tied to close reading are helpful. The point is to make the assignments meaningful and relevant to the goals for class learning. The students can clearly see how reading the texts enables them to complete assignments. That is a no-brainer for most of us, but students don't always see the point in reading when maybe the prof doesn't actually discuss the reading or in a subliminal way uses the out of class reading for more complicated discussions face-to-face. They don't get that. As a secondary English teacher (in my other life), I always just curled up and cringed when my ninth graders boldly stated, "I just hate to read." What response is there to that? Of course what they called "reading" was taking tests on Accelerated Reader. So, I would argue they didn't even know what "reading" was. A chore, not a joy. A waste of time, not a lesson in life. I digress. I wonder if everyone had a Sony e reader if the technology tie would help!!!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate what Ms. Benson said and echo much of it, though I suspect I get a higher percentage of active and even aggressive readers than she does.

One of the tools I use to encourage reading of assigned material (since many of my aggressive readers would still prefer to read something other than the assignments *growl*), is prepared questions on the material that I hand out at the beginning of the discussion (or sometimes when the reading is assigned, but not as often).

Each person gets one or two numbered questions which, when I call the number on it, they are supposed to share and then offer a bit of response to it.

A couple times when I was first using it, late in the term, a student would say "I don't really think this applies to the work" or something else either truthful or designed to get them off the hook. So, the questions have an out on them "or some other question that you find more interesting about this work."

I don't start the term with this technique, usually, but I add it in if I find that I am faced with a bunch of bumps on logs.

Oh, by the way, thank you for your blog - and this was a particularly timely question for me, as you can see with the links to this post.

joshwriting on LJ

Steve Poling said...

It sounds like just about the right amount of reading. For a 500 level course, students should expect to be challenged. As a current Ed.D. student, I always appreciate when my professors follow up the reading assignments with meaningful class discussion and meaningful writing assignments related to the reading. I appreciate it not because it is a motivator to then go read but because those types of follow up activities really help me cement the concepts and objectives.

Sherman Dorn said...

Part of the problem is that students, even graduate students, generally do not do reading these days. This commonly known fact was not the case when I went to college, or at least not for me.

What you remember as de rigeur may not have been as common for your classmates. I remember being floored my first few semesters at USF that students didn't pick up the exams that I had spent hours writing comments in. I had picked up and reread my exams as an undergraduate, but neither my constructive or destructive behavior is guaranteed to be universal among my students.

My strategy this semester was to get my masters students to tell me what type of questions they found valuable to help prepare for discussion, and then we used those for the majority of the semester for weekly responses. Students ended up with a choice of 2 out of 4 questions to respond to before our class discussions every week: they could demonstrate they understood the central argument, evaluate the merits of the argument, link it to some issue in schools today, or write about what they learned from doing the reading. The vast majority of students always responded to the comprehension question, and a majority chose the contemporary-linkage question. For the most part I was pleased with the student work. I think it worked because they had come up with the questions themselves.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for raising this question and for the helpful responses that have been posted. I'm preparing to teach my first undergrad foundations course. It is listed as a seminar, but with 25 students enrolled, I've been trying to figure out how to get everyone talking -- and so, of course, their having done the reading will be the important first step.

Anonymous said...

I went to college in the 1960/70s and would do the reading if it was relevant. Too many times I would annotate and analyze the reading only to have that work go to waste because the professor didn't discuss the reading. So I drifted away from doing the reading in favor of more productive things.

I was of the mistaken opinion that the only value of reading was to analyze and think about the content. I must admit that in one course the teaching assistant and I squared off in a daily battle with half the class sitting up front next to the TA and half the class sitting with me by the door. Thus the problem of opening your class to discussion is that you have to know your material better than your students.

James Horn said...

I think 150 pages of fiction is very fair. I would think that about half that would be about right for phil. text, and about 90-100 pages of history text would not be too much.

I agree with those who make the point that readings that are discussed are readings that are most often read. I rarely assign any reading that does not become a part of the discussion. In fact, my syllabus makes the point that student reflections on the readings provide the springboard for discussions each week. Of course, all my classes most often function as readings-based discussions.

These reflections, always in APA, are collected most weeks, and they count 20% of student grades. There is an additional participation grade, and, of course, those who are absent cannot participate.

Students know that they may be called on to share part or all of their explanation, interpretation, or analysis of what they find most important in any particular reading.

And, of course, the readings figure significantly in the assigned essays that students are asked to write as the major assessments.

This semester I am going to move from the use of "reflections" to "thoughts." I am hoping this change in terms may short-circuit the early temptation by some students to see only themselves when they begin to respond to a text. If you know what I mean.

Sherman Dorn said...

I understand Jim's comment about students who "see only themselves when they begin to respond to a text." In my case, I'm disappointed either by a failure to make connections to other readings and ideas or to see the author's ideas in themselves. From an e-mail from me to a student in the fall of 2000 (captured in one of my first blog entries):

I know that at times a focus on the "text" makes teachers seem like we most value the pinning of authors down for close study, maybe making me an academic-as-lepidopterist (or butterfly collector). Please have pity on this poor reader, though, as I try both to gauge each student's understanding of the material and also respecting the nuances of all your thoughts. Specific references help with both of these tasks, because I face many times each week a passage of student writing that is ambiguous. Is the ambiguity intended, a reflection of writing late at night, or a sign of some misunderstanding? Discussing

Teachers with small numbers of students—and students who have time to reflect and respond—have a great advantage in this effort at communication, in that a conversation can often sort out what the student is understanding and thinking. With more than 100 students, I do not have that option (I refuse to call it a luxury). The result is a horrific Catch-22 in which students most lacking patient guidance and coaching, in medium to large classes, are those where they most desperately need the skills that only such close teaching can provide.

Kathryn M. Benson said...

Yes, but the experience of reading begins internally in a personal and autobiographical way with a dialogue between the reader and the text. The reader makes sense of the text according to his/her own interpretations in light of prior knowledge, experiences,etc. For Gadamer, understanding is a holistic process mediated by a complex framework and, also, an active process of encounter and response (Outhwaite, 1990, p. 27). In Truth and Method (1993) Gadamer speaks of the traditional conception of understanding as the process of operating within the hermeneutic circle in which we move back and forth between specific parts of the “text.” Rejecting a stress on method, he claims that understanding is not a matter of trained, methodical, unprejudiced technique, but, rather, an encounter in the existentialist sense, a confrontation with something radically different from ourselves. Understanding comes when we are able to merge or “fuse our horizons” and “we must place ourselves in the other situation in order to understand it” (pp. 302–303). Of course, he is speaking of the historical horizon but extends the application to the personal. And, so, I suggest "reading the text" is this sort of process that begins with the back and forth of the personal (individual) and the public (the text with a supposed "author"). Those circles of understanding and interpretation must eventually extend to an interaction outside the self with the perceptions and experiences of other peope whether in a political setting, historical position, economic reality, etc. I express this clumsily, but wanted to express the necessity of the personal and private experience that is antecedent to the public sphere.

Anonymous said...

There is an interesting discussion about 2/3rds of the way through this TEDTalk where the socialogy professor talks about the effect the tyranny of choices has on the distractbility of college students, and how this has affected how he assigns work to students.

FYI, I had to read 100-150 pages a week of very dense history texts as an undergrad. I found the smaller reading assignments (about 50 pages a week), and watered down version of psychology in my Education text I got in my teaching credential program laughably easy.

Anonymous said...

140 p. per week shouldn't be overwhelming for a full time student, especially one who is enrolled in a 500 level course. However, piling on reading doesn't necessarily make for a more enriching experience. I once completed a 200 level interdisciplinary course with 14 assigned readings and a cumulative total of ~ 4500 p. The list included Cervantes, Fowles, Joyce, and some very dense philosophical and spiritual works from Hut, Baudrillard, Abram, and others. The load proved to be unbearable, and after week 11 I simply stopped reading.
Its been my experience that at least 2 hours should be devoted to seminar discussions on each reading.