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Your Textbook Knows You're Going to Fail

The days of college students pretending they did the reading are over.

College professors no longer need to ask their class for an earnest show of hands to answer the dreaded question, "who did the reading?" Thanks to digital textbooks, instructors are able to tell exactly how much you've read, how long it took you to read it, and plenty more about your study habits. And whatever students might think about their speed-skimming abilities, a new study shows the more time college students spend reading their textbooks, the better their course grades. 

The study followed 236 Texas A&M University-San Antonio undergraduates who used digital textbooks to see what type of data could best predict success in the course. Did it matter most how much time students spent reading? Or was it more important whether they "actively read"—doing things like using highlighters? It turned out that the most important thing was the sheer number of minutes spent reading—that number was better at determining whether a student would do well in class than even how they'd previously performed academically. 

The problem is that students just aren't reading. Students in the study read a median 169 minutes—or two hours and 49 minutes per semester. "It's not that students were overworked or required to read a crazy amount. The reading was pretty fair for college students," says Reynol Junco, the Iowa State University professor who conducted the research.

CourseSmart, the company that created the digital textbooks used in the study, offers an "engagement index" professors can see for each student. It's a measure that includes both reading time and active reading. The index knows if you fell asleep with the book open, too, and can help predict course outcomes and identify students at risk of academic failure.

Active readers were also in the minority, even though the data showed students with a high engagement index performed well in class. The report showed that "most students did not highlight, take notes or use bookmarks in their digital textbooks." 

Students who use digital textbooks may be a little creeped out knowing their study habits can be spied on, but there's a notable benefit to the practice, Junco says. Checking in on study habits can help professors see which students are in trouble before they flunk a major test—and help them out.

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