You started reading this article from the beginning and, given its engaging content, will probably read it straight through to the end. You’ll read this article in a linear manner, and you most likely apply that same strategy to your academic reading. And how is that working for you?
“Too much to read and too little time” is probably the answer for a good many students. We begin our courses with romantic notions of learning, discussing world-changing ideas, growing deeper and more nuanced in our understanding of ourselves and the world. Soon, however, we are in survival mode, simply trying to keep up with — or at least not fall too far behind in — our work, because we’ve got too much to read and too little time.
We were able to handle the work and reading in high school, but now there’s more reading, the reading is harder, and we’re asked to read “more deeply,” to come to precept with a thorough understanding of what was assigned so that we’re ready to engage in a supposedly engaging discussion of the texts. It can feel like you’re supposed to do hundreds of pages of close reading every week.
Even if we’d like to come to precepts prepared, it can be hard to do so because the texts are often not straightforwardly instructional — nor were they written with students as their main audience. They’re articles and books from academics for other academics, and so they assume a fair amount of background knowledge that most students just don’t have, since they have not received years of advanced training in the field.
In the end — many students tell us — a lot of the readings just make you feel inadequate, that you aren’t smart enough to handle the work. Your frustration and confusion quite possibly lead you to struggle with imposter syndrome, a feeling that you don’t belong intellectually at Princeton.
And even if you are among those who aren’t struggling with fears of inadequacy, you probably have walked away from your assigned readings wondering why in the world it was assigned in the first place because it doesn’t seem to relate to the lectures.
With so much to read and with so little time to do it, and with the reading not necessarily proving initially relevant and engaging, we’ve seen students take a number of approaches. The polar extremes are either to throw up our hands and just not do the reading or to hunker down and plow through as much of the reading as possible, liberally highlighting as we go along, though knowing full well that we probably won’t remember why we highlighted various passages when we circle back to them for exams and papers.
There’s an obvious problem with the first approach: while we could “get by” without doing the reading, we’re missing out on an important aspect of a Princeton education. In the moment, we may not think we care, but deep down or later in life, we’ll sense that we missed out on something valuable, and let ourselves down.
We’d like to let this approach go for now and address the second extreme option because our hunch is that there are a lot of students who are making the noble, but tragic, effort to “hunker down,” to grind through as much of the reading as possible.
There are problems with this approach as well — some obvious like the first, but other problems that are not. For example, while you are at least attempting to engage the text, you spend so much time reading that you are missing out on other opportunities. Isn’t that a common feeling among many students, that you’re missing out somehow? FOMO is real and pervasive.
What’s additionally tragic about this approach is that it can contribute to feelings of inadequacy. While we may take pride in proclaiming among our friends how much work we have to do, rare is the Princeton student who admits that they can’t finish their work. So we think to ourselves that we’re not as smart as everyone else because we must be the only one, or among the few, who can’t keep up.
And let’s just say you miraculously do get all the reading done; shouldn’t it be the case that you’ve now earned a good grade in the class? Isn’t that the unwritten compact you believe you have with your instructor, like in high school where doing what you were assigned was what mattered? You do all the reading and they give you a good grade. How is that working out?
Probably not so great, because in the end, your instructors really don’t care if you’ve done all the reading; they care about your comprehension of the reading and how you can apply that learning to various problems in their discipline. Working hard is necessary, but not sufficient.
How’s that for a conundrum — you feel bad about yourself if you don’t do all the reading, but even if you did do all the reading, there’s no guarantee that that will ensure a good grade in your class, or even that you understand it well.
By now we’ve probably got your attention by hitting on a nerve. We’ve identified, and clarified, perhaps, what you’re feeling about Princeton’s reading demands and some of your frustrations with yourself and with the academics here at the University.
So what now? You may think, or at least hope, that we’re about to give you the five easy-to-implement steps you can apply right now for faster reading and more effective comprehension.
But we’re not, because that’s ultimately not the solution. Few, if any, of your professors follow such simplistic advice.
A true and lasting solution is out there, but it’s really up to you to discover it for yourself. You have to be in a position to see it — or at least believe it exists. You have to come to believe in yourself as a creative problem-solver and that this is yet another opportunity for you to search for solutions and test what works for you.
We know that probably comes across as incredibly unsatisfying, and a good many of you are ready to stop reading this article now. Before you do, though, know that we want to validate your belief that your approach to reading in the past has been unsustainable — it’s nuts. We also want to help you steer away from the conclusion that somehow you’re at fault or inadequate.
In fact, we want to say the very opposite: that you have the capacity within you to implement changes in the way you approach texts where you can consistently, week after week, get what you want from your assigned readings such that you are prepared for precepts and exams, and, ideally, can satisfy your own intellectual curiosity. You can learn to learn in ways that are fulfilling and lead to success here — just as you’ve done in the past.
However, that’s not going to come from us giving you a couple of easy-to-implement steps. While we may have shown some appreciation for your predicament, we ultimately don’t know you and your existing skills and the demands you face to such a degree as to provide the guidance you need. Only you can do that. So really, the beginning of the solution lies in you. We believe that students create their own strategies; they aren’t imparted to them.
We’re positive that if you took the time to reflect on your life where you did overcome a difficult situation, your creative problem-solving skills were highly active and effective. You were able to generate and apply solutions that were truly impressive.
And if you were to examine the steps you took to overcome those obstacles, you probably first had the “this is nuts”-type reaction and started to scan for possible solutions. Unlike how you read now, in a fairly direct, dogmatic, linear approach, you were willing to suspend beliefs in the right or wrong way to do something in order to entertain other approaches.
That is what we are asking you to do right now: suspend for the moment the assumption that linear reading is the right, or more importantly, the only way to read. Suspend for the moment the thought that the goal of reading is to read every word or simply to finish the reading. Hold on instead to the belief that the goal of reading is to grow in knowledge and mastery of what is discussed — and to get better at reading and learning along the way.
Now perhaps you’re in a position to entertain other approaches.
For example, let’s just say, hypothetically of course, that you blow off your reading until midterms or finals. You need to cram, so reading linearly goes out the window. Instead you ask yourself how you can get what you want or need from the text, and to do so you purposely jump around the text reading the beginning and end — maybe more than once — and then search around for what you think might be important, dwelling on what’s useful and interesting.
You wouldn’t normally do this, right? It probably even seems a bit naughty to do so, a compromise solely based out of necessity, but, hey, you’ve only got a couple of hours to get as much info into your brain as possible, so you do what must be done.
And the result? You probably did a pretty good job of getting the gist of the reading, enough to have some competence, if not a lot of confidence, on the exam.
You probably vowed never to do that again. But what if you adopted that non-linear, cramming method as a way to approach your reading initially in general (with the exception of fiction, poetry, and other similar texts which don’t lend themselves to this kind of reading)?
In fact, this is a perfectly valid method — one that most experts employ — and, coupled with other methods of reading (a linear approach being one of them), forms an effective strategy for tackling all that reading you have for the week.
Now this is simply one way to develop a reading strategy. We encourage you to allow yourself some space to explore different approaches to reading so that you can create your own reading strategy. Ask your friends, ask your preceptors, ask your professors, explore the internet — do whatever you need to do, go wherever you need to go, to find what works best for you.
That said, we appreciate that space and time is what you believe you don’t have in excess right now. We get it.
Whether this week is the right time to begin or not, we do ask that you not dismiss the feeling that there has to be a better way. There’s something inside you that came to that realization, and it’s that part of you that you really need to appreciate. And is there truly a better way? Yes — yes, there is, but you have to make the journey to find it, just as generations of students and faculty before you have done.
To start, you have to believe that there is a solution and that you can find it. We believe that you can, but only you can make yourself let go of the comforts of how you have always done things in the past and be willing to experience that interim period of discomfort where you have to test and practice new techniques before growing in mastery.
Lastly, we beg of you not to believe the lie that you’re inadequate, that you don’t measure up. We understand that you may feel that you’re getting that message from all around you, but that is simply not true. We know; we’ve worked with literally thousands of Princeton students. Encountering demands we have yet to master is not a sign of inadequacy — it’s an expected and necessary prerequisite for real learning.
Allow yourself to risk the belief that you have the ability to grow and adapt and thrive here, that you are an amazing, creative problem-solver who can blaze your own trail here at Princeton.
Nic Voge is the Senior Associate Director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.