Reading for courses, how much and how fast?

Recently I’ve been trying to figure out some guidelines for setting readings for university courses.

There seem to be a number of complicating factors:

  • Do students read?
  • How much time can you expect students to read each week?
  • How fast can students read?
  • How dense is the reading material?
  • What level of engagement are they expected to have in the reading?

On question 1, I think this is similar to the question about lecture-attendance. These days, for some types of courses anyway, students simply do not turn up to lectures. They know that the content is fixed, that the lecture is a delivery system for that content, and that it will be recorded. They’d much rather listen to the recording at 1.5 – 2x speed and write down notes from that, than turn up and be bored by a droning robot. Attempts to circumvent this by essentially using ‘content protection’ rackets – not recording lectures, not doing handouts, trying to force students to turn up, are all pointless because they are attempts to salvage a stupid method of content delivery.

Anyway, that’s my tangent about lectures. While there may be good strategies for getting students to do readings, those shouldn’t amount to tricks and manipulation. In the end, if a student doesn’t want to do the readings, they are probably taking the wrong class.

Question 2 is generally fixed at a higher level than the subject level. The ol’ Carnegie Unit expectation is 2 hrs out of class for every 1hr in class. But that’s probably not going to be 2 hrs of reading. It is meant to encapsulate all the class’s external demands. It also depends upon how much set reading dovetails with assignment and assessment demands across the subject.

Assuming you have a class that fits the standard ¼ of a full-time work load, and has 2-3 hr of class per week, anywhere between 3 and 6hrs of reading could be reasonable.

Questions 3-5 are interrelated. The most useful site I found was this one here, which contains not only a discussion of the question of reading and workload, but a calculator built off self-reported data, that allows you to input Pages per week, Page Density (for different types of texts), Difficulty of Text, and Purpose of Reading (Survey/Understand/Engage) to produce estimated pages/hour.

From this, my rules of thumb going forward are 10 pages/hr estimate for texts to be discussed/engaged, 15 pages/hr for texts to be learnt/absorbed. On this proviso, a textbook chapter + a relatively short primary doc a week is more than feasible for an undergrad subject; a longer section of a scholarly secondary text could substitute for both.

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