Student reading: how fast is fast enough

Edward Tenner’s column at The Atlantic (Higher Education’s Tech Dilemmas) discusses research that shows that hyperlinked reading is not serving students. For a course a couple of years ago, I and the other instructors wrote the lecture notes out in full sentence and paragraph form (These 15-20 pages for each lecture served as the course reading; it was a short, not a full-term course). Rather than footnote information, I used lots of hyperlinks so that students could click through to manuscript images, library homepages and in at least one case some medieval music. For example, the following on some of the Italian humanists and their writing (just as an image, without working links):

But during the lecture and afterwards, it was made very clear to me that the students weren’t sitting at their computers and eagerly clicking through…in fact, most of the students were printing the reading out and simply following along during the lecture with their paper copies in front of them. I save myself a lot of time by not copying and pasting links into the lecture notes/readings now.

I think the issue is/was that students (at least in a lecture format) want to be told what is important and expect that if it is important the topic, issue or image will be discussed further in class. They’re reading rather pragmatically, not curiously.

Tenner’s column then notes reading speeds (possibly suggesting that the matter is related to the question of hyperlinks???), noting studies that indicate Kindle and ipad reading is somewhat slower. I suspect that this has to do with habits and comfort. The primary constraint on reading text presented in lines is the movement of the eyes which hope and skip around. Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain relates an experiment demonstrating that:

If a full sentence is presented, word by word, at the precise point where gaze is focalized, thus avoiding the need for eye movements, a good reader can read at staggering speed–a mean of eleven hundred words per minute, and up to sixteen hundred words per minute for the best readers

This is three to four times faster than normal, quick reading. Readers who read from four hundred to five hundred words per minute are, according to Dehaene, already close to optimal within the constraints of eye movement (no page numbers for references; I read it on an electronic reader!).

If we want students to read as much as possible as quickly as possible (while retaining respectable comprehension), then we need to hook them up to screens that flash words sequentially based on the individual readers gaze. Of course, this won’t teach them to read curiously, to branch out from the required reading and to consider topic more in depth. Giving students reading material in which links could suggest reliable, well presented and informative sources for more depth seemingly promised to pique their curiosity. That such a format distracts more than allures, not that it might cause you to read a fraction of a second more slowly, is the real bummer.

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