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Education Opinion

What College Students “Read”

By Rick Hess — June 12, 2013 2 min read
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Hey, so I stumbled across an interesting paper by SuHua Huang, Phillip Jeffrey Blacklock, and Matthew Capps, of Texas’s Midwestern State University: “Reading Habits of College Students in the United States.” (A good write-up is available here in the Chronicle of Higher Education.) They find that college students are spending less than eight hours a week on academic reading, and that nearly half of their “reading” time consists of perusing Facebook updates...or devouring 140 characters at a time.

Huang and her colleagues asked 1,265 students at a four-year liberal arts college (presumably theirs) to fill out surveys describing their weekly schedule--including working, sleeping, socializing, and engaging in different kinds of reading. The authors also interviewed a dozen students and observed them reading in three education classes (yeah, that part didn’t wow me either).

The authors report that students spent just over 20 hours a week reading: 8.9 hours on the internet, 7.7 hours on academic reading, and 4.2 hours on extracurricular reading. Now, it turns out that all that internet “reading”, which accounts for about 45% of reading time, is mostly on social media and includes chiefly Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

(Given that the National Endowment for the Arts reports that Americans aged 15-24 spend just 7 minutes of their daily leisure time on reading, there are three ways to read this data. The optimistic take is that these students are pursuing extracurricular reading at several times the national average. The technical take is that “extracurricular” reading means something different from “leisure” reading. The pessimistic take is that these students are, ahem, exaggerating in their journals--and that these college students still aren’t even bothering to claim 45 minutes a day of extracurricular reading.)

In a not-so-reassuring observation, Huang reports that student attachment to their cellphones in class apparently “reached the point of obsession” and that the students observed rarely followed instructions, took notes, or brought textbooks to class. It’s one thing to celebrate the potential of new technologies to enrich learning and reshape teaching. It’s another thing to allow bite-sized, gossipy social media to displace serious reading of extended texts. And it’s still another if our enthusiasm for devices and tablets impedes the ability of the next generation to learn from or talk to a, you know, person.

There are a bunch of prescriptions for policy and practice one can draw from all this. But, for me, the main one is the reminder that--for decades now, and despite any number of celebrated ideas--we’ve done a horrific job of finding ways to get K-12 or college students to spend much time reading anything of substance. Heck, twenty-five years ago, the question was: How do we get students to read Camus rather than Cosmo? Now, the question is whether we’re educating college students with enough attention span for the latter. So, my question for the day (and it’s real, not rhetorical): Do you feel okay about a 21st century college student who fares well academically but spends little downtime reading anything that isn’t a wallpost or a tweet?

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.