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Would College Students Retain More If Professors Dialed Back The Pace?

Adam Crowley
Getty Images/Blend Images RM

When we read books, why do we forget so much of what we read, in only weeks or even days after we read it?

Coming across an article on this topic by Julie Beck in The Atlantic over the weekend, I found insight and even some consolation. I'm not the only one who forgets the plots of novels I've truly loved.

Beck explains that as we read a book, it feels like a fluent experience when we're absorbed in the text. The material that we're taking in, though, is being held only in working memory. It takes concentrated effort to "set" that material in long-term memory. Beck writes:

"If you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out. I used to get irritated in school when an English-class syllabus would have us read only three chapters a week, but there was a good reason for that...If you read a book all in one stretch — on an airplane, say — you're just holding the story in your working memory that whole time."

(Note that Beck refers to watching as well as to reading: It turns out, she says, that if we binge-watch a TV program, we forget its contents more quickly than if we watch at conventional one-week intervals.)

In a case of literary serendipity, right after I read Beck's piece, I stumbled onto an essay called "The Simplest Course I Ever Taught" in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College and professor of English at Drexel University.

Cohen describes her embrace of "slow teaching," an approach that designs a college course to "look closely — and by extension, slowly — at one major idea or text over the course of ten weeks."

Though the focus of Cohen's essay is a one-credit course she developed that "took the slow teaching approach to a new level" — she read aloud Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to her students, and they discussed the plot and characters together — she explains that the honors program she heads offers a whole set of slow-taught courses. One of them focused on Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, an indication that science as well as the humanities is involved.

A deliberate change on professors' part from trying "to cram in as much material as possible over the course of a term," Cohen suggests, brings benefits to the students. "I am convinced that key concepts and texts will adhere better to memory and understanding if their presentation is slowed down," she says in her essay.

What a striking match between Cohen's pedagogy, designed as an antidote to a headlong rush through the semester, and Beck's article on why we forget what we read.

That teaching style matches, too, with a perspective developed (and a book written) by Canadian professors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, whose work urging professors to resist a corporate-style focus on rush-rush productivity I profiled here in 2016.

As I wrote then about the "slow professor" philosophy:

"Most important of all, college teachers should insist, unapologetically, that reflective inquiry is the heart and soul of the university.

And reflective inquiry can't be done in a distracted rush, without uninterrupted time to focus."

By email, I asked Cohen how she would respond to a skeptic who might claim that slow teaching coddles students rather than challenges them fully. She told me:

"The goal is to inspire students to want to learn. If we hold to labels like coddling, we miss the point. My students work incredibly hard to qualify for med school and law school, and for engineering, finance, and other professional careers. Drexel is a cooperative education school, which means that students spend some of their time working at actual jobs in their fields. At times, they hold down part-time jobs while also taking a full roster of courses. These students are intensely hard-working, even driven — very far from a coddled stereotype.

The humanities, unfortunately, tends to get short shrift in this context. It is important to find ways to lure students into reading for intellectual stimulation and pleasure rather than just for facts and careerist ends. So I don't see this as coddling but as intellectual seduction without which we are likely to see the books and ideas we love fall by the wayside."

Given what I wrote here last year about celebrating intellectual engagement on college campuses, it's no surprise that I'm convinced by Cohen's points. I'm not a skeptic about the slow-teaching approach.

Still, I do wonder, is it likely to be successful across all disciplines? When I taught college, my science-based biological anthropology courses did require me to jam in a lot of material. In a course on human evolution, for instance, doing a thorough job meant teaching a range of topics in genetics, primate behavior, fossil humans, and the evolution of cognition and behavior.

Did Cohen have any thoughts on whether slow teaching would be as effective in the science as in the humanities? She replied, in part:

"Good question. We are currently trying to do a one-credit slow teaching course on 'rate of change,' the underlying concept of calculus. We'll have to see how this turns out. I sense that it will need to be tweaked to work well, but that it has potential."

Of course, no one is suggesting that slow teaching become the single method used by professors in college classrooms. It shouldn't. But added into the mix, how could it be anything but a boon to pleasure in learning — and pleasure in remembering more of what is read?

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.