Read Less, Read More

Public Radio International reporter David Freudburg finds that “The consequences of elevated stress levels for students include massive cheating (one survey showed 9 of 10 students admit to cheating), high rates of angst and depression, abuse of ‘study drugs,’ etc.” In my own English Department, we have similar findings: students increasingly choose to read Sparknotes, Shmooop or other study guides in lieu of reading their novels.  In our own student surveys, more than 60% of students regularly admit to using study guides in place of reading the text itself – not even as a supplement to the text.  And,  like schools everywhere, our students report a higher degree of stress and anxiety than previous generations of students.   And, like students everywhere, they manifest this stress in an increased number of mental-health related illnesses.

So, I’ve been crunching some numbers. Each semester, we ask lower division students to read at least four books; upper division students to read five.  Over the course of our instructional days, the reading load for some classes gets as high as 65 pages a night.  Granted, we have a rotating block schedule, which means that students have longer to complete the assignment.  But my gut reaction is that we’re assigning at least an hour’s worth of reading each night before our students have written a word or annotated a passage.  Because of this high reading load, I am also reluctant to assign any other type of homework, which puts an increased pressure on class time to write, reflect, discuss, learn vocabulary and grammar.

The feedback that I’ve gotten from some colleagues is this: If a student won’t read five books a semester, why will she read four?

I’m not ready yet to answer this question. I know I have a lot of research to do to convince some of my colleagues that by reading less (in terms of quantity), my students will read more, and the work that we do can become more meaningful and more rigorous.

What I’d love to know are your thoughts.  How have your schools worked to minimize student stress, and maximize student learning?

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