A few years ago we discussed (here and here) making reading an active rather than passive aspect of learning. This semester I’m noticing that students’ reactions to reading as part of an active process are affected by their perceptions of time and expected effort, which I hadn’t really thought about before.
I’m now teaching courses on globalization and comparative politics. For globalization, I’ve assigned book chapters or journal articles for every day that the class meets. Written responses of one-half to a full page correspond to each of these assignments. For comparative politics, students are similarly assigned book chapters and journal articles, and written responses on them, for the first two weeks. At the end of the subsequent two and a half week period, students in this course are supposed to finish reading a book in its entirety and write a brief essay on it.
In terms of the assigned number of pages to be read and written by students, the two courses are roughly equivalent. In reality the globalization course is probably harder — the readings sum to a greater number of pages and the content is more complex. Yet students that I’ve talked think that the workload in the comparative politics course is more difficult. The book and associated paper loom large in their minds. The concept of chopping up these tasks into smaller pieces — like reading a book chapter a day over a few weeks, before the essay is due — flummoxes them because the course syllabus doesn’t explicitly instruct them to do that.
I’ll probably run an experiment next year in this course by assigning sections of the book on specific days, with an associated written response due each day. The greater total volume of writing means that students will have more work, but my guess is that they’ll be happier because it will be packaged in a way that seems easier and less intimidating. While some people might argue that this strips responsibility from undergraduates and makes them even less likely to learn how to manage their own lives, I regard my primary job as getting students to read, write, and think. If I can trick my students into doing more of that by making them feel better about it, then I’m satisfied.