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Sindhuri Nandhakumar
Questions for Answers

Credit: Sindhuri Nandhakumar

A couple weeks ago, I sat with a learning instructor at the Weingarten Learning Resources Center. He wrote down all of my classes on the whiteboard: four classes for my political science major and one to fulfill the pesky Living World requirement.

He then put his marker down and asked me what I needed the most help with. I told him it was getting all the work done — not studying for tests or working on assignments, but merely doing the required readings. Most of the time, I managed to read everything but ended up being ill-prepared for the midterms and papers. I didn’t know what the balance was.

He looked at me, shook his head and said, “You cannot expect to get all your readings done.”

I was surprised to hear him say this. I wondered then, if I couldn’t do all the work, had I overextended myself by taking five classes (the norm for most of us students)?

My learning instructor then proceeded to assure me that it’s not really necessary to read every single line. There are strategies, he told me, like reading the conclusion of a text first, then going back and skimming over the whole thing.

I wondered if my seemingly flawed reading style was what had made me feel helpless, like I was drowning in a tidal wave of journal articles and PDFs.

Late on Thursday nights you can find me on my couch, reading every single word and sentence about the meaning of dependency theory, while I ignore my friends’ invitations to go out for a drink.

After my meeting with the learning instructor, I became curious to know how other students did it. Not the ones who rolled in late to class looking like a hot mess, but the students who looked like they had done all the work — the ones who looked like everything in life was under control.

So I asked people, and kept my ears and eyes open.

And I realized that I’d been doing it all wrong. Many have seemed to master the art of skimming by paying attention to the beginnings of sentences and the conclusions of sections, while some simply Google all the keywords.

Still, others divide themselves up into study groups and split each week’s readings and send summaries of the author’s arguments to each other the night before recitation.

While studying for a midterm, I ran into a student from one of my classes. I lamented about summarizing all the readings, when she told me that she used the study group method. I spent the next hour feeling sorry for myself.

These students, who employ this division of labor, essentially spend a quarter of the time that I spend reading the texts. Chances are, this won’t really worsen their performance in exams. If anything, they might do better because each individual has spent their time more effectively.

Many students have also argued that professors don’t really expect them to do all the readings and therefore deliberately assign extra.

If that’s the case, that’s not fair to students like myself who feel that assigned reading is valuable knowledge. But moreover, that mentality also just encourages more students to read less.

One student I talked to said one of his professors assigned 1,000 pages to read after the first class, only to announce later that she hadn’t expected anyone to read most of it. Shouldn’t the point of classes be to learn the material, not learn to skim?

That said, reading more smartly is something that I am open to doing. The internet tells me that it’s more efficient to look at the middle of a line when reading and not really pronounce each word mentally. I’m going to try that.

But not reading entire chunks of the assigned text? Sharing the readings with other students? No way. I have a serious case of intellectual FOMO.

So maybe I won’t be going dancing on Thursday nights. Maybe I won’t do as well on exams as I would if I shared my reading load with other students. But I’m okay with that. Even though I do care about my grades, I think I prefer to emerge from my Penn education having learned for the sake of learning.

Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a College senior from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Her email address is Follow her @sindhurin. “Questions for Answers” appears every other Thursday.

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