Students don’t read anymore. What does this mean for democracy?

I have spent most of the last week marking papers. As professors, we sometimes grumble and complain about this task, but it is important to consider how vital evaluation and feedback is to student growth. The thing is, marking work is a two-way street.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of assignments and marking papers over the last little while. What kinds of assignments are appropriate? What do students learn from a particular assignment? Should assignments be on hypothetical situations or should the examples be drawn from the real world?

I have settled upon a compromise in the courses I teach, particularly at the fourth year level. I ask students to work on assignments incrementally, handing in a draft, which I mark up and then a final version, to which I assign a grade. I find that this is the only way to encourage a culture of constant improvement and self-evaluation. I also walk students through the elements of research methods and theory in every class I teach. It is a challenging balance to maintain, but it is valuable, since by the end of the seminar, they have produced a piece of work that they are usually proud to include in their portfolios, for presentation to potential employers.

The thing is, this strategy requires a commitment of effort and good faith on the part of the students. They have to commit to doing the readings and working through the theoretical components of the course, so that they are ready to come to class and have wide-ranging and profound discussions. There is a problem, however: many students have to work long hours to pay for their tuition and there seems to be a culture of “work hard, play hard,” which leaves very little time for reading, reflection and deep thought.

This is worrisome, because it downloads all of the learning onto the actual time students spend in class, which is not considerable. University seminars are two or three hour sessions, once a week. That just isn’t enough time to cover all of the material that would need to be covered to assure the depth and breadth of learning expected in a university level class. This means that students are leaving with a piece of paper that says “Honours Bachelor’s of Arts/Science/Commerce/Engineering/Etc.” but it is a degree that doesn’t represent what it once did. I can attest that student attitudes to reading and reflection have changed from even a few years ago, in 2001, when I started being a professor.

Whose fault is this? I don’t know. Students tell me they simply don’t have time to read, between work, internet and social commitments. They tell me that there is no culture of political, ethical or philosophical discussion – only a constant chatter about celebrity news and lifestyle information that is pulled from various outlets online. They explain that there isn’t really a desire for more heady conversation, either; that they get shut down by peers if they try to talk politics or current affairs.

This will not lead our culture, our economy and our democracy anywhere good. An uneducated, unreflective public, tuned in largely to passing fancies and trivialities can’t make good voting choices, smart investments or career and lifestyle choices. This can only lead to a two-tiered society, where people who are “tuned in” make all the decisions and have all the know-how and depth of understanding to pull the levers of power and influence, while the rest – both men and women – are chatting about celebrity gossip and dieting/workout tips.

How do we repair this situation and right the good ship education? Or is it our culture that is broken?

Join the Conversation


  1. As a student, I can offer you valuable advice and reasoning as to why students don’t read. I’m currently in college and going through the same feelings of being behind because I’m not caught up on my readings. I had similar feelings while I was at Mac, except I did much better in university than I’m doing now in college.

    I’m going to be honest: those who don’t have the time to read are convincing themselves that they don’t have time and, as a result, they choose to believe that they really do in fact don’t have time. However, I am a true believer that if you can make time, you have time. But there are other factors that play into this conception of students not reading, which you have touched on a few:

    1.Choosing your most important classes to focus your attention on.

    I find that I choose the classes that I want to better at than other classes. This determines where I focus my attention and why. This year, I have mandatory and prerequisite courses I need to take and have to receive a certain percentage in order to write my CHRP (Human Resources certification). These courses are more important to me than the other courses because in other courses I do not specifically need this required average for. This could help explain why some students don’t always come prepared in regards to doing the readings. They might have chosen other classes to focus their attention on rather than your class. This could be because they need a specific class to graduate, they need to take a class to get into another, and so on.

    2.The amount of books/readings you assign to a student

    In university, I found that the more books or readings that were assigned to a particular class, the more this turned me off to complete the readings. This is how a students’ mind works: “There are 4 books to this course? There’s no way that all this information will be on the exam. I can probably get away with reading 1 or 2 and Google the rest.” To students, this type of mentality is a time-saver and requires a little less effort than actually reading the entire book. Also, don’t forget that there are other readings and other amounts of books for different classes. Again, this involves choosing the most important material to read or to just Google.

    3.Textbook learning is not for everyone

    Students would rather come to class and learn the concepts for the first time rather than sit there and read about them, come to class, and hear the professor regurgitate it. I find that it is an either-or: if students read, they don’t come to class and if they don’t read, then they do come to class. Also, doing the readings doesn’t necessarily mean that students remember everything that they read or that they are competent in explaining the concepts that they were supposed to get out of the readings. I found that it was easier to listen to the professor talk about the concepts and material, and then go home and read the material myself to see the correlations. I’m sure you already know this, but catering to different styles of learning is crucial for success in the classroom. Simply put, textbook learning is not for everyone.

    4.Scheduling issues

    Sometimes it takes longer to read the material than anticipated. Students schedule and write in the little squares in their calendar book to do 3 things for that evening, one of them being that they need to catch up on readings for your class. However, the 2 things that they did prior to starting to read took way more time than they though. This happens a lot. Students schedule for things and plan to complete things, but it doesn’t end up happening because they underestimate how much each task will take. Readings tend to get put on the backburner once assignments and essays are due.

    5.Social life

    You touched on this a bit, but it is an important aspect of maintaining a balance in university or college. You need social interaction, friends, and fun in your life to remain stable. Although this is a generalization, I really do feel that the majority of students feel the same way. Those who are caught up on all their readings probably don’t have a social life. In classes such as Communication, it seems utterly pointless to be caught up on readings all the time and not have a social life since the topic itself suggests some sort of socialization. Not only that, networking is a huge aspect of landing a career – not nuzzling your nose in a book. I’m not suggesting that being knowledgeable doesn’t help you land a career, but textbooks and readings don’t give you the experience of social interaction.

    6.Our lifestyle

    Lastly, our lifestyle is to blame. There is an emphasis placed on good looks, friends, diets, and so on. This type of “celebrity culture” that North America has been emerged with has taken over many students’ minds. Receiving that paper that says you have a B.A. is the end goal, but remembering the information to get that paper isn’t necessarily equivalent to that goal. Our lifestyle has placed us in this position of obtaining everything fast, not to the best of quality. The emphasis placed on good looks, friends, diets and other mind-numbing stuff puts us in this position of masking what is actually important in our life (getting caught up on university material) in order to preoccupy our minds. I’m not going to get into the specifics of how our life is, but it does make us think about “fun” things rather than stuff that requires brains.

  2. I’m going to assume that the value of doing readings is not in question, but I’m prepared to argue that point if someone comes up with a good argument against.

    That said, this is a discussion about how to capture the horses after they’ve escaped the pasture because the fence has fallen into disrepair.

    People who read for pleasure don’t have a problem making time for uni readings… I remember taking smoke breaks at work with a textbook in my hand. All people who read for pleasure have a sock full of such stories. The real problem is convincing non-readers to cost/benefit their way into educating themselves (for this is what university is really supposed to be doing).

    The most logical way of doing this is also the option that you can’t take for a number of reasons. If they don’t or refuse to learn (for that is the import of not preparing for class), you refuse to teach. When I was TAing for you, I did this with a group that going through a particularly bad spate of reading-ignoring. I told them that they were wasting my time and wasting their time and tuition money and left the class one day. I suppose there were complaints and you probably had to cover for me (and I imagine, cursed me for it), but the end result was that group ended being the best among my groups for being prepared for class for the rest of the year. Effective when used sparingly, but it’s something you can’t do.

    I find the “not enough time” argument to be weak at best. The first year of my BA was probably the most time consuming year I was in university because of all the survey courses I was taking (for a taste of what it was like, there was a year long English lit course which had a full novel length reading each weak and a history seminar course where I had to prepare a summary of a full work of academic history each week, and that was just 40% of the work-load for the year). At the same time, I was doing 30 hours a week of work to pay for the privilege of studying. I was able to hack this schedule because I was well-prepared. I could read and assimilate information very quickly and had taken some good composition courses in high school so writing papers was significantly easier for me than it was for my peers. Those were the circumstances that allowed me to do a crazy schedule and do university well. Of course, I had little life outside of work and classes.

    What about people who didn’t have my preparedness but had the same problem of paying for university courses that were more expensive than a weekend-only job could pay for (it’s not the first time in history that the situation faced by today’s students has been seen). My dad likes to tell the story about a guy he used to go to uni with who did one year at school, one year work to pay for his university. He couldn’t do well in school and put the work time necessary to pay for it, so he sacrificed by taking longer to get his diploma.

    The point of this is not to wallow in “walking 5 miles in the snow” and “get off my lawn” stories, but to underline the fact that where there’s a will, there’s a way, and it is always possible to do things properly if one is prepared to sacrifice.

    The problem you face with getting the horses back in the pasture is that the idea of sacrifice, at least the type of sacrifice I’m talking about, goes against the logic of paying for a service. This is what most people today believe they are doing when they’re paying their tuition and it’s what makes it make sense to put socializing or doing pay work ahead of doing the work (be it readings or whatever else) for their classes. In any case, asking large groups of people to make the sort of sacrifice I’m talking about doesn’t make much sense as public policy — it smells funny on the level of social justice.

    I don’t think there is a quick fix to the problem. Incentives such as extra credit might make a small difference here or there, but it’s hard to see them remedying the problem.

    The only solution is to step out of the conditions that created the problem in the first place. What must be done is to raise the proportion of people who are readers in the population as a whole. This will ensure that people arrive at university equipped with the tools necessary to educate themselves. It is something that needs to be dealt with at home before kids have hit the age of 7, when kids are becoming small “l” literate. They need to develop the habits of a reader at a young age so that they will be, in the course of reading, develop the habits of quiet reflection and thinking, rather than developing the habit of reacting and interacting to the “cooler” stimuli and tittytainment that our electronic technologies offer us. In short, students need to arrive at university wanting to read rather than having to be convinced to read.

    As I hinted above, this isn’t really a solution that lends itself to public policy, but to personal responsibility as a parent, for those who choose to become parents. It means taking the time necessary to make sure that one’s children can become readers by habit as far as they are able. It means changing one’s own habits too. I’ve mad e a point of not using my computer or tablet when my kids are around the house (as much as I can). You look like you’re “using the computer” rather than reading even if you are reading on the computer. Instead, I pull out a book when they are around so they can see me taking time out to read. It seems to be taking with them, but it’s a lot of work to get a child to the point where they develop the habit of reading for pleasure.

  3. Here are a few thoughts on the subject, in a random manner. I enjoyed reading the reply of the two folks ahead of me. They had done some real thinking and brought up excellent points, namely the importance to insufflate the passion for reading at a young age. My little one is 9 months old and I read to her everyday since she was a few weeks old. Since the last month, her attention span is about 20-25 minutes of non-stop reading. I have over 50 books in French and in English available for her. Most of the time, I get tired of reading before she does. If I forget to read to her, she will claim reading by staring at the books until I pick one up (she can stare for 3-5 minutes). It surely feeds her imagination well. She has been saying “maman” since she is 5 months old and she said “je t’aime” yesterday. She babbles quite a lot too and she regularly tries new sounds.
    On another subject, I am a little weird. I do not have a passion for reading, but, I love reading for school. I did not read much in my youth or teenager’s years. I read the newspaper, comic books, the Reader’s Digest of my mom and a few novels, but I was never keen on reading. However, we played scrabble and boggle and my mother’s quality of French is really amazing. Even after doing a BA in communications and currently doing my MA, my mom still beats me at those games. Her passion for letters was transmitted to me and I thank her for that. The passion for writing with precision too and for finding the root of the word and it’s signification as well (in French). When I want to treat myself, I buy a dictionary, a reference book, a punctuation helper, etc. lol
    Strangely, I LOVE reading for educating myself. I love reading 50 articles for one class and writing papers that have an extensive literature review. However, for relaxation purposes, I am not going to read, I rather play sports. For me, reading is linked to learning, not to relaxation. When I had my baby, I started reading all the pregnancy and infant books to educate myself on the subject. I love reading “how to” babies book and my knowledge on the subject is now quite amazing.
    However, I need to force myself to read the newspaper and current affairs. I find that it really demands time to be properly informed on what’s going on in the world. I rather have a discussion on the subject with my husband, who is a news junkie, to keep myself up-to-date than reading it myself (lazy me). I remember that I was reading the newspaper with interests until I was forced to do so in one of my media class. Every week, we were having quiz…eurk! It was such a turn off for me! I realized that I enjoyed reading the newspaper while having breakfast, but been forced to do it annoyed me. In fact, since that class, I stopped reading the newspaper.
    In the past 10 years, the moment where I had the time to read the newspaper was while commuting by metro. I was reading the Journal 24 heures and Journal Metro. It was light reading, of course, but I got the essential of the news and I was able to deepen any interesting subjects by doing a research on internet of by chatting with my colleagues at work. Lately, I read the news that friends post on Facebook or Twitter (lots of them are journalists) to keep myself informed on current affairs.
    Last year, I was TAing an MBA course and it was surprising how it shows when a student is not doing his reading. I remember that I had to speak to the class and stress on the importance to do the readings. Maybe 30% of the class ended up doing the reading and 15% absorbed the material…that’s a sad reality.
    A friend of mine, who teaches at Université Laval, was telling me how she is tired of having complaining students and how a BA is worth nothing nowadays. “Students want their paper; they don’t care about knowledge anymore”. Our many discussions on the subject brought up an important point. Universities are also businesses that need to make money. Students are now viewed as customers, so some profs are inclined to have higher average to do not have the faculty on their back or let a student pass because they are harassing the professors to let them pass.
    Finally, my last thought goes to a friend who did an exchange in Danemark a few years ago. In their syllabus, the professors placed a “suggestion of readings” section. She did like we do in Québec; she picked one or two books that looked interesting out of the 20. She soon realized that she was behind as all the other students were religiously reading ALL the suggested books. She found it was a little intense, but this is how their culture is over there. What is our culture over here???

  4. Hello all,
    My name is Jenn and I am a Canadian student who is entering into an MA History program this coming September. As I am fresh out of my undergraduate years, I believe I can offer some useful insights into this topic of enquiry.
    Although the above authors are skeptical of the popular student excuse of “not having enough time,” I would have to say that this is the primary reason why I almost never completed the required readings in time for my seminar classes. I can’t speak on behalf of the North American student body as a whole—however I can put forth my own perspective, as a student with a genuine love for learning and an overarching desire to excel in all of my academic endeavours.
    Students, like many professors (and much of the population in general), are becoming more and more cognizant of the fact that holding a BA degree does not guarantee that an individual will get a job in their desired field upon graduation. As more and more individuals apprehend a university level education, it is experience–in conjunction with a good education–that really gives a student a competitive advantage when entering the workforce. “Experience” can take a variety of forms, but all of these forms have the negative consequence of taking time away from those ever-present, seemingly never-ending, assigned course readings.
    To stand out from the crowd (and there are a lot of people in this crowd) students today not only need a 4.0 average, but also should try their hand at getting published, in addition to partaking in undergraduate research fellowships, while volunteering at various relevant organizations, and holding one (or two) part time jobs to pay for a university-level education. Factor in a social life and today’s modern student barely has time for sleep.

    Example: My 4th Year, First Semester, Time-Management Breakdown
    Commitment Hours/Week
    Class 10
    Part Time Job #1 5
    Part Time Job #2 10
    Volunteer Position #1 15
    Volunteer Position #2 5
    Volunteer Position #3 3
    Total 48

    This is in addition to maintaining an 87% academic average, preparing my graduate school applications, as well as submitting my Ontario Graduate Scholarship package and my Social Studies and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canadian Graduate Scholarship application (which was ultimately successful).

    I did actually have the intention (as I had at the beginning of every semester) to keep up with my course readings, as they facilitate seminar discussion, and knowledge of said readings usually does contribute to a seminar participation grade. That being said, I was usually forced to forfeit my seminar participation grades in favour of my impending assignments, examinations and prior work and volunteer commitments. If I do have a night off during the week I usually choose to spend this time with my friends—as my busy schedule usually leaves my social life seriously neglected.

    Another problem with seminar readings lies in their quantity and length. Seminars usually require students to provide detailed commentaries on many small aspects of very long articles. Although I am a fast reader, and could easily speed through many of my readings on my lunch break/between classes and pick up many of the key points, this type of reading usually does not allow me to retain all of the relevant information, or think critically about the article’s content—especially if I do this reading far in advance of the actual seminar. In order to properly prepare myself, I find myself having to make detailed notes and re-read the article several times—this process often takes me a few hours/article. Taking this much time out of my day to prepare was usually impossible, and to read an article and not absorb all of the information necessary to be an active participant in seminar discussion is an even greater waste of time—thus leaving many of my articles un-read.

    Now, don’t think that I completely neglected my reading. I would read all of the required course material eventually. However this period of binge reading, for me at least, usually takes place in the week preceding final examinations. This block of time, where classes are cancelled, and university-affiliated work and volunteer programs are halted, would leave me with an expanse (or at least a week) of open days where I could catch up on the semester’s required and suggested readings. I genuinely enjoy exam week because almost all of the required readings that professors select are both useful and interesting. For me at least, the issue with readings lies exclusively with time-management.

    I implore university faculty and other interested parties to accept the over-used student excuse of “not having enough time” as a valid reason for not having completed the week’s readings. Instead of blaming student laziness exclusively—I cannot deny that this is probably a causal factor in many cases– or societal deterioration as a result of celebrity gossip and dieting fads, please try to sympathize with the complex demands placed on today’s university student.

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