While the Board does not know the amount of material that is humanly possible to read in a week, the Board suspects that many humanities and social science courses assign reading in excess of this amount. Students, in an effort to read as much as possible, sometimes skim through the material and arbitrarily select chapters to read, undermining their own learning. As such, we sympathize with many of the concerns Prianka Misra voiced in a column earlier this semester. Assigned reading is an essential piece of Princeton coursework, but students all too often fail to thoroughly read assigned material, taking shortcuts instead. The Board encourages Princeton professors to enact measures to ensure that assigned reading can be completed by students who are actively engaged in the Princeton community while enrolled in four classes, and then hold students accountable for the assigned reading.
One solution to this problem is reducing the amount of required reading. While some may object to this measure, claiming that doing so would reduce the depth and breadth of Princeton courses, the Board does not recognize this as a significant harm. Currently, many students fail to read the complete set of material that professors expect students to internalize. By lessening the amount of required reading, professors would be able to better manage students’ reading selection. With a reduced reading load, students could be better expected to fully digest the most important material, instead of skimming, and largely forgetting, a mix of important and inessential texts. Moreover, professors can keep the less essential reading on their syllabi, designating it as optional, so that students who have enough time and inclination can further engage with the subject material.
The Board also recommends that, if possible, professors distribute guided reading questions. Almost always, a select portion of the 300 pages of reading assigned each week is especially important. By giving such questions to students, professors can help students hone in on what is most essential to the course. Such a list would also help ensure that students are prepared to engage with the questions that will guide precept discussion, thereby increasing the quality of precepts. The Board believes this measure would greatly improve students’ learning, independent of a decision to reduce students’ required reading load.
Finally, after decreasing assigned reading, professors could employ assignments and quizzes to ensure that the reading is completed. When a student does not prepare for precept, he or she stymies the entire class’s learning. We believe that for the previous measures to have a beneficial effect, professors must make sure that all students are reading the important material that professors have designated as required or made the subject of guiding questions. Given that professors would limit the amount of material being assigned and inform students of what is essential to read, the Board feels that such assessments would be more than fair to students. The Board recognizes that creating such assignments would entail additional work for professors. We thus believe that professors could partially substitute for these assignments by raising precept expectations and evaluating if a student’s precept contributions suggest that he or she has engaged with the reading.
Above all, the Board believes that reducing the reading load of many social science and humanities courses will improve the quality of the education we receive at Princeton. This reduction need not signify decreased commitment from students. Instead, if properly managed, it could lead to greater student engagement with the most important texts covered in courses.