Somewhat surprisingly, there is very little research about the amount of time it takes the average college student to complete common academic tasks. We have self-reported estimates of how much total time they spend on academic work outside of class (12-15 hours), but we don’t know much about the quality and quantity of the work that is produced in that time frame (let alone how the time is allocated to different tasks). We also know quite a bit about how students tackle common academic tasks, but those studies rarely ask students to report on how long it takes them to complete the task (whether reading a book, writing a paper, or studying for an exam). The testing literature provides some clues (because valid instrument design depends on data about the average speed of test takers), but it’s tough to generalize from the experience of taking high-stakes, timed tests to the experience of working on an assignment in the comfort of your dorm. And while there is a sizable literature on reading, the nature and purpose of the reading tasks in these experiments are also quite different from what students typically encounter in college.
All of which is to say the estimates above are just that: estimates.
To arrive at our estimates, we began with what we knew from the literature and then filled in the gaps by making a few key assumptions. The details of our calculations are below. If you still find our assumptions unreasonable, however, the estimator allows you to manually adjust our estimated rates. We also welcome those who have knowledge of research about which we are unaware to suggest improvements.
Of all the work students might do outside of class, we know the most about their reading. Educators, cognitive psychologists, and linguists have been studying how human beings read for more than a century. One of the best summaries of this extensive literature is the the late Keith Rayner’s recently published “So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?” A central insight of this piece (along with the literature it summarizes) is that none of us read at a constant rate. Instead, we use varying rates that depend on the difficulty and purpose of the reading task (Rayner et al., 2016; Love, 2012; Aronson, 1983; Carver, 1983, 1992; Jay and Dahl, 1975; Parker, 1962; Carrillo and Sheldon, 1952; Robinson, 1941). Another obvious (but rarely acknowledged) insight is that a page-based reading rate is going to vary by the number of words on the page. As a result, our estimator assumes that reading rate will be a function of three factors: 1) page density, 2) text difficulty, and 3) reading purpose. For the sake of simplicity, we limited the variation within each factor to three levels.
*estimates were determined by direct sampling of texts in our personal collection
What we know from the research:
What we don’t know, but deduce and/or stipulate:
Sadly, we know much less about student writing rates than we do about reading rates. This is no doubt because writing rates vary even more widely than reading rates. Nevertheless, we’ve found at least one study that can give us a place to begin. In “Individual Differences in Undergraduate Essay-Writing Strategies,” Mark Torrance and his colleagues find (among other things) that 493 students reported spending anywhere between 9 to 15 hours on 1500-word essays. In these essays, students were asked to produce a “critical description and discussion of psychological themes” using at least one outside source. Torrance and his colleagues also show that students who spent the least time reported no drafting, while those who spent the most time reported multiple drafts, along with detailed outlining and planning. And the students who spent the most time received higher marks than those who spent the least (Torrance et al., 2000).
Although the sample of this study is sizable, we should not read too much into a single result of student self-reports about a single assignment from a single institution. But to arrive at our estimates, we must. Users should simply be aware that the table below is far more speculative than our reading rate estimates. And that the time your students spend on these tasks is likely to vary from these estimates in significant ways.
As with reading rates, we assume that writing rates will be a function of a variety of factors. The three we take into account are 1) page density, 2) text genre, 3) degree of drafting and revision.
Drafting and Revision
What we assume to arrive at our estimates:
Aaronson, Doris, and Steven Ferres. “Lexical Categories and Reading Tasks.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 9, no. 5 (1983): 675–99. doi:10.1037/0096-15126.96.36.1995.
Acheson, Daniel J., Justine B. Wells, and Maryellen C. MacDonald. “New and Updated Tests of Print Exposure and Reading Abilities in College Students.” Behavior Research Methods 40, no. 1 (2008): 278–89. doi:10.3758/BRM.40.1.278.
Carrillo, Lawrence W., and William D. Sheldon. “The Flexibility of Reading Rate.” Journal of Educational Psychology 43, no. 5 (1952): 299–305. doi:10.1037/h0054161.
Carver, Ronald P. “Is Reading Rate Constant or Flexible?” Reading Research Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1983): 190–215. doi:10.2307/747517.
———. “Optimal Rate of Reading Prose.” Reading Research Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1982): 56–88. doi:10.2307/747538.
———. “Reading Rate: Theory, Research, and Practical Implications.” Journal of Reading 36, no. 2 (1992): 84–95.
Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.
Grob, James A. “Reading Rate and Study-Time Demands on Secondary Students.” Journal of Reading 13, no. 4 (1970): 285–88.
Hausfeld, Steven. “Speeded Reading and Listening Comprehension for Easy and Difficult Materials.” Journal of Educational Psychology 73, no. 3 (1981): 312–19. doi:10.1037/0022-06188.8.131.522.
Jay, S., and Patricia R. Dahl. “Establishing Appropriate Purpose for Reading and Its Effect on Flexibility of Reading Rate.” Journal of Educational Psychology 67, no. 1 (1975): 38–43. doi:10.1037/h0078669.
Just, Marcel A., and Patricia A. Carpenter. “A Theory of Reading: From Eye Fixations to Comprehension.” Psychological Review 87, no. 4 (1980): 329–54. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.87.4.329.
Love, Jessica. “Reading Fast and Slow.” The American Scholar, March 1, 2012.
McLaughlin, G. Harry. “Reading at ‘Impossible’ Speeds.” Journal of Reading 12, no. 6 (1969): 449–510.
Parker, Don H. “Reading Rate Is Multilevel.” The Clearing House 36, no. 8 (1962): 451–55.
Perry, John, Michael Bratman, and John Martin Fischer. “Appendix: Reading Philosophy.” In Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 7 edition. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Rayner, Keith, Elizabeth R. Schotter, Michael E. J. Masson, Mary C. Potter, and Rebecca Treiman. “So Much to Read, So Little Time How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 17, no. 1 (May 1, 2016): 4–34. doi:10.1177/1529100615623267.
Robinson, F., and P. Hall. “Studies of Higher-Level Reading Abilities.” Journal of Educational Psychology 32, no. 4 (1941): 241–52. doi:10.1037/h0062111.
Siegenthaler, Eva, Pascal Wurtz, Per Bergamin, and Rudolf Groner. “Comparing Reading Processes on E-Ink Displays and Print.” Displays 32, no. 5 (December 2011): 268–73. doi:10.1016/j.displa.2011.05.005.
Torrance, Mark, Glyn V. Thomas, and Elizabeth J. Robinson. “Individual Differences in Undergraduate Essay-Writing Strategies: A Longitudinal Study.” Higher Education 39, no. 2 (2000): 181–200.
Underwood, Geoffrey, Alison Hubbard, and Howard Wilkinson. “Eye Fixations Predict Reading Comprehension: The Relationships between Reading Skill, Reading Speed, and Visual Inspection.” Language and Speech 33, no. 1 (January 1, 1990): 69–81.
Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Reprint edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.
Zacks, Jeffrey M., and Rebecca Treiman. “Sorry, You Can’t Speed Read.” The New York Times, April 15, 2016.