Calibrating collegiate homework: a slice of theory

student-1528001-640x480I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the preparatory assignments in my introductory Old Testament course for first-year Pepperdine University students. Actually, I started this process during the Spring 2014 semester, but I’m revisiting it right now for various reasons. Early in the Fall 2015 semester, I consulted half a dozen handbooks for college teachers, and found very little firm guidance on how much reading is appropriate for a college course. My sources generally agree—and rightly so—that the complexity of the reading material and the purpose for reading it must factor into the decision. However, these import caveats sometimes come across almost as excuses for eschewing any sort of quantitative guidelines whatsoever.

Being unable to locate any commonly accepted best practices for gauging the length of college reading assignments, I’ve cobbled together some tentative guidelines for myself. I offer them here for your review and comment—especially if you happen to know of empirical research that can better inform these practices.

I began by trying to establish a reasonable expectation for students’ reading speed, and was a bit surprised by how little guidance I could find that wasn’t offered by someone trying to sell a speed-reading course. I finally found Ronald P. Carver, “Silent Reading Rates in Grade Equivalents,” Journal of Reading Behavior 21 (1989): 155–166. In this article, Carver uses data from four studies to chart expected “rauding” rates for students in first grade through a second year of graduate school. “Rauding” is a neologism coined by Carver, but for my purposes here we can gloss it as r[ead]-a[nd]-u[nderstand]-ing; the “rauding rate” for a particular grade level is “the typical rate at which an individual in that grade can accurately comprehend material at that same grade level of difficulty“ (Carver 1989: 166). Carver arrives at a 256–270 wpm rauding rate for 13th grade students, that is, first-year college students.

John Staeck, a professor at the College of Du Page (Glen Ellyn, IL), aims rather lower than Carver’s numbers might suggest. His faculty website includes a page addressing “Student Class Preparation Hours,” where he sets his sights on assignments that come out to 128–170 wpm. Staeck intentionally aims below national averages because of “the unique pressures and conditions of community education,” but I’ve found other indicators that his goal isn’t unrealistic for my traditional first-year undergraduates. In a study focused on reading improvement software, Anne Reilley Freese reports that more successful readers slow down—by as much as 46% in the study reported—when faced with more difficult texts (“Reading Rate and Comprehension: Implications for Designing Computer Technology to Facilitate Reading Comprehension,” Computer Assisted Language Learning 10 [1997]: 311–319). Readers who slowed down less for complex texts understood those texts more poorly than those who slowed down more (as a percentage of baseline reading rate). If a reader who normally reads at the top of Carver’s 13th grade range, 270 wpm, slows down to 54% of that rate (as found by Freese) to understand a particularly complex task, that reader will be down around 146 wpm—well within Staeck’s range.

Just a week ago, I conducted my own quick-and-dirty experiment in my Religion 101 class. I asked students to read “Proposition 1” from John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, to note their starting and ending times, and then to write a brief summary paragraph and three quiz-type questions about the reading. Due to the venue and setting, distractions were at a minimum. When I tallied the results, the actual mean rauding rate (“rauding” because students’ summaries showed that they did in fact understand the chapter rather well) came out to 158; the median rate, perhaps a better measure, was 151. (I’ve rounded off both numbers because it’s fairly meaningless to read a fraction of a word.)

By September 2015, I had already pegged 150 wpm—approximately the middle of Staeck’s target range, and 57% of the middle of Carver’s 13th grade range—as a reasonable expectation for first-year undergraduates to read and understand course material. The September 2016 experiment with my current students seems to support this benchmark.


In part 2 of these reflections, I’ll tell you how I used the 150 wpm benchmark to recalibrate homework assignments in my REL 101 class.

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