April 2, 2017 11:41 am

Norman Eng

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.

1. You “Repackage” What Students Read Last Night

Are your slides just the “CliffsNotes” version of the readings? Do they read like an outline of a textbook chapter? Do they act as a record of what you presented?

If so, you’re doing it wrong. Students won’t do the readings when they know you’re going to go over it the following day. Studying for some other quiz will take priority. In fact, they may not even show up to class if they know you give them the slide deck later on.

The problem comes when we attempt to cover the curriculum. If you hear yourself saying, “OK, what this slide is trying to say is …” then you’re repackaging.

Remember: depth, not breadth.

So pick one or two complex ideas that students can grapple with. That’s what your PowerPoint should focus on.

Let’s say students are reading about the four major theories of education—perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, and critical theory. It’s fine to briefly go over each one. More important, however, is to help students make sense of them.

One way is to turn them into education consultants. What kind of school would they want for their community?

A curriculum focused on learning the great classics, like Plato and Shakespeare (i.e., perennialism)?

One focused on mastering basic skills like reading and writing (essentialism)?

One focused on the interests and needs of individuals (progressivism)?

Or one rooted in developing critical consciousness (critical theory)?

Students can work on the pros and cons of each. They can work in groups. For large classes, students can turn to a partner and discuss. Active learning makes abstract concepts real.

As education consultants, students see these ideas from multiple perspectives—especially when they share.

What if you turn your students into consultants who solve problems? You can’t buy that kind of engagement. That’s why I see teachers as designers of experiences more than anything else.

2. You’re Using More Than 10 Slides

In my education lectures, I average 5-7 slides per class. They take no more than 15-20 min to go through.

Ever heard of the 10-20-30 Rule? Marketing expert Guy Kawasaki coined this term. This means presentations ought to: 1) have no more than 10 slides; 2) last no more than 20 minutes long; and 3) use type sizes no smaller than 30 point.

Audience attention peaks in the first few minutes of a presentation, and start to flag every 15-20 minutes. So break it up with activities where students work on a problem, dilemma, or scenario. If your class is over 2 hours, you can intersperse your slides.

In the end, having no more than 10 slides is not a hard and fast rule. The point is to talk less and involve the audience more. Here’s one way to break up your instruction:

Slide Lecture: 30%

Activity 60%

Other: 10%

For a one-hour class, that means 18 minutes for lectures, 36 minutes for activities (e.g., discussion, group work), and 6 minutes for miscellaneous items (housekeeping, attendance, etc.).

(Update: Research suggests that the quantity of slides actually does not affect student learning or performance. So you could have 20 or even 30 slides, as long as they are easy to digest. But the idea of being brief with your lectures, however, remains valid. Lessons should focus more on the hands-on or active learning, rather than passively listening.)

3. Your Slides are Jammed with Content

Marketing guru Seth Godin never uses more than 6 words per slide.

Let that sink in.

Talking about pollution in Houston? Instead of giving me four bullet points of EPA data, why not show me a photo of a bunch of dead birds, some smog and even a diseased lung? Amazingly, it’s more fun than doing it the old way. But it’s effective communication.

Godin’s point is clear. Whether your audience is made up of clients or students, how can we communicate better?

My students used to ask, “Professor, can you go back a slide?” When they copy the slide word-for-word, I know I’ve failed.

Now, I use videos as a jumping point for discussions. Other times I tell a story based on a provocative photo or illustration. Once in a while I show them a quotation (“Rousseau said, ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.’ Let’s talk about this …”).

I’m not saying Don’t use words in PowerPoint. Just don’t make it the default approach.

4. You’re Finding Images on Google

Most images on the Internet shouldn’t be used for your PowerPoint. Technically, the owner of these images can ask you to take them down or even sue (however unlikely). While it’s not such a big deal in a closed environment like the classroom, I would get into the habit of using Creative Commons licensed images. They are free to use, distribute, or modify for your purposes.

(NOTE: I am not a legal expert in these matters, so please check any questions you have with the proper sources).

When you’re presenting outside the classroom, such as in conferences or other professional settings, it matters. If you run a blog or website, same deal.

So next time you’re searching for images, filter Google searches by usage rights (Google search –> Advanced –> Usage rights). You can then select for images that are free to use, share, or modify—even commercially, if needed.

Another way is to directly search images from the Creative Commons website: https://search.creativecommons.org. They aggregate platforms like Google, Pixabay, SoundCloud, YouTube, Flikr, Open Clip Art Library, and more.

It’s so easy to unknowingly share non-permissioned digital media these days. Why risk problems?

5. You’re Reading the Slides

This is by far audiences’ biggest complaint. Students are perfectly capable of reading the slides without you. Your purpose should be grander.

Here’s an example of a bad slide I used to describe instructional scaffolding:

Boring and unengaging, right? Here’s the slide I now use:

Imagine me asking, “How do we help children when they first learn how to ride a bike?”

When students suggest using training wheels, we discuss why temporary supports are important.

Teachers do the same thing. They provide temporary supports—like an essay template—until students can do it on their own.

I then ask students to brainstorm other ways to support children’s learning (e.g., providing sentence starters, graphic organizers, etc.). Only afterward do I bring up the term instructional scaffolding. Now the term means something.

The Bottom Line

Slides are not “the lecture.” They support you, not the other way around. What bad habits have you seen in slide presentations? Please share in the comments below.

  • Another faux pas i would add is “you are suing the slides provided by the publisher”

    I find those slides to be full of all of broken rules from what u mentioned in the other 5 (they repeat the book and they are paragraphs instead of key points)

    • John I used to be guilty of this. I used the packaged instructor slides from Pearson and that’s when I learned about how bad slides were. Anything that’s one-size-fits-all is guaranteed to fail.

      • True, 1 size fits all doesn’t work anywhere in education, in fact. Maybe those slides were designed for people who are subbing the classes and if the sub is not proficient in the topic. Not that there should even be a “the class can teach itself with slides” paradigm.

        • You’re right Jim. And I agree–I think a lot of publishers are trying to help out those who are subbing or are brand new. What better way than to just do it for them?

  • This piece was so interesting and I could relate to a few of the errors you pointed out inthis article. Thanks for that insightful article, I will apply the advice you gave. I will also share this with my colleagues.

  • I’ve seen professors who stand behind the podium and never come out. It’s so easy to forget they’re there and focus on the slides. 

  • I’m enjoying reading your book at the moment and have a question regarding the PowerPoint faux pas mentioned here. I do not have a required textbook for the neuroscience courses that I teach, so I’ve been creating very detailed PowerPoint slides to convey the variety of detailed terminology, concepts, etc. The problem is that these very detailed slides violate many of the ideas you’re discussing in this post. Do you have suggestions to deal with this?

    • Hi Sarah, the use of slides depends on the purpose. If you’re using it in place of textbook, it might be a different story. But if so, do students read alternative materials? (e.g., online articles, handouts, etc.) If so, would they be getting the same content as a textbook? I wouldn’t recommend duplicating content–if they are getting content via some sort of readings, then don’t present same content via slides. If however, they are seeing content for the first time in your slides, that’s a different story. If so, I wonder if that is a good idea. Cognitive research shows that students learn better when there is some familiarity with it (prior knowledge or exposure)–and readings help get them familiar before they walk into class. Seeing it for the first time on slides might be too abstract and unrelatable. But, after all is said and done, the bottom line is: What do the students think? Are they engaged? Do they learn from your format? If so, great. If you find you’re losing them, then they require something else. Feel free to email me directly at norman@educationxdesign.com

  • After reading your book Teaching College, I started a deliberate process of re-working my Power Points with the intention of using them as support, not as a main feature or a crutch. I must say that I found it surprisingly difficult (psychologically speaking) to step away from using lots of bullet points and packing my slides with information. We professors tend to believe that our job is to “give” our students all the information they need to know and/or to pass a test. But now I am well on my way to using more visual stories and less text in my PPTs!

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