When I left for college (cough, cough) years ago, I assumed I was academically prepared for what college classes would bring. I had taken several Advanced Placement classes and done well. Sure, the books would be harder and the papers would be longer. I would have to do more independent work outside of class, but just like any other academic transition, high school graduation marked my readiness for college. While I may have been confident in my academic transition from high school to college, many students are finding a chasm in this transition.

For many students a high school diploma does not signify college readiness. 43% of students at two-year public colleges and 29% of students at four year public colleges take placement tests only to discover they require remedial courses in math, reading, or writing. These courses are taken for no credit in order for them to be prepared for the rigors of their regular college classes. The fact that so many students are arriving unprepared contributes in big ways to the 30% dropout rate for college freshman and places added responsibilities on colleges to get students up to speed.
So why are so many students unprepared for the transition into college? A 2006 report by ACT, the people who produce the ACT exam, suggests that the primary gap between college-ready and college-unready students is their ability to comprehend complex text. When faced with an epic poem, a dense academic article, or any written work where there is higher level vocabulary, subtlety, elaborate structure or complex meanings, the college-ready student can read and comprehend; the unready student cannot. This is not a matter of intelligence or motivation, but rather an issue of experience and practice.
Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory Univeristy, suggests in a recent article of Educational Leadership that in many ways, the habits of reading digital text on the internet and on phones works against the habits that slow, thoughtful deliberation, complex text requires. Complex text requires a willingness to spend time with the material, pause, and probe what is being said. Unfortunately, blogs, chats, comments, twitters, and status updates put teens in the habit of racing through material, simply skimming the top of what is being said.
When reading complex text you need uninterrupted time focusing on the single task of reading. You cannot grasp what is being said while emailing your mom pictures and uploading the latest movie. Digital activities create a constant need to multitask and create an environment where they feel lag and disconnect without the constant input of other stimuli.
Complex text requires you to be open to the thoughts of the author, listening and fully understanding their thoughts before responding. Digital media says that teens are the creators, and they do not need to stop and consider other people’s perspectives before presenting their own.Because of this Bauerlein suggests teens are less likely to read complex text objectively and more likely to judge on what their small life experience and understanding tells them. This leads to them misunderstanding or failing to understand the consequence of what the writer is trying to convey.
When teens transition to college and are faced with increasingly complex text, they must fight against years of bad habits formed from thousands of texts, Facebook updates, and YouTube videos. It is this digital text which teens, frankly all of us, read so often that take away some of their ability to do what they need to do to excel at the college level. As I looked at this study, I instantly connected it to my own struggle to read meaningful literature after I have spent time skimming People.com. What I came to realize was that it is not just connected to literature class.
The Bible is a complex text. God’s Word is dense and rich, requiring more than just a cursory glance. While we believe everyone can read and understand God’s Word, it never occurred to me that the reason some students struggle, refuse and rebel against reading the Bible on their own would be that they simply don’t have the right skills and experience to deal with the text. Much like how they might struggle in college, they might also struggle in their spiritual life as they find themselves unable to read the Bible as they should. Maybe this is why we feel the need to create Bibles that look more like magazines than a bound book. We feel more comfortable with the text when it seems less intimidatingly complex.
What is even more interesting is the idea that by our teaching teens how to read the scriptures deeply and critically, we are not only feeding their souls, but their minds. We are helping them create the habit of scripture reading, the same habits of reading any complex text. Our first purpose is always to allow the Holy Spirit to do His active work through the Word, but a wonderful side benefit is preparing students for college and life.
So perhaps next time students whine and complain about turning cell phones off and digging deep into scripture, you can remind yourself not only of the powerful work that God is doing through His Word, but the way in which you play a small part in making your students more successful.