Two Iron Laws of College Reading

by Harry on December 22, 2021

Someone (my daughter) preparing to teach her first Sociology college class (Sociology of Education, yes, that is funny) asked me how much reading to assign. Here are what I think of as the two iron laws of college reading.

Law One: The more reading you assign, the less the students will read.

Law Two: The more you talk in class, the less the students will read.

I suppose there must be a limit to Law One: if you assign no reading at all, they don’t do any, whereas if you assign 3 pages some of them will do it. If you assign 300 pages they won’t do less than if you assign 200 pages. So it only applies within a range. And Law Two can be broken by not talking about the reading at all, but then basing assessments on the reading alone.

My advice was: assign about 60 pages/week, given the conceptual complexity of the material I know she’s assigning (Philosophy the limit would be less than 60 pages, in English Literature or History it would be more). And talk no more than 50% of the time in class. (She’ll have about 30 students; if it were one hundred I’d go up to 2/3rds. Also, she’s a former secondary teacher, and I know she has pretty good skills; the less skilled a teacher is the more they have to talk).

This advice is grounded in the assumption that doing the reading contributes a great deal to student learning; as does spending a lot of time thinking in the classroom. If you don’t think that, then go ahead and assign as much reading as you want them not to bother doing!

One of my Ice Breakers: “Name a book that you think you ought to have read, but haven’t.”
Best answer: “Well, that would be all the novels that I was assigned in my English Literature class last semester”. She got an A.



jamie 12.22.21 at 4:42 pm

I suppose there must be a limit to Law One

A sort of Laffer curve, maybe.


Jim Harrison 12.22.21 at 11:39 pm

Teaching Philosophy 101 back in the day, I could always tell when a student actually read one of the assignments. 18-year are quite defenseless against the arguments of the philosophers and are readily convinced they’re absolutely right. I remember one girl who suddenly “got” Schopenhauer. She wasn’t a tremendously good student, but she really did understand what she had read in this case. I wonder to this day if she ever recovered from a vision of then world as will and idea.


Ray 12.23.21 at 1:00 am

The problem is the tension between these. To get my students to talk in class I often have them look at blurbs from readings and talk about them in small groups or else create a question that one can answer with less familiarity with the reading.

I find that if all class discussion depends on tremendous familiarity with the reading, then there will be less discussion…sometimes way less than is desirable. So I leave some room for participation if they did not do the reading.

We always have very lively and engaged discussions. I do assign less than 60 pages and do speak less than 50% of the time. I don’t exactly find they do all the reading.

I also do an ice breaker and many students often say they do not like to read. When I ask them about this they say they don’t even like to read magazines or fun books. This is a bit of an obstacle for teaching and also something that worries me generally.


Matt 12.23.21 at 3:12 am

There’s a lot of disciplinary variation here, of course. It’s pretty standard for literature classes to assign a lot more than 60 pages per class, I think, and not unreasonably. (That was always a bit tough for me because I’m a fairly slow reader and, unlike lots of people, I don’t read fiction that much faster than I do philosophy or other things, though I do write fewer notes to myself, so am a bit faster that way.) My recollection is that history classes also did, and had to, assign a lot more than that. I try not to assign more than that to law students, though sometimes have to. Lawyers may need to read a good deal more than that in fairly short periods of time (though I suppose it depends on the type of lawyer one is) so I do also think it’s an important part of professional training for students to learn to read fairly large amounts of often dull material fairly quickly and carefully, since it will be part of their jobs. (Sadly, the set up of classes where I teach make it almost impossible to have lots of class discussion, and there is a strong culture of not talking.)


Alan White 12.23.21 at 3:53 am

Across my 40-year career in the classroom, the Darwinian forces of day-to-day interactions led to two reactions to Harry’s two points. One–assign less reading. Reinforce that by periodical extra credit quizzes on what’s assigned, and make the questions pretty damn simple for anyone who has run eyes across the sentences. Two–direct all the talking you do in class to focus on in-class Q&A where you wait more than the odd 3 seconds profs usually take to answer their own questions. In one class–101–I had two specific crucial places in the curriculum where I refused to proceed unless the class gave a correct answer to a question about how the arguments to that point pointed to an obviously correct logical answer. Most times given gifted students those answers arrived within seconds, which we could expound to the whole class about why they were correct (these were always matters of contradictory statements where if you knew the course of argument to that point then the correct answer followed immediately). But I recall several times where I waited 20 to 30 minutes for them. And all the while prompting with associated questions to try to lead them to the answers, which in retrospect would be obvious to anyone following the path of the class. I probably talked too much as Harry would no doubt agree. But my classes were always to challenge students to see big pictures–and I felt that I had the responsibility to at least lay out the broad sketches for them to fill in for themselves.


both sides do it 12.23.21 at 8:01 am

So in a 100-student class meeting for 90 minutes, and class discussion takes up a full half hour?? I’ve never experienced that scenario where it wasn’t a complete train wreck. What’s the secret?


trane 12.23.21 at 9:07 am

I like these posts concerning teaching advice. I do not do any teaching, but make some presentations in my work, and much of your advice applies there as well.

I think your two stated iron laws hold very well within reasonable ranges.

I think for a sociology class in particular it might be a good exercise to ask the students 1) how many pages they think the other students read per week, and
2) how many pages they expect to read of the course material per hour for next week

The point is, regarding (1), that many students think that ‘everyone else reads more than I do’, and then end up reading a little of this and that, still feeling that they have prepared too little to contribute in class. It can be useful for the teacher to clarify more that her expectation of their reading is both doable for them (not over-ambitious), and reasonable (‘I will benefit the most by reading a limited number of pages carefully rather than flipping through lots of pages, understanding little’).

Further, regarding (2) , it seems to me that many students under-estimate how much time it takes to read this stuff. As you note, reading philosophy (or statistics, for example) generally requires very slow reading, perhaps five pages per hour. I have both observed and experienced a sense of relief in a student when they realise that ‘for most people, this takes a lot of time to understand’. From this, it should also be easier to assess the amount of pages to assign (how many hours should the average student put in to follow the course?).

In my experience, for everybody to learn, it is best if they can follow a norm where everybody reads and works with/thinks about the same material. And for that to happen, following your two laws is good advice:-)


superdestroyer 12.23.21 at 3:13 pm

There should also be an analysis of the type of university. The amount of reading that will occur at some universities is much greater than others. There was once an easy about someone who left the political world in DC to become a professor at the University of Kansas. he remarked that many of the students would not do any of the reading.


Jeff 12.23.21 at 5:30 pm

Law Three: The more you assign what you think students should read instead of what will help them achieve the course goals, the less they will read.

This is especially true in a foundations of education course. Don’t trot out the same tired things you read in graduate school. Mix it up. Unless this is a graduate course training sociologists of education, there are so many interesting popular pieces that can start discuss and help students want to engage with the more scholarly assigned readings.

This is how I teach philosophy of education. Reading an account by an unschooling family–for example–and then go to the philosophers of education.


Mike Furlan 12.23.21 at 11:08 pm

Here is another method. From a recent “History of European Civilization I” syllabus:

“If you haven’t been able to do the readings, just tell me that you haven’t done the readings before class begins. That way I’ll know who has done the readings and who hasn’t, and I won’t embarrass you by calling on you. But please be honest and don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes. If you try to cheat, and I find out by accident that you haven’t done the readings, I will ask you to leave the room for the remainder of that class.”


Ebenezer Scrooge 12.24.21 at 1:27 am

In response to Matt @4, I wound up teaching a few advanced law school classes. (For you nonlawyers out there, advanced law school classes are typically the province of adjunct practitioners, especially for unsexy business law topics.) I deliberately assigned too much reading. I told the students that I did not expect them to read everything, although everything would be useful if they read it. But since they were going to be lawyers, I told them they had to learn to quickly identify the essential in a large mass of material. I don’t know if it worked. I hope it did, at least for some.


oldster 12.24.21 at 6:54 am

I think the rest of you have missed the most important thing in HB’s post:
A parent who has dedicated his professional life to teaching and his personal life to raising his children, now has the deep satisfaction of seeing one of his children grow up to be a professional teacher, who cares about the craft as he does.

One racer takes up the torch to carry it forward on the next leg of the race, a little before the last racer falters, exhausted. Don’t pity him for faltering; that was going to happen one way or another. Instead, congratulate him on his worthy successor, and rejoice with him in the knowledge that he prepared for this day and saw it to fruition.
Mazel tov, Harry.


SusanC 12.24.21 at 9:22 am

@10. For mathematics, at least, I’d take the opposite approach. That is, a student who admittedly hasn’t bothered to do the homework assignment has the chance to redeem themselves by solving the assigned problem on the whiteboard, in front of the class. (If they get stuck I’ll bail them out by explaining the solution; if they say they tried to do the homework assignment and couldn’t do it, I’ll also explain).

This assumes that the typical student is extremely smart, but wanted to go to a party last night rather that do their homework. We’re cool with that, as long as they can demonstrate ability to do the exam questions.


SusanC 12.24.21 at 9:26 am

This is very, very subject dependent. Mathematicians spend their afternoons trying to solve assigned problems; scientists do lab practical work; literature students etc. might read more books…


Doug 12.24.21 at 11:00 pm

1976 final semester 4th year Literature, one class alone required ~5000 pages reading – from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, to Dickens and many more. It was brutal. Glad I took it and read everything.


Colin Danby 12.25.21 at 5:15 pm

I have learned a lot about how students read from before-class annotation assignments via Perusall and Hypothesis. I guess it’s an obvious point that different people read and absorb texts very differently, but it’s incredibly helpful to see it. These tools also let them help each other and feel less alone.

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