College Reading: How Much Effort and How Much Spending on Textbooks?
College students are required to read much more, at a more advanced level, than in high school, but professors don't all use readings in the same way.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
You may be shocked in college to learn exactly how much reading is required of you. It is far more than in high school, and you need much more advanced reading skills in college than in high school. You will likely begin voicing the common student complaint that each professor seems to think his or her class is the only one you have because the magnitude of reading assignments (not to mention all the other assignments) doesn't reflect the fact that you have four or more other classes to prepare for. It doesn't help that textbooks are also absurdly expensive.
Many professors assign more than one text -- sometimes up to five or more in, for example, literature and seminar-type classes. If you employ time-management techniques and look at how all your reading requirements fit into your schedule, you may even conclude that it is not humanly possible to do all the reading you're expected to do in a semester -- especially if you're a slow reader.
Therefore, you need to determine how much and what kind of reading you actually need to do in each class. Virtually all professors assign textbooks or some other kind of reading, but professors don't all use the reading in the same way. You may find that some instructors barely refer to the textbook at all. They may not even test from the reading; instead, grades may be primarily based on discussions, projects, and writing assignments -- or tests are based essentially on lecture material. Other professors base everything on reading assignments; the reading is essential to your class preparedness and ability to contribute to discussions, and tests are based entirely on the text. Professors who strongly depend on the text may even teach the reading in class lectures. Somewhere in the middle are professors whose tests combine material from reading and lectures.
Your professor's style of reading usage not only will determine how and how much you read, but also may influence whether you even buy the textbook. Textbooks are astonishingly expensive, and their escalating cost has affected students' buying habits and use of texts. Students are often reluctant to buy a book unless it's absolutely necessary. And while most experts recommend either making notes in the text or highlighting, fewer and fewer students do so because they want to sell their books back at the end of the semester to recoup some of the huge costs. You must be strategic in planning both reading and purchasing texts.
How can you find out your professor's style of reading usage?
- Ask students who have previously taken the course with the professor.
- Examine the syllabus carefully. Look for the assignment of specific chapters and notations that tests will cover certain chapters. The syllabus may even clarify how essential the textbook is and indicate policies on reading and class preparation.
- Attend a few class sessions at the beginning of the semester before you buy the text to see if you can get a feel for how important reading will actually be. (If reading assignments begin right away, see if you can share with a classmate before you buy.) Listen for the professor's emphasis on the reading; does he or she refer to specific upcoming readings? Does he or she come out and say that a certain item from the text will be on the exam?
- Look at old to see the extent to which they are taken from the reading.
- Ask the professor. Be careful about asking because you don't want to convey the impression that you're a slacker who does not intend to do the reading. You might phrase your query something like this: "Buying textbooks is a real financial hardship for me, so I am wondering how much we'll be using the text, and what other options to purchasing may be available." The professor may have an extra copy to lend or would be willing to have a copy placed on reserve in the library. Perhaps you could share a copy with a friend or borrow one from one of the rare students who didn't sell the text back at the end of the semester. Or the professor might tell you not to worry about the text because it won't be used much.
Trimming the High Cost of Textbooks
Do you struggle to afford expensive textbooks? Do you feel it would help you learn better to write in or highlight your textbook, but are afraid to get a poor return on your investment if you try to sell it back with marks in it? Don't let the high cost of textbooks keep you from succeeding in college. You probably already know about buying used copies of texts, but in addition to the preceding ideas for borrowing, sharing, or checking the library for the text, search online for sites that offer substantial discounts on textbooks. Also check the syllabus or your campus bookstore to see who publishes the text. Go to the publisher's Website. Some publishers are making an effort to offer cheaper alternatives, and you may find, for example, an e-book version of the text available at a lower cost. Bonus: Also look for supplemental materials on the Website, such as workbooks or CDs that accompany the text. You may also find Web-based supplemental materials, such as sample tests and essays. If you suspect you are likely to struggle with the text, these materials can really help. A number of new initiatives have sprung up recently to develop free or inexpensive textbooks. Watch for these and encourage your professors to adopt affordable texts.
While there may be rare occasions when you can get by without buying or reading the text, be aware that reading is essential to the vast majority or college classes, and professors expect a significant portion of your learning to come from the text. Still, professors' styles of textbook usage can offer clues to how to read:
- When you know that the professor heavily uses the text and tests from it, you'll need to do intense, active reading and re-reading.
- If the professor teaches from the text, repeating most of the material from the reading, you may have a choice: You can learn the material from class lectures (take good notes or you can also do the reading and let the class lectures reinforce what you've read.
- If the professor uses a mix of lecture and reading material on tests, you may be able to get by with skimming the reading, but until you've taken the first test, it's best to do intense, active reading. After the first test, you may discover you don't need to read as actively and intensely.
- When the professor uses the reading minimally, you can skim or skip the reading altogether.
Final Thoughts on College Reading
Remember that no matter how little you can get by with to succeed in a given class, learning should still be your goal. If reading will help you learn more in a class that requires minimal reading, try to make time for it.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.