For college students, assigned textbooks and reading assignments may be just as important as who your professors are.
What you read will shape your ideas, thoughts, and perspectives.
A project out of Columbia University has set out to provide a better understanding of what college students are reading.
The Open Syllabus Project has collected course syllabi from more than seven million courses from 80 countries.
The result of the research is a rich, open dataset that reveals trends in higher-education learning and the most-taught texts.
There’s no doubt that textbooks are important.
The classic joke the main character in Good Will Hunting delivers: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”
All jokes aside, what are college students reading in their classes? Let’s take a look.
Writing Books Are the Top Three Textbooks in the U.S.
Just about every college student must take a required class in writing, English Composition or English literature.
The course titles may vary, but the focus on good writing skills does not.
The framework of these required writing classes may be similar in schools across the country.
The top three books assigned to college students in the U.S. are all about writing.
These standardized texts across many curricula provide consistent training across many schools.
What are College Students Reading? Top Three College Textbooks in the U.S.
- A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker (1989)
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (1959)
- A Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker (1993)
Interestingly, two of the most popular textbooks are by a single author, Diana Hacker.
She was a community college professor for 35 years.
Her work at the on-campus Writing Center inspired her to write grammar manuals that were thorough and easy to use.
More than 10,000 college syllabi in the U.S. are assigned A Writer’s Reference.
Time Magazine has named the Elements of Style as one of the top 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.
The text’s first iteration was in 1918 by Cornell professor William Strunk.
In 1959 by E.B. White, a New Yorker columnist and author of Charlotte’s Web, revised it.
The short grammar book, with its 22 style rules and principles, has had mixed opinions.
The New York Times praised it, and Stephen King said, “There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book.”
On the other hand, The Boston Globe called it an “aging zombie of a book.”
And the author of the Cambridge book on grammar said that The Elements of Style has been toxic to generations of college students:
“The result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write however or than me or was or which,” said the author.
What Are the Most Commonly Assigned Novels?
College professors frequently assign classic literature.
These novels from centuries ago have become standards, and reading the books has become a ubiquitous rite of passage among college literature students.
Top Five Literature Novels Assigned to College Students
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
- Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1400)
- Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)
- Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
The most popular reading assignment in the U.S. is Frankenstein, written by 18-year-old Mary Shelley.
However, not all schools treat the tale as a typical literature assignment.
At the University of California-Santa Barbara, a “Reading with Scientists” class built itself around this book.
It looked at Frankenstein through the lens of modern innovation and startup culture.
The class even explored a comparison between how Victor Frankenstein and Mark Zuckerberg both seemingly invented a technology that exceeds their control.
Through this analysis, the more than 200-year-old story became relevant to today’s current challenges.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been a standard in college English courses since the 1960s.
As one Yale professor explains, “It is what some critics believe to be ‘among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language.'”
The novel’s popularity in college curriculums means that online searches are in sync with semester schedules.
Every October and March, Google searches for the title spike as students look online for study guides and class notes to help them understand the difficult book.
How Are Literature Assignments Changing?
In the ’80s and ’90s, there was a hot debate among academics as to which works of literature should be read by all college students.
Joe Karaganis, the director of the Open Syllabus Project, said that there was a prevailing thought that the canons of literature should be diverse to include an array of perspectives.
The latest data from his syllabus analysis shows that this has occurred.
College reading assignments have diversified but carried out in an unexpected way.
Rather than the standard collection essential reading changing, assigned novels are slowly becoming decentralized.
Professors have not coalesced around a modern set of must-read books.
Instead, traditional texts assigned alongside a variety of new reading assignments are more common.
“It seems likely that the idea of a canon itself was weakened,” Karaganis told Fast Company. “There’s very little sign of dominant new literature titles from the past 10 to 15 years.”
How Does College Affect Adult Reading Habits?
When we looked at the amount of homework in college, we found that students taking 15 credits would spend about 30 to 45 hours per week on academic work outside of the classroom.
This includes reading, homework assignments, projects, and studying.
There’s no denying that college students have to do a massive amount of reading.
And one may argue that so much college reading harms the desire to read.
After students slog through pages of difficult language and out-of-touch plots, are future reading habits doomed?
Data from the Pew Research Center shows that college graduates are
(1) more likely to read books,
(2) more likely to use libraries, and
(3) more likely to embrace different book formats.
Here’s how the numbers break down for these three reading habits among college graduates.
According to data from 2019, 92 percent of college graduates have read a book in the past 12 months.
That’s leaps and bounds above other educational categories.
Among those who attended some college, 78 percent read a book in the past year, and for those with a high school education or less, the rate is 56 percent.
College graduates are also more likely to visit libraries, although this gap is narrower.
According to 2016 data, 59 percent of adults who graduated college have used a library within the past year.
For those with some college education, this rate is 52 percent, and it’s 39 percent among adults who have a high school education or less.
College graduation is also associated with adults who consume books in a variety of ways, not just print.
When we look at ebooks, 41 percent of adults with a college education have read an ebook in the past year, compared to 15 percent of high school graduates.
In a similar gap, 34 percent of college grads have listened to an audiobook in the past year.
Among high school graduates, this rate is only 12 percent.
How Does College Reading and Writing Affect Life Outcomes?
In college, it can seem pointless to spend time on endless essay writing and deciphering the grammar rules in The Elements of Style.
Yet there is long-lasting value to good writing skills across all professional disciplines.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that 73 percent of employers want a candidate with strong written communication skills.
Moreover, a College Board study found that blue-chip businesses are spending $3.1 billion annually on remedial writing training.
Despite books about writing being the most assigned college texts, the Conference Board says writing skills are one of the biggest gaps in workplace readiness.
“I was a math major, but the biggest differentiator in business now is good writing,”  said one job interviewer in The Washington Post.
It’s not only clear writing that’s correlated to more job opportunities.
Reading also correlates to professional success.
A study by the University of Oxford found that leisure reading correlates to better job prospects.
According to the study, reading is the only out-of-school activity among 16-year-olds that’s correlated with management or professional job opportunities later in life.
Among girls, 16-year-old readers are 56 percent more likely than non-readers to achieve a management position by middle age.
Among boys, 16-year-old readers are 21 percent more likely than non-readers to be managers.
There are clear examples of how reading correlates to success.
Financial titan Warren Buffet reads about five to six hours each day.
Bill Gates reads about 50 books per year.
Elon Musk spent his youth reading science fiction for up to 10 hours per day, and Oprah has called reading “her personal path to freedom.”
How College Students Can Make More Time for Reading and Writing
College-level learning is a juggling act of responsibilities and time constraints.
Stress levels are high among students, and time deficits reveal that it’s challenging to find enough hours to devote to literature and English classes.
That’s why platforms like OneClass are helping students to become more efficient in their academic work.
By using shared class notes and study guides, students have on-demand access to information from their lectures.
Organized digital content breaks down material covered in class and what information will be on the exam. As a result, students can study more efficiently.
Through better access to class information, college students can use their study time to focus on learning the information rather than trying to find the information.
Using shared class notes also affects how a student learns during class.
Rather than furiously taking notes, students can be free to listen actively and participate in discussions.
This type of engaged learning won’t leave students scrambling later.
Students are free to participate, knowing they can download the class notes when it’s time to prepare for exams.
With strategies and resources available to make your college learning more efficient and smooth, how are you going to make college easier for yourself?
Jack Tai is the CEO and Co-founder of OneClass. Learn more about how have helped more than 90 percent of users improve by a letter grade.