Column: What’s with all of the reading?

By Matt Simmons

Students majoring in humanities such as history, English, or psychology do not have it as easy as you engineers and business majors like to think. On any given night we could have up to four reading assignments that range from 20-70 pages in length a piece. Keeping up with all of the assigned readings could take just as much time and effort as dreaded chemistry labs and math assignments.

It is not to say that reading assignments are all that bad. I am sure most of us majoring in humanities would much rather have lengthy reading assignments than weekly labs and daily homework assignments. However, reading assignments can be problematic if they are unnecessary or a hindrance to the educational process.

In my experience, keeping up with daily readings is not necessary to gain mastery of the course material or to receive a good grade in a class. Case in point, a good friend of mine who is majoring in psychology has close to a 4.0 GPA. The interesting thing is that she barely reads at all. In fact she does not even buy required books for some of her classes. Either my friend is a genius, or something needs to be changed. When students can excel in classes without doing half of the work-load, the curriculum needs to be reevaluated.

Even more troubling is the fact that not only is the reading unnecessary, but it could actually hinder student performance. During my first semester here I felt it was wise to keep up with all of my reading assignments. In one of my classes I received a “C” on the first mid-term. After that, I decided to forgo the reading assignments and concentrate on the material covered in lecture and completing the assignments. With that strategy, I greatly improved my performance and ended up with an “A” in the class.

There are a myriad of problems with reading assignments. First of all, many readings present a lot of irrelevant information. Some students could have trouble determining what is pertinent to the course and what should be disregarded, which makes studying less efficient. Also, professors sometimes will assign multiple readings that basically contain the same information in order to reinforce important ideas. Students end up spending time reading something two or more times that they could spend more efficiently studying something else.

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Furthermore, students may not be able to fully comprehend academic writing. A lot of academic writing is very complex, wordy and simply confuses students. On top of that, many readings are reviewed and thoroughly explained in lecture. Lectures are usually more exciting and have more illustration than readings do. Students have little incentive to spend time trying to decipher text that will be presented to them in a more comprehensible and concise manner the next day.

If students do not need to read in order to do well academically, then what is the purpose of reading assignments? Do they help student’s reading comprehension skills or improve their overall knowledge? This is unlikely. Many students forget what they have read as soon as the exam is over as they have to make room for new information they will be tested on for the next exam. As far as reading comprehension skills go, students would benefit more from shorter, more lucid readings.

I must stress that I am not taking shots at any one professor I have now or have ever had at the University. My opinions are based on fairly stable patterns observed over eight semesters here. Every semester, professors stress the importance of keeping up with the reading assignments. They seemed puzzled by the fact that many students do not read. Rather than being offended by this column, I hope professors will utilize this information to find ways to use reading assignments in a way that is more beneficial to their students.

Matt Simmons is a senior in LAS. His column appears on Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected].