Unconventional wisdom

Wednesday, September 12, 2007 | 4:55 p.m. CDT; updated 10:17 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The average college student completes about a quarter of the assigned course readings, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology.

The research found that many students don’t have the skills to figure out what’s most important in the reading, while others expect teachers to go over the most important material. Others just think textbooks are boring.

Some college professors are trying to improve that rate by trying different things, such as creating custom texts and using nontraditional books.

At Northern Kentucky University, Ryan Lee Tetan assigned “America the Book” as a mandatory text for his introduction to political science class. The book was written by popular Comedy Central comedian Jon Stewart, contains a faux introduction “written” by Thomas Jefferson and according to Tetan, is only about 90 percent accurate. Students read chapters, then use supplementary texts to discover what’s accurate and inaccurate in the book.

MU history professor Michelle Morris assigned the “chick-lit” novel “Citizen Girl” by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus to her U.S. Women’s History class. The plot follows a 24-year-old woman trying to wade through the incompetence surrounding her and make it in the working world.

Morris said she assigned “Citizen Girl,” in addition to two classic novels, “because another book by (McLaughlin and Kraus) was being made into a major motion picture. I am a colonial American historian and not always up on the most popular modern trends, but movie connections spelled ‘popular’ for me.”

Other nontraditional texts assigned by MU professors include “What Every College Student Should Know” by Ernie Lepore and Sarah-Jane Leslie, which is used in Biochemistry 1090. The book is a guide to optimizing the college experience and includes advice on things such as finding the best taught courses on campus and how to collaborate with instructors. “Dave Barry Slept Here, A Sort of History of the United States” by Dave Barry is assigned reading in History 1200. The book covers U.S. History, but “leaves out the boring stuff.” For example, the book claims that, “the Sixth Amendment states that if you are accused of a crime, you have the right to a trial before a jury of people too stupid to get out of jury duty.”

MU student Mike Razim said he appreciates teachers’ efforts to make course material more appealing.

“I’m probably more likely to read things that I know my professor has hand picked, rather than a textbook that will have tons of information in it that you don’t need to know at all,” said Razim, who is studying advertising and hotel and restaurant management.

Catherine McComb, an MU English major, said teachers should not be so bound by traditional texts.

“What really matters in the end,” she said, “is how interesting and relevant the material is.”

Some MU professors are also changing the format in which they present reading assignments. Since 1992, Mizzou Media, the MU bookstore’s custom publishing office, has been offering MU instructors the chance to tailor their own course packets. Instructors can include their own lecture notes and homework assignments as well as piece together selected chapters from multiple textbooks. They can also create compilation CDs and DVDs to accompany the packets.

Other colleges around the nation began offering similar services as a response to a federal copyright case involving copy services provided to students by Kinkos. Custom publishing offices were created in order to assist instructors in legally providing students with copyrighted course materials.

Mizzou Media secures all copyright permissions, sends the course packets into production and eventually sells them in the campus bookstore as they would any other textbook. According to Michelle Froese, public relations manager for Mizzou Media, approximately 250 MU professors currently use the service.

“By using selected readings and materials, (professors) can provide a much better educational tool than assigning a book where only a few chapters may touch on the topic,” Froese said.

It is also cheaper for students. On average Froese said many packets cost about $15, and the proceeds go back into student services and facilities.

McComb said she doesn’t think the format of a text influences whether she reads it or not. However, she said, handouts and smaller packets of reading material are easier to haul around campus than textbooks.


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