In the beginning of his international law studies, Federico Gomez Renneberg had to read approximately thirty pages a week. It was a manageable amount of text and he did it faithfully. But he soon found out that the number wasn’t going to stay that low: later on in his studies, it became customary for his lecturers to assign him over a hundred pages a week.
He started to skip either parts of the lectures or the literature. ‘It’s practically necessary if you want to have a life outside university. I literally gave up on reading cases and just looked up summaries instead.’
Federico is not the only one. Psychology student Alisa Todorov usually has to read over three hundred pages per week. That was especially hard in her first year. ‘I was a bit scared in the beginning’, she says. ‘I didn’t know how to study.’
In many university programmes, such as law, history, or psychology, the load of reading material is heavy. Trying to keep up can be stressful and demotivating for students. First-year students in particular can easily get lost in all those pages. Do lecturers really expect their students to read everything they assign? Assuming each page has approximately 450 words, it would take the average person nine hours to read three hundred pages.
I didn’t know how to study in the beginning
History lecturer Tom Slootweg can understand that his students struggle with the amount of literature. Sometimes, he admits, colleagues can get over-enthusiastic and throw all sorts of reading materials at their students just because they think it’s interesting. ‘Finding reading material that is compelling to students who are not that interested in your topic and not overloading them is a difficult balance. We need to meet each other at some point.’
Slootweg thinks it makes a big difference whether students care about what they read. ‘Do you find the subject interesting? Or do you take the course only because it’s mandatory? When you’re not interested in the subject, as a baseline you’ll think that there’s too much material.’
It helps when lecturers provide questions and reading instructions with the assigned material, he says. It gives students a basic framework so they know what to focus on.
However, reading will always be part of the deal. ‘The amount of assigned reading has to remain large’, says professor of law Aurelia Colombi Ciacchi. She realises that many students may feel they have to read too much, ‘but the university is offering a high-level intellectual journey’ and therefore it’s right that it demands a lot of its students, she argues.
If you expect to use the knowledge, it’s best to read everything
Psychology lecturer Miriam Lommen stresses that it’s crucial for students to learn how to tackle literature on their own. ‘You’re in a world with so much information everywhere, especially nowadays with the internet. There is no limit. That makes it even more important to know how to select information.’
Over the course of their studies, students usually slowly get the hang of academic reading and figure out their own strategies. Alisa, for example, differentiates between courses she’s really passionate about or finds difficult, and everything else. For that first category, she reads everything word for word, getting up really early in the morning to do so. ‘Apart from that’, she says, ‘I skim the texts, mostly.’
Fellow psychology student Niklas Eggers differentiates between what he thinks is necessary and what isn’t. ‘Especially if you expect to use the knowledge in your work later, I think it’s better to read all of the reading material properly. But if I just want to pass the exam, I usually read a summary.’ Niklas includes all the chapters he has to read in a weekly overview. Every time he can tick off a chapter, it feels like an accomplishment.
Observing your studying behaviour will change it for the better
Law student Guiomar Bugedo tries to ‘attack’ the text as efficiently as possible: she starts with the conclusion, skips the introduction and then skims through the body of a text to check for concepts. If she feels like she needs more information, she goes over the paragraph again more thoroughly. But she’s found it’s rarely necessary to read every single word of a text.
Are these approaches correct? Or is there a trick to academic reading they haven’t learned yet?
‘I’m afraid not’, says Lommen. ‘I think of reading as a skill that has to be developed over time instead. Students have to learn to distinguish the important parts of a text from the minor details.’ If she simply told her students exactly what the important part of the text was, how would they be able to deal with this information overload when they get a job?
When you start to understand how an article is structured, you’ll read faster. But you can only learn that by reading a lot. ‘That’s the thing with every skill: the first time you try to ride a bicycle, it might take ages to get it right, but over time you will get much better at it.’
Colombi Ciacchi has some tips for students who feel overwhelmed. ‘Students should try recording the effective reading time minus the breaks, to assess how much time they actually spend reading. Just the fact that you are observing your studying behaviour will change it for the better. You will notice when you get distracted or take too long a break’, she says.
To first-year students, she recommends: ‘Allow yourself to take your time. Devote more hours a day to your studies, without depriving yourself of sleep. Be aware that you’re just starting out and that next week you will already be quicker in your reading. And don’t compare yourself to others. Everybody has their own individual study methods.’
For students who don’t want to wait until they’ve built up enough reading experience to go faster, there may be a shortcut. The Student Service Centre has a two hour speed-reading workshop, taught by Paul Koopman. The next one will be offered online on March 26.
Koopman says he trains students to find an optimal reading speed and to be more relaxed while reading. ‘We talk about what happens with your eyes during reading. They tend to wander after some time, just like your mind does’, he explains.
Students learn to influence the jumps their eyes make and to increase the number of words their eyes consume per minute. Koopman also recommends using a finger or a pen to point at the lines of the text, just like children do when they learn how to read. ‘Our brains react to movement and our eyes will follow the finger.’
These techniques have been criticised as non-scientific, but Koopman still has faith in his method. ‘Although we did research on the effectiveness of speed reading by reading scientifically approved articles, we’re not researchers ourselves’, he says. ‘The theory we use to support our workshop is what we found in the academic research literature.’
He agrees that ‘speed reading gurus’ make exaggerated or even false claims. ‘But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to gain higher reading speeds when people use other methods than they are used to do. Students usually improve their speed quite a lot, based on a speed test at the beginning of the workshop and one at the end.’