As college students, many of us spend hundreds of dollars at the beginning of the semester on textbooks that we will never have the time nor desire to read. Many of us sit through lectures about chapters we have not read yet, and professors sometimes expect (or hope) that we know what they are talking about. However, this structuring of curriculum around textbooks is not practical nor effective in our modern college system.
Pretending that most of us actually complete our assigned reading is naïve; in fact, for decades now, reading textbooks has fallen by the wayside across college campuses. In one 2006 study, less than 40% of students surveyed regularly used the textbook in an introductory physics class and in a 2004 study, only about 27% of psychology students in the study read their assigned readings, according to an article in the Journal of the Virginia Community Colleges.
There are several reasons that the use of textbooks has slipped out of circulation for many modern college students. First, the amount of reading requested of us is often, frankly, unrealistic in light of other responsibilities. A full class schedule ranges from 13-18 units, which means full-time students are usually enrolled in five to six courses. This means that students can end up with five to six classes’ worth of reading, which we are expected to balance with other significant aspects of life. Many of us have to work at least part-time, since school does not pay us to show up and learn. Pair this with striving to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which requires time set aside for exercise, socializing and adequate rest.
So let’s crunch some numbers. In a 24-hour day, a student should get an adequate amount of sleep (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least seven hours), exercise and eat properly (about three hours), go to class (let’s assume three hours each day based on a 15-unit course schedule) and dedicate at least some time to socializing and the smaller aspects of the day, such as getting ready in the morning (about three hours total). This leaves about eight hours to divide between work and studying, but let’s assume a student works 20-30 hours each week in a part-time position. This will require an average 4-6 hours each day for work, leaving 2-4 hours for studying, and this is all assuming nothing unexpected pops up, which often happens in life.
On average, each page of a textbook will take about five minutes to read, according to Cornell College’s website. For a thirty-page reading assignment, then, a student should set aside two and a half hours. Now imagine having these reading assignments for multiple classes, along with a few papers to turn in every week, exams to study for every few weeks and quizzes and weekly assignments to finish up. It is not a surprise that reading, often bumped to the bottom of the to-do list, falls through the cracks.
Aside from time management concerns, textbooks also lack the appeal and value that perhaps they once did. During this modern age of shortened attention spans and in light of new educational studies, textbooks simply can no longer stand at the center of a class curriculum for many disciplines. One 2019 study found that textbooks did not significantly impact learning progress in reading comprehension in primary education, according to the National Library of Medicine. Also, many textbooks have failed to keep up with the new generation, which tends to excel with visual engagement to maintain interest. When we see large, dense (and often boring) blocks of text about class subjects, we tend to zone out or lose interest, making textbook learning ineffective and a waste of time.
Rather, facing the facts that textbooks are largely ineffective can help us make class time more effective. Learning should occur mostly in class through engaging discussions and lectures that go beyond what is in a textbook and incorporate hands-on, experiential and real-world learning.
I do not want to go to class to be told to read a textbook that I paid for and that I did not have time to read because I was too busy working to pay for my expenses. I want to go to class to learn something I can actually apply to my future. Let’s start learning from life rather than books.