Obviously, They Should Read 40 Pages, Right?

“No two persons ever read the same book.”
Edmund Wilson


The designing of a course is about more than what happens in the classroom.  A course also includes homework, papers, and reading assignments to name a few.  According to the Carnegie unit recommendation, all the out of class work should fit into a period equal to two hours for ever credit.  Therefore a 3-credit course would have 6 hours of work outside classroom a week, how should that time be divided.  A question often asked is how much reading should I assign?

What this usually means is how much reading is reasonable considering all the other learning obligations the students have.  In the book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum, and Josipa Roksa state that students that have at least 40 pages of reading a week had more substantial gains on the College Learning Assessment. Since the information on the reading is self-reported, we don’t know what kind of reading this represents.  There are multiple types of reading, as an example, there is skimming, scanning, intensive, and extensive another set of options is surveying, understanding, and engaging used by the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University.

When students read for the survey, they are just trying to find the main points.  Reading for understanding requires the student to attempt to understand all the text down to the level of single sentences.  Finally Engaging with the book requires all the skills of reading for understanding while using the book to solve problems and build connections.

A book being viewed through a magnifying glass.
Book viewed through a magnifying glass. Image by Monica Velazquilo (CC BY-SA 3.0).

One way to estimate how much time it will take students to read a specific number of pages is a course workload calculator on the Reflections on Teaching & Learning blog on the Center for Teaching Excellence site at Rice University.  Using the workload calculator if the students reads 40 pages in a survey mode it takes 1.43 hours, Understanding takes 2.86 hours, while Engaging takes 5.71 hours.  If a three-credit class has an out of class workload of 6 hours, reading for engagement would take up all a student’s out of class time. Therefore if the point of your reading assignments is reading for engagement either 40 pages is too heavy, or it is the only thing the students should be doing.

There are other factors beyond the type of reading that affect how long the reading takes, like the complexity of the text.  The more significant the amount of new information in a book the longer it is going to take to read.

While the 40+ page suggestions from Academically Adrift is one of the few research-based examples I have seen there are additional suggestions.  In one case a course that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays the instructor suggest assigning 80 – 120 pages for the period between Thursday and Tuesday and 30 – 40 pages for the period from Tuesday to Thursday.  The argument being that the weekend adds 48 hours, so the students have more time and can read more.

I don’t like this argument, the students have additional time, so they should do more reading.  The main point of the reading assignments is to get ready for in-class activities or to reinforce class activities.  In this example, the two class periods are the same length the amount of material used to prep for the class should be the same.

So, how many pages should be an assignment for each class period?  It should be clear that this is not a simple or straightforward issue.  Let’s start with a 3-credit class that meets Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 3-credit hours times 2 hours per credit means this course has 6 hours per week for reading and assignments.  So, if we assume, we are talking about an introductory course that uses a textbook, and we devote half the total students time to reading (reading for understanding) then using the Rice tool the students would reading 42 pages in 3 hours. The 42 pages suggested by the tool match the reading recommendation from Academically Adrift.

Dividing the 42 pages by the three, students should read approximately 14 pages for each class period.  In a regular semester excluding exams and holidays, there are 40 class periods this gives us a maximum of 560 pages per semester.

How does 560 pages compare with what courses are doing? Looking at the reading list for some introductory science courses, the total number of pages assigned are 261, 256, 338, 463, 475, and 347.  The average page number is 375 ± 87. If we divide the average by the total number of class periods (40) that would mean students would be reading about 9.4 pages for each class or 28.1 pages per week.

So, what does this mean, are introductory science courses are underperforming?  I don’t think so.  For instance, the estimation tool I have been using lists different word densities for different types of books.  For a paperback book, it lists 450 words per page while a textbook has 750 words per page. If we went with word count, then 40 pages of a paperback equal 24 pages of a textbook.

Beyond word count, we should also ask about the number of new concepts? Additionally, is the student reading to prepare for a discussion, to get a general overview of a topic, or to gain a deeper understanding?  While I would love to have a rule or a set of rules that will help us design the best learning experiences, I don’t think we are there yet.

Is course design by word count the way we should go?  Again, I don’t think straight numbers whether pages or word count is the way to go. Because of variables like words per page, number of new concepts and types of reading I’m not sure we will ever have a single rule that determines the optimal number of pages to read.

Just using a number does not consider the reason for the reading assignment or the number of new topics in the text.  Since new concepts and long-term learning are impacted by things like working memory, and short- and long-term memory, I think the number of new ideas and the complexity of the text may end up being the most critical aspects when determining the length of reading assignments.

To determine the amount of reading appropriate for a course we defiantly need more research.  However, I’m not sure this is something that is really on the research radar.  If your students are having trouble do you ever think about changing the amount of reading?  How important do you think the reading assignments are to your students learning?  Do you think we are too concerned with how much reading we assign to students?


Thanks for Listening to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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