July 27, 2019 10:33 pm

Andrew Davies

Read chapter 9 for next week’s class.

Be prepared to discuss the handout tomorrow.

List 3 things you learned from this article and share on the discussion board.

A lot of professors assign readings like these; i.e., students read a piece of text, respond to it in some way and/or come prepared to discuss it in class. Yet over half of students don’t do the assigned readings, and often it’s because professors assign too much. (1, 2)  

Maybe it’s time we stop assigning readings. 

Perhaps we should instead start assigning tasks.

Picture this: You’re teaching about gender inequality. You want students to read a handout on this topic, but you're concerned they won’t read it or that they’ll only do so superficially. Instead of telling students, “Read this handout and write a one-page response,” you might assign the following task:

Research the pay gap between men and women in 3 different industries/jobs. Explain why you think these jobs pay unfair wages. 

Here’s a meaningful task students can focus on, rather than on some handout. But for students to report on unfair wages, they need to read up on the topic, right? That’s where you recommend certain sources:

To help, I’ve provided two handouts and a video. Refer to at least three ideas or supporting details from any of these sources in your write-up.  

See how the readings play a secondary, almost incidental, role? 

This is the case even if the reading comes from a textbook. Let’s say you teach Introduction to Biology, and this week you need to cover chapter 35, titled “Vascular Plant Structure, Growth, and Development.”

You could assign Chapter 35 and hope students read and digest all the terms covered. Or you could focus on one particular area—the structure of leaves and their functions—and turn it into a task/assignment:   

Collect 3-5 different kinds of leaves (yes, actual leaves!) and analyze them. Tape them onto a piece of paper and label as many parts as you can that are visible. The more you’re able to do so, the better. Chapter 35 will help you do this. Come prepared during class to discuss what each part does. 

While there are many (perhaps better) ways to ensure students understand plant structure, the lesson here is the same: don’t make reading the main thing, even though we know it’s a necessary part of the assignment. 

So, why might a task-based approach to reading motivate students more?

Essentially, it mirrors the way we read in real life. Aside from reading for pleasure, we read because we want to get better at something or know more about a topic. Books such as How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, The Self-Driven Child, and Raising Kids Who Read have provided me, for instance, with incredible insights into raising my twin infant girls. Yet I would never read such books if it didn’t support my larger parenting goals. 

Intentional reading also changes the way we read, turning us from a passive reader who “proceeds from the first word to the last word of a text at a rate predictable by the text’s structure, to one of a purposeful information-seeker who adapts the way they read to achieve that purpose.” (3) With my parenting books, I have selectively skipped paragraphs, sections, and even whole chapters that I considered less relevant. Why wouldn’t we expect students to be just as discerning?

A task-based approach can work even for literature classes or courses where students read fiction text. Compare two ways to approach Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man:

Old Way:

Read Chapter 1 and come prepared to discuss the roles that the narrator is forced to play during his class speech. [Here, the reading is the main focus.]

New Way:

Think about the last time you were forced to “play a role” you didn’t necessarily want to play. Post a short paragraph describing this role and why you felt this way. Make sure to include how it compares with and differs from the narrator’s experiences in Chapter 1. [Here, the reading serves the larger task/assignment.]

Of course, reading literature has a generally different purpose than reading nonfiction text; in fact, oftentimes reading here is the goal. Students in a literature circle (which is kind of like a book club for students) or a graduate research class, for example, are analyzing texts for their own sake. 

For most of us, however, readings serve as the “information transfer” phase of learning. 

The next time you plan readings, consider the larger goal you want students to reach, the task you want them to complete, or the skill you want them to develop. Then provide the resource(s) to help them get there. It might include not just readings, but also videos and other primary documents. 

Let’s break down a task-based approach to reading into four steps, each with an example: 

STEP 1: Decide the goal/task AND the readings (ideally, you want to make sure the reading is essential to doing well in the task). 

ObjectiveThis week, I want my education students to be able to teach adding and subtracting with math manipulatives.

ReadingThey will read Chapter 9, “Estimation and Computational Procedures for Whole Numbers.”

STEP 2: Frame the assignment in terms of the goal or task ONLY. Ignore the readings in this step (it will be incorporated in Step 3).

Your goal this week is to figure out the best way to teach addition and subtraction using base-ten blocks. (Add details if necessary.) 

STEP 3: Add the readings as a recommendation (to help students accomplish their task/goal).

Use the strategies from chapter 9 to decide which works best for you and write a 2-paragraph plan.

STEP 4: Tell students how the information will be used (and how they are held accountable).

Next week in class, you will share your plan and decide which ideas work best!

Put together, here is the fleshed-out assignment that students see, packaged around a hypothetical scenario: 

Meet Julissa.

She’s eight years old and in third grade. But she has trouble multiplying two-digit numbers. Conceptually, she knows that multiplying has something to do with groups. Yet the traditional algorithmic way to multiply is too abstract for her. 

How would YOU teach Julissa? Your goal is to figure out the best way to teach multiplication using base-ten blocks. Consider the strategies from chapter 9 and decide which resonates most with you—and which you think would actually help Julissa.

Write a 2-paragraph plan explaining/justifying your instructional choice. Next week in class, you will share your plan and come to a group consensus.

See how I embed the reading without explicitly assigning it? This task would be impossible to do without reading the chapter. No quizzes, “gotcha” questions in class, or reading responses are necessary to compel students to read. 

Just make sure you hold students accountable for doing the assignment. In some cases, the simple act of having them share their thoughts in class is enough. Other times you may decide that the task is worth a certain number of points and/or that students have to post their responses on the online discussion board.  

As you can imagine, it’s not always necessary to use a task-based approach. Some readings, such as an article on how to land a job interview or a chapter about the impact of social media, are inherently purposeful and motivating for students. Using task-based approaches depends on you and your goal. 

Perhaps the real promise of task-based approaches to reading comes when we can stop dictating the sources. Students would be the ones who must figure out what texts to read and what videos to watch. All we have to do is come up with the goals or tasks. That’s when students become true self-directed learners. 

For now, let’s start by positioning reading where it should be—in service to the goals and tasks we assign. This would be a significant step to helping students see reading as useful, rather than as simply something they must do. 

Let me know if this approach to reading helps - leave a comment or question below!



(1) Hoeft, Mary E. (2012) "Why University Students Don't Read: What Professors Can Do To Increase Compliance," International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 6: No. 2, Article 12. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/ij-sotl/vol6/iss2/12/

(2) Cynthia S. Deale & Seung Hyun (Jenna) Lee (2021) To Read or Not to Read? Exploring the Reading Habits of Hospitality Management Students, Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Education, DOI: 10.1080/10963758.2020.1868317

(3) Durik, A. M., Britt, M. A., Rouet, J. (2017). Literacy beyond text comprehension: A theory of purposeful reading. United States: Taylor & Francis.

Imagine if your students showed up to class prepared and ready to learn. There were no surprised looks when you break out the quiz that’s been on the schedule for 4 weeks, or panicked faces when you remind them of the project that’s due next class.

That was the dream I had when I was dropped into the deep end of teaching college for the first time. But what they didn’t tell me was that in order for my teacher’s utopia to materialize I first needed to get my students to read the syllabus. The challenge, I discovered, isn’t that students don’t know they should read the thing, it’s that it’s seen as a chore. And which college-aged adult wants to do chores?

That’s when I found Dr. Norman Eng’s Teaching College and the companion ebook Create an Engaging Syllabus. They shifted my perspective on what a syllabus is meant to do. I went from seeing it as a mandatory dumping ground for class policies and grading information to a marketing tool. My class became a product I needed to sell to my target audience: the students, and the syllabus became the first chance at making my pitch. With that in mind I realized my tired old syllabus needed a significant facelift in four particular areas. 

Change #1: Answer student questions upfront.

When you look at a brochure for a shiny new product, they don’t put all the specs on the cover. They save that for after they’ve answered your most fundamental questions like “Why should I even care about this product?”  Likewise, in the first few pages of my syllabus, I need to answer students’ most pressing questions about my course… and in plain English.

In previous versions of my class, the first page of my syllabus inherited the format and language of typical syllabi: starting with “learning outcomes” and “prerequisites” complete with a stodgy course description. 

Now the section titles have a more conversational tone, starting on page one with “Why should you take this course?” and “What will I need?” followed by “How can I succeed in this course?”, “What does success look like?” and “What will we be doing in this course?” on the subsequent pages. The learning outcomes are still there, just further back in the syllabus under the heading “What should you be able to do at the end of this course?”

Change #2: Use more visuals.

As a designer I’m almost ashamed to admit that this hadn’t crossed my mind before reading Eng’s books, especially since I’m teaching a class full of Illustration majors. They’re all about visual stimulation so it’s vital that their first impression of the course actually impresses. Using infographics, icons and pictures, I took as many opportunities as I could  to show as well as tell making it easier to scan and more enticing to come back to. This is most noticeable in the main heading on page 1, seen above, as well as the project descriptions below.

They were straight-to-the-point, boring blocks of text. Perfectly un-scannable.

Now each project gets a thumbnail which makes the content easier to skim, but also gives the students a taste of what the project entails even before they read the description.

Change #3: Intersperse important information.

There are some key habits and behaviors I want to encourage in my students that make for a smoother, more successful class experience. But you could only find them in the fine print oblivion I labelled “Evaluation and Grading Policy” which sounds about as enticing as iTunes’ “Terms and Conditions.”

With the new approach, I’ve scattered the most important tidbits throughout the syllabus, and in light of Change #2, made them more visually interesting. 

These call-outs break up the content on each page making it more magazine-like, with various bits of content on the same page, and therefore more likely to be noticed.

Change #4: Rename lectures topics as plain questions. 

When you’re knee-deep in pedagogy it’s easy to get caught up in using teaching nomenclature and forget that most normal people, and certainly my students, don’t talk that way. They need more approachable on-ramps into the material so I reworded the lecture topics using simple questions that clearly tell them exactly what we’re going to cover in that class without the jargon.

So  the “Type History and Classification” lecture becomes “Where did all this type come from and how do we organize it?” 

“Type Anatomy & Terminology” becomes “How do we talk about Type without looking stupid?”

“Visual Hierarchy” becomes “How do we properly arrange type on a single page?”

“The Typographic Grid and Paragraph layout” becomes “How do the pros deal with text across multiple pages?”

Your syllabus is the best place to make a great first impression and get students excited about learning in your class. Plus it shows them what kind of professor you are; the kind that cares enough to make what could otherwise be a boring policy document, into an engaging magazine-style masterpiece that they’ll want to hang on their walls. At least that’s the dream anyway. 

Of course this is an ever-evolving creature (e.g. I’m missing a section where I introduce myself to my students), but here’s a link to the syllabus as it stands right now.

Please share your thoughts (and syllabus if you can!) in the comments below.

Andrew is an adjunct professor in the Communication Arts Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. He also leads the creative team at Paragon Design Group, a multi-disciplined design studio, where, in addition to presenting on matters of design & creativity, he straddles the worlds of print, web and motion graphics media. He’s won numerous awards working for clients like American Express, CNN, Linkedin, the National Geographic Channel, Samsung, UNICEF, WordPress.com and Xerox. For details, visit his website: https://teachingtypography.wordpress.com/


  • Wow Andrew! Really love your redesigned syllabus. It’s inviting and and I love how you used graphics – would you tell us what program you used and where you got these graphics? Esp those on p. 2 and 7. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks C.L., I used Adobe Illustrator to create the icons and graphics, and Adobe InDesign to put it all together with the text and imagery.

      • For a lot of profs who don’t have the software or the design background, they can use Canva–a popular tool to design presentations, media, etc. That’s the next best thing!

  • Hi Andrew, thanks so much for sharing these extremely helpful tips! I hope it’s okay that I drew inspiration from some of your sub-headings and visuals in my draft syllabi for this fall. I used Canva, as Norman suggested. My syllabi aren’t nearly as professional and polished as yours, but they’re uploaded here: https://anelyseweiler.com/teaching

  • Dear professor NORMAN ENG, I bought your book create an Engaging Syllabus, It changes my mind about syllabus, I now train to design the syllabus for my next quarter course. However, I would like to have some example or model, I tried to download the template and the example you gives as a reference at the end of the book, but it was impossible. Could you help me to get the template and example, I would really appreciate your help. Best regard

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