To read, or not to read

A few years ago I was the focus of a small but spirited rebellion in the 100 level course I teach in Biology. My sin was to have a question on a test that had an answer students only could  know entirely from the assigned reading. This came to the students as more than a surprise, it was unfair.

I had gone to the trouble of saying on the Learn pages, in the same place that I listed required readings, that not all content material was possible to cover in lectures and that reading to an appropriate level was a required skill of the course. But this defense rang hollow with some students.

My purpose in raising this historical event with my colleagues now is not to criticize the actions of the students. What the event taught me was that through our teaching culture we trained students to expect that all they needed to do was attend, and possibly understand, lectures. Some sections of our 100 level courses had no required reading and in most others, the requirement apparently was never enforced. Not only were these sections of our courses not encouraging students to read, they were de facto encouraging them to not read.

I am sure that this will come as a surprise to colleagues in many parts of the University. An essential skill students hone through university is the ability to read efficiently at their academic level. Achieving this proficiency at 100 level helps in their transition to 200 level. In their book Academically Adrift analyzing the most important aspects of a university experience to learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that assigned reading and writing activities were two of the most important correlates with measured increases in critical thinking.

Biology now has a policy that requires, at least for 100 level courses, that students should have an assessment based entirely on the assigned reading. This could be an unavoidable test or exam question.

But it isn’t enough just to assign some reading and then write a test question on it. Students should be given guidance and feedback on their progress. The reading and the scale of reading has to be appropriate for the course and the learner. Based on the nominal 150 hours for a 15 point course, students should be assigned selected readings that they can be reasonably expected to have time to read and understand.

“How much is that?”, so I wondered as I dismounted my high horse reaction to students’ umbrage at having to demonstrate competence in the material I assigned them to read. The answer was not easy to find nor does it remain a fully satisfying answer. What I settled on for now as a working estimate was this advice from Rice University: at an average density of 750 words per page in a textbook, the average student should be able to read 7 pages per hour.

In courses I coordinate, I subtracted the contact hours from 150 which left me with the time a student has to read and write or perform other course-required tasks. I did not include the time in an assessment such as a test or exam, but the time to complete a problem set and to study for the problem set was included.

I then evaluated what reading is ‘need to have’ and what is ‘nice to have’ relative to how I prioritise other activities and that can reasonably be expected of a student to complete in a 150 hour course. The completion of this exercise resulted in a table such as below.

Workflow analysis
15 point course = 150 hours


ActivityAssessement valueNumberEstimated hours/activityHours
Final exam30122
Course test15122
Pre-req test/tut151-222-4


Lab test10122
Lab flowsheets5414
pre-Lab problem sets10428
~number of pages
Assigned reading318 (26.5 pages/week)NA45
*Textbook page density is 750 words; engaged reading ~7 pages/hour
Undirected self-learning (other readings, laboratory readings, etc)43-44
Values in blue are not considered part of the 150 hours because these are text/examination times.


One of my colleagues, on seeing this, exclaimed “That is far too much.” But is it? Undoubtedly it indicates that we have different priorities on what to emphasise in a course for our stated (or unstated) learning objectives. However, unless we attempt to inform our course structure with research-based evidence, we will be vulnerable to standards drift. A sign of this is when committees spend more time determining the line between C- and D grades than they do discussing the use of readings to support learning in courses.

Biology now uses such workflow analyses in all applications for new courses and encourages their use in all annual course review exercises. It is a work in progress.

Novel teaching practices within a course can be used to motivate students. However, they may be ineffective, or worse counterproductive, when used sporadically in a curriculum, as my anecdote illustrates. Only when adopted at a threshold regularity in courses do some practices become part of a constructive learning culture. We need more than to innovate in teaching; we need to innovate in our approach to curriculum-wide innovation and research-assured confidence in its effectiveness.

Jack Heinemann

2 thoughts on “To read, or not to read

  1. We should definitely have a requirement and guidelines university-wide for this. The only thing I would suggest is that the suggested reading speed is way too fast. Yes, it’s possible to read that fast – and indeed, much faster. (I’m a very slow reader, but I was fast once!) But – taking in complex ideas or dense information is very different from reading, a page-turning novel. Sometimes it will require several readings just to understand it. Taking notes or annotating the text is helpful and also takes time. Add to this, we have students with very different reading speeds, and `many for whom English is not their first language. I know it would take me a lot more than an hour to read – let alone comprehend and absorb – a 5000 word article (7 x 750 = 5250 words) on any complex topic. I’d suggest maybe 3 or 4 hours is more reasonable.

  2. Back in China, I heard from my English teacher that generally in commonwealth countries (UK, Australia, etc.), university students usually take 12~14 hours per week in classes and 20~24 hours reading outside of classes. He studied in Australia more than 10 years ago. I guess time did change a lot.

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