Tag Archives: Reading

Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges

Steven Volk, November 1, 2015

The number of international students* at U.S. institutions of higher education continues to multiply. According to UNESCO, at least 4 million students went abroad to study in 2012, up from 2 million in 2000. If these students were a country, they would be the 125th largest in the world (out of 257). Students are on the move, and many are headed to one of five destination countries: the United States (hosting 18% of the total), United Kingdom (11%), France (7%), Australia (6%), and Germany (5%).

According to a report published earlier this year by the Department of Homeland Security, 1.13 million international students, using an F (academic) or M (vocational) visa, were enrolled at nearly 8,979 U.S. schools in 2015, the vast majority in college-degree programs. That represents a 14% increase over 2014, nearly 50% more than in 2010 and 85% more than in 2005.

Credit: Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2015

Credit: Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2015

These students are coming from all parts of the world, but a few countries dominate the charts. In 2012, China sent about 712,000 students abroad to study. India, the Republic of Korea, Germany, and Saudi Arabia also send significant numbers of students to study abroad.

Indeed, international students are reshaping student demographics on many campuses. Fully one-third of the students at Florida International University are classified as international. The University of Southern California enrolled over 12,000 foreign students this year, and Columbia, New York University, Purdue, and the University of Illinois are hosting more than 10,000 each.

Nor are large research universities the only ones receiving significant numbers of internationally mobile students; liberal arts colleges are becoming a frequent destination as well. In the last few years international students made up about a quarter of the student population at two women’s colleges: Mount Holyoke (673) and Bryn Mawr (346).

Our numbers are smaller at Oberlin, but we have also seen the international student population rise as you well might have noticed in your classes or when walking around campus. In fact Oberlin’s international student population has surged by nearly 40% since 2011. We currently enroll 265 international students; 53% (141) hail from China. What you might not know is that the majority of those students (90 plus two double degrees) are studying in the College of Arts & Sciences, not in the Conservatory. In all, it is our great privilege to host students from 42 nations, with about three-quarters coming from Asia (including South Asia).

International Student Meeting, Oberlin College. Photo: William Rieter

International Student Meeting, Oberlin College. Photo: William Rieter

Opportunities and Challenges

It’s hard to fully describe all the benefits of an international presence on campus. To have students from Malaysia, China, Tunisia, Chile or Iraq, among other countries, in our classes gives faculty an extraordinary opportunity to expand classroom conversations and tap into a pool of knowledge gained through a wide range of lived experiences and cultural traditions. Students, for their part, have a chance to study and live with peers from all over the world and to locate their own interests and concerns within a much broader context.

But the rapidly growing number of international students can present faculty with some challenges, and this was the subject of an informative workshop last Thursday sponsored by the Office of International Student Services and the Department of Rhetoric and Composition. As Ann Deppman, Associate Dean and Director of International Student Services, explained, “while most international students settle in quickly and thrive at Oberlin, some may need time to adjust to Oberlin’s academic culture.” Deppman and Amy Moniot, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Coordinator and Instructor, suggested that a number of cultural differences may impact academics and advising.

In terms of the former, faculty might experience some difficulties of cultural adaptation experienced by international students as manifested in writing assignments, critical thinking expectations, classroom participation, and the way in which we recommend external sources of support. International students may come from a culture in which writing assignments were primarily used as a means to report or describe rather than to develop and analyze information. Besides providing our own feedback on their papers and being aware of these differences in prior writing experiences, we can support these students by connecting students with the Writing Associates program or Student Academic Services (more on this below). When it seems appropriate we might recommend that they enroll in 100-level courses in Rhetoric and Composition, which are particularly attentive to the skills and prior preparation of international students.

Editing a Paper. Photo Nic McPhee, Flickr CC.

Editing a Paper. Photo Nic McPhee, Flickr CC.

International students might not be accustomed to receiving any feedback on assignments other than a grade, and so can be unsure what is expected of them when they receive a paper filled with comments or red-penciled with (usually grammatical) corrections. Particularly on early papers, it’s a good idea to speak with these students individually, explaining the purpose of your comments and what they are expected to learn from them. (You might even think about going easy on the red pencil while these students become more acclimatized to the expectations of writing assignments at Oberlin: help them understand the larger framework of writing papers before pointing out every grammatical infelicity.) And, when possible, scaffold their writing skills by assigning multiple drafts. When we understand that, for many students from other cultural traditions, a good paper is not supposed to be perfectly straightforward and logical, but rather the reader is expected to uncover the meaning in a more circular and twisting route, we can work more effectively with them to produce the kind of writing that we expect.

International students may also come out of educational backgrounds that put considerable emphasis on memorization; indeed, you might have noticed their remarkable strengths in that regard. But it also may mean that they will struggle with open-ended assignments (“write on any topic of interest that we have covered in the first part of the semester”) or loosely defined topics. If you prefer to have students select their own topics, work individually with international students to help them define a topic, particularly in their first or second year of college. Similarly, if they come from an academic background in which students were expected to produce a single “correct” answer or interpretation, these students can encounter difficulties developing a thesis or addressing topics that accommodate multiple readings.

Infinity and Me - Kate Hosford

Infinity and Me – Kate Hosford

Class participation can also pose challenges for international students educated in settings where active responses were discouraged. Some come from cultures where silence is a comfortable and even expected response and is seen as a sign of respect. They may be surprised to find that participation is often highly encouraged in our classrooms and that many courses grade class participation. Often, these students find that they don’t understand the criteria by which their interventions in the class will be graded.

Finally, and relating back to a recommendation that I gave above, many international students may think that they will be judged negatively if they seek out the support services and resources available to them on campus. They may be reluctant to go to peer instruction or tutoring sessions (the Writing Associates or the OWLs program in the sciences and math, for example), to form study groups with other students, or to seek the support of Student Academic Services. Our understanding and encouragement can be vital in that regard.

The Lessons of Universal Design

As I heard the workshop facilitators explain many of these points, what became clear to me (as it was to the presenters) is that by helping our international students in many of these areas, we will be helping all of our students. This, after all, is the basic principle of “universal design,” which calls on us to design instruction (e.g., delivery methods, physical spaces, information resources, technology, personal interactions, assessments) to maximize the learning of all students. The support we provide for any specific student population, international students in this example, can help many of our (domestic) students who might have been reluctant to ask for help. This is a topic the “Article of the Week” has taken up before, most recently in “Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design.” Our students are smart and creative, but not all are familiar with many of the unwritten rules that determine what goes on in the classroom. International students, in particular, have excelled in their home countries by mastering a completely different set of “handshakes,” but, as one put it recently in an article in the Oberlin Review, many “feel like outcasts in a new culture.” When faculty make expectations clear, guidelines obvious, sources of support not just available but bolstered by the observation that it is quite often the very best students who take advantage of them…then we are helping not just international students, but all our students.

Three examples can illustrate this point further:

(1) Participation. We often note in our syllabi that class participation will be graded but, quite often, provide no further indication as to the criteria that will determine the grade. Is it quantity? If so, how much participation is required? Is it quality? What determines good interventions? Are we putting “slower” responders (often those students who think before answering!) at a disadvantage by only calling on the first hands that shoot up? And, if we grade participation, do we give students some indication as to how they are doing in that regard as the course progresses? Clearer expectations would help everyone in the class, and certainly international students. As many international students will take longer to process language as well as content, when we ask questions it is important to give students time to answer rather than calling on the students who are quick out of the gate: suggest that they write their answers, break students into groups so that all students – including international students – can rehearse their ideas, and their voices, in a small group setting.

Alumno Participando by Ivonne M.O.; Flickr CC

Alumno Participando by Ivonne M.O.; Flickr CC

(2) Getting help, revising, editing. International students in particular can be wary of using many of the resources that are available to them, including peer instructors, student support services, or counseling. (As a group of international students reported to the Board of Trustees’ forum in early October, often when they do go to those services, they find them less than helpful or culturally sensitive, a different and troubling issue). International students may assume that the best students don’t need help and that it is a form of weakness (or a signal that you are not smart) if you ask for help. They might assume that the best students write brilliant papers on their first try, so it is a sign of incompetence if you have to write many drafts. The opposite, of course, is true, and I often tell my students how many drafts I churn out before I’m ready to submit an article to a journal, or how I have come to rely on colleagues for advice, editing, or ideas when I’m stuck. Again, this is advice that international students will find useful – but so will all our students. We are role models. By making clear just how often we seek, and get, help, we’re sending an important message. By encouraging students (international and domestic) to find their own sources of support — friends,  instructors, peers, advisors — we help them connect with those who will help them do their best.

(3). Reading assignments. How much is too much? One of the most frequently heard concerns from international students is how hard it is to keep up with lengthy reading assignments. College junior Hengxuan Wu recently told the Review, “I feel like people just expect me to be really good at writing and reading when I take a lot of Politics classes, and they just assume that I can totally do 80 pages of reading in English in one night.” We are always pondering the quantity of reading that feels appropriate to assign to our students (see, for example, “Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables” and “Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills”). There is certainly no one answer as to how much reading we can reasonably assign (not to mention how we still that hectoring voice in the back of our heads that reminds us, “When I was an undergraduate, I read 400 pages a night and never complained!” Yeah, right.). But thinking about how all our students can get the most out of our classes can help us address this question and come up with answers that are appropriate. Quite likely, it’s not just the international students who aren’t getting all they can out of 80 pages of Marx or Derrida.

Particular concerns:

There are, of course, issues that impact international students differently than domestic students, and we should be aware of them whether or not they impact student performance in our classes.

(1) The Major: While many of our students will fret over the choice of a major, often seeing it as an essential definition of their identity more than a collection of courses, international students need to pay particular attention to the selection of a major because, if they want to stay in the United States after they complete their degree, visa regulations will determine that their employment be directly linked to their major. I94-F1-VisaSimilarly, off-campus employment (only available after they have completed two full academic semesters) must be directly connected to their declared major. As advisors, it is important to be aware of these requirements, although international students will be well briefed on this by the Office of International Student Services.

(2) Rules and behaviors. International students may come from a culture where the expectation is that rules are less important than relationships; that who you know is more important than following established regulations which are always be applied inequitably. It’s important, particularly for advisors of international students, to help them understand that the rules we have are actually there for a purpose: that they can’t turn in final assignments without an incomplete after the final due date, that major requirements are major requirements, that class attendance rules actually mean you are expected to be in class and not just do well on the exams.

(3) The honor code. International students may come from academic cultures that have different standards for citation of sources, different expectations for when collaboration is permitted, and a different sense of the limits of what kind of collaboration is permissible. The very term we use to talk about expected academic conduct (“honor”) can cause confusion and distress among some international students. A student who uses the same standards to write a paper at Oberlin as she did in China, for example, can be horrified to find her behavior termed “dishonorable” when material wasn’t cited appropriately. The more we can be clear and explicit about citation practices, how certain kinds of paraphrasing can be the equivalent of copying, what materials should carry citations, etc., the more we will help not only our international students, but all our students. (The next CTIE Brown Bag discussion, November 13 at 12:15 in Mudd 052, will be on the honor code.)


We are fortunate to live in an increasingly globalized community. This has impacted the curriculum we offer, the opportunities we give our students to study abroad, and, increasingly, the demographics of our own campus. The increasing number of international students who apply to, and matriculate at, Oberlin and other liberal arts colleges are an indication of the value of the kind of education we provide. We have much to learn from them, and by being attentive to their particular concerns, we can help them, and all of our students, do that much better.

*Note: numbers of international students tends to vary depending on definitions. For most institutions, including Oberlin, an international student is considered to be one who has crossed a border to enter a host country, and, in the case of the United States, carries an F1 visa; they are often called “internationally mobile students.” “Foreign” students is a slightly broader category which also includes those who have permanent residency in the host country.  The category of international students doesn’t include U.S. citizens who may have lived abroad their entire lives or those who hold dual citizenship.

Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills

Steven Volk, March 29, 2015

Reading (Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome; Stefano Corso), CC

Reading (Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome; Stefano Corso), CC

The “Article of the Week” has considered issues of reading a number of times [e.g., here and here], most often dealing with how much should we be assigning in our classes as well as the technologies of reading. The articles also addressed problems of novice vs. expert reading in disciplinary fields. This last issue has been quite noticeable in my own field, history. The goal of history reading in high school – most often assigned from textbooks – is usually intended to encourage memorization. As such, it is considerably different than the skills we are looking to strengthen at the college level. So, I’m always on the lookout for appropriate ways to scaffold reading assignments to help students read both for comprehension and analysis.

I recently found one such method discussed in the current issue of College Teaching [63:1 (January-March 2015:27-33]. In “Active Reading Documents (ARDs): A Tool to Facilitate Meaningful Learning Through Reading,” Justin M. Dubas and Santiago A. Toledo, respectively an economist and a chemist, present a practical tool that promises to develop student understanding of assigned material incrementally through reading. I’ll summarize their findings in this “Article of the Week” and encourage those of you with access to the journal to read it in its entirety.

We assign reading as either general background to inform broader understandings or as an essential element that will lay the foundation for specific class discussions. Faculty have expressed considerable frustration that students aren’t reading as much or as closely as “they used to” in a past (real or imagined) golden age. In any case, many instructors are trimming the amount of reading they assign (which is not always a bad idea) or preparing for class in the expectation that students haven’t done the assigned reading (which is a significant loss). Given the importance of developing careful reading as a central skill we aim to cultivate, giving in to a student’s weak reading abilities seems an unfortunate move. So, how can we insure not only that students are reading, but that they are reading for comprehension (something we can always check with a simple quiz at the start of each class), and, even more, reading at higher cognitive levels?

The Active Reading Document (ARD)

The Active Reading Document (ARD) was developed at Texas Lutheran University, a small (1375 enrollment) liberal arts university where over half the students are first-generation, and a quarter are Latino/a. It was created for students taking economics and chemistry in classes where a textbook was the primary reading assignment, but as I read through the document it seems perfectly useful for many genres of reading in the sciences and social sciences.

Marzano's Taxonomy

Marzano’s Taxonomy

The ARD asks students to develop a document that creates reading tasks at various levels for each of their textbook chapters (See Table I below). These tasks map onto Marzano’s Taxonomy (see above), a theory of human cognition that modifies Bloom’s Taxonomy in a number of useful ways. Robert Marzano’s scheme is composed of three “systems” and one “domain”: a Self-System (which addresses the reality that before learning begins, learners confront their own beliefs about the importance of knowledge, issues of self-efficacy, and, perhaps, assorted emotional issues connected with learning); the Metacognitive System (in which goals are set and monitored), and the Cognitive System (which processes the necessary information). The Knowledge Domain is about content: information, mental procedures, and physical procedures. [For more on this, see Robert Marzano and John S. Kendall, The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, 2nd ed. (Corwin, 2006)].

The ARD works specifically with the four levels that comprise the Cognitive System and are differentiated hierarchically by the degree of cognitive control required to accomplish a task: retrieval, comprehension, analysis, and knowledge utilization. The lower-order levels (retrieval and comprehension) are about accessing and making sense of existing knowledge; the higher levels (analysis and utilization), concern the creation of new knowledge. The higher levels are dependent on having developed good skills at the lower levels.

Table 1The first task (with two component parts) has as its goal the student’s ability to reproduce the hierarchical structure of the reading, using visual representation as a method of presentation. This is a way to help students learn the content of the reading and determine what was most important in terms of vocabulary, concepts or theories. Visual representations can take a number of forms: mind maps, concept maps, structured note taking, or outlines. The second task has students vet the information through their personal experiences. Considerable research suggests the value of these steps in helping students remember and understand. Both are within Marzano’s “comprehension” level: making sense of existing knowledge. Proficiency at these tasks involves accurately breaking down the reading into sections and subsections, replicating the author’s structure, and presenting it with visual clarity. The goal is to create a concise display of the hierarchy of ideas in the chapter or other reading, not to include every piece of information that is presented. Task 1b helps this process by requiring students to discriminate between relevant information and that which is less important. These understandings are further strengthened through the 2nd task which asks students to present the key terms or concepts in their own ways (through their own definitions or visual representations).

Tasks 3-5 help students create their own knowledge, discover new ways of organizing information, and appreciate the interconnectedness of ideas, concepts and skills. They are related to Marzano’s higher order thinking skills (analysis and knowledge utilization). In the 3rd task, students are asked to uncover original connections within the reading and explain the rationale behind the connections. Task 4 requires that students tie new information to information previously covered in earlier readings or activities. The final task broadens this out, asking students to look for connections to skills or knowledge gained from other classes or subjects as well as for personal connections to the material. Once again, the research is quite conclusive about the positive impact personal resonance can have on learning.

Scaffolding the Introduction of ARD’s

Raaka, "Palm Reading Card" (CC)

Raaka, “Palm Reading Card” (CC)

The authors point out that such a set of tasks can be daunting for students with little exposure to active reading, and suggest that faculty carefully scaffold the ARD assignment so that students benefit the most from it. They recommend two approaches: 1) allow revisions to the original (draft) ARD, and 2) offer feedback before recording grades on the assignment. Instructors ask their students to bring their ARD drafts to class, which both strengthens class discussions and allows the students to further clarify their understanding of the material and to revise their ARD’s accordingly. It also allows more class time to be spent discussing higher order analytical issues. Students further revise their original ARD’s based on feedback from the instructor. While this can prove time consuming, particularly in very large classes, this feedback can be particularly helpful in introductory classes, for novice learners, and more at the start of the semester than in the second half. Draft ARD’s can be graded on a simple check/check-minus basis, with the lower grade only if there are glaring omissions. The final drafts can be graded in a traditional fashion, using a contract grading system, or, again, with a check/check-minus system.

The authors note that, “[t]ypically, after four fully-graded ARDs (six total), students will fall into two camps. Some will have realized the usefulness of the tool and have a strong incentive to continue completing them in a conscientious manner. Others have chosen not to pay attention to the feedback provided earlier in the semester and continue neglecting certain tasks (usually those that require higher order thinking skills). Either way, the benefits of additional detailed feedback are outweighed by the costs associated with requiring faculty to spend valuable time providing that feedback.” They suggest that, while they give regular letter grades to final ARD assignments earlier in the semester, by the end of the semester, they only assign check/check-minus grades, with the check grade for a conscientious engagement with the reading and check-minus if students don’t engage with any of the analytic tasks.

Research suggests that providing students with practice at ever-increasing levels of challenge tied to low-stakes feedback improves the chances of persistence and ultimately mastery of learning goals.

Dubas and Toledo’s article provides a sample rubric for evaluating final Active Reading Documents, which I won’t reproduce here. They also note the challenges associated with using this method to scaffold the development of students’ reading skills, not the least of which is a considerable time commitment on the part of faculty. They point out that “[w]hile the [time] burden is significantly reduced by introducing the gradual release of responsibility to students…it can still take away from other objectives.” Nevertheless, they argue that the tool was essential “in fostering meaningful reading of class material and well worth incurring the costs of implementation.”

Do you have other replicable tasks that you use to increase your students’ reading comprehension? Share them by commenting on this post or send them along to me and I’ll post them for you.

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr

Steven Volk, March 1, 2015

Some years ago for another “Article of the Week” (Sept. 24, 2012, to be exact), I wrote about the challenge we face deciding how much reading to assign. I thought about it again in light of an eye-opening article by Naomi S. Baron in the Chronicle of Higher Education (February 13, 2015). It was mysteriously titled, “The Plague of tl;dr.”  Obviously, I had to read it since I had no idea what it was about. [If you don’t subscribe to the Chronicle, the link might not work and you’ll need to go through the library’s website or that of your own institution.] Guesses? According the Urban Dictionary, “tl;dr” means “too long; didn’t read.” It’s used in snarky riposte to someone who, according to the grumbler, has gone on too long in a blog post. As in: “tl;dr…why dont you give up on your unabridged edition of War and Peace or at least stop posting it here?” Zing.

"Reading," Lucas absent pour le moment mais reviens bientôt (CC)

“Reading,” Lucas absent pour le moment mais reviens bientôt (CC)

When I posted my own (way tl;dr) article in 2012, it was in response to the hand-wringing that accompanied the publication of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). The authors argued, briefly, that student aren’t learning what they should in college and much of this is due to the fact that they aren’t writing enough, thinking enough, or reading enough. As an example, the authors found that 32% of students do not take any course in a semester with more than 40 pages of assigned reading per week. Academically Adrift does raise a lot of concerns, but one question I still have is what, exactly, to make of their evidence. Should we be happy that nearly 70% of the students are taking courses with more reading? 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?

"Into the Reading," http://www.postcardsfrominside.com/ (CC)

“Into the Reading,” http://www.postcardsfrominside.com/ (CC)

My own recommendations for how much reading one should assign came with a set of questions to answer before selecting readings for the syllabus:

(1) 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? Is it expected to generate class discussion? Should students be reading for detail or for narrative argument? The amount of reading you assign needs to be associated with what you want it to accomplish.

(2) What role does reading itself play in your course? Is the production of effective reading strategies one of the learning goals in your course?

(3) Does the amount of reading we assign bear any resemblance to the sort of reading we do for pleasure or for our own work, or are we loading it on for other purposes? Timothy Burke, a Swarthmore historian, observed that we often assign more than anyone, let alone an undergraduate, could possibly read in any “normal” fashion. Could less be more?

(4) Do we expect novices to be experts when we assign reading? Our students have had a lot of practice reading, but not necessarily in our disciplinary fields, and not necessarily good practice. They often don’t know how to read appropriately what we have assigned them. One of the reasons we have made it to where we are is because we learned to how skim when we can and dig in when we need to. Novice readers in our fields often don’t know how to skim, or rather, they think that skimming means making sure their eyes “touch” each word but at a quicker rate than regular reading.

(5) How can we help students be better readers? In “Deep Reading, Cost/Benefit, and the Construction of Meaning: Enhancing Reading Comprehension and Deep Learning in Sociology Courses” [Teaching Sociology 36:2 (April 2008)], Judith C. and Keith A. Roberts offer a number of suggestions:

  • 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.

6) Are we aware of the academic calendar when we assign readings? Longer readings that most students will complete when assigned in the first few weeks of class or right after spring break will remain (largely) unread as mid-terms or finals approach.

Main Reading Room, NY Public Library.  Wally Gobetz (CC)

Main Reading Room, NY Public Library. Wally Gobetz (CC)


But what if technology is interfering with how (and how much) our students are reading? Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University, questions how students’ digital reading habits impact their overall (non-digital as well as digital) reading strategies. As she writes, “When reading on-screen, we can rapidly click or scroll our way from page to page within a document. We are able to connect with the outside world, to hop from site to site, to multitask. Sustained concentration, analysis, and rereading are not encouraged.” The screen is great for searching, skimming, and for shorter pieces not necessarily meant for deep thinking. But digital reading might be getting in the way of the kinds of reading we assign to our students.

Baron summarizes research that suggests, on average, readers in the U.S. spend about 72 seconds on a web page, but almost half just spent 12 seconds or less. The point is not whether one should be spending more time deciding whether the dress was white and gold or blue and black. The point is that students (actually, all of us) are re-learning how to read because of these practices.

Digital reading is not the same as other reading: it doesn’t occur on a (slower) word-by-word fashion or even a (faster) skimming approach where experts know how to jump over sections. Digital reading is reading by scanning. Eye-tracking studies by Jakob Nielsen of on-line reading habits have found that web-reading takes place in an F pattern. Readers start in the upper left-hand corner and move across to the end of the first line. As they go down, their eyes soon only alight on the left-hand side. Our students are learning to “power browse” on-line, something quite different than either deep reading or informed skimming. (And content providers are learning to place their content right smack in those “F” areas.)

F-Shaped On-Line Reading Pattern

F-Shaped On-Line Reading Pattern

Baron argues further that “reading on-screen is encouraging a ‘snippet’ approach to the written word,” fostering what she calls “reading on the prowl.” Digital marketers are now catering to this by producing shorter-and-shorter versions of books. This is not the Reduced Shakespeare Company offering (as comedy) the complete works of Shakespeare in 97 minutes, or even Sparknotes or other (ahem) “study guides.” This is Blinklist which advertises itself as “Your personal reading assistant. We read over 1,000 books per year for you and provide you with the most important facts – so you can do more, earn more and be more. All by spending less time reading…Get key insights from the world’s best business books in 15-minute, made-for-mobile reads. Available for iOS, Android, and the web.” Now there’s a lesson for our students: earn more by spending less time reading!

(Baron also suggests the various ways that new reading styles and economic pressures on scholarly publishers are pushing down the length of manuscripts that academic presses will even consider, but that’s worth another article.)

It’s worth citing Baron’s conclusion at length: “Settling into a book affords us opportunities to contemplate, compare perspectives, wander the lives of others, and to wonder. If in our courses we condone replacing full-fledged texts with shorter versions, what message are we sending students about what there is to know or what it means to imagine? And if in our research we increasingly reduce the scope of our source materials, what assumptions are we ourselves making as professors about how much reading and attendant thinking are needed to create new knowledge?”

This is not intended as a Luddite rant against the digital world, nor (as I suggested above), that more is necessarily better. Our students have grown up in a digital world and those of us who didn’t have become quite accustomed to it as well. This world shapes us as well as our students. The point is: knowing what we do about how students develop their technologies of reading, it becomes even more important to assign and scaffold reading in ways that intentionally foster deeper reading, closer reading, more reflective reading. That might mean shorter assignments or not – but it does mean that teaching reading is every bit as important as teaching writing.

What have you found in your courses? Did you even make it through this article? Tl;dr?

Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables)

Steve Volk, CTIE (Sept. 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!)