August 11, 2017 9:51 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.

What better way to start off the semester with new technology software that 10X student engagement?

As someone not attuned to technology, I turned to good friend James Sturtevant—the tech expert, high school social studies teacher, host of the immensely popular Hacking Engagement podcast, and author of the new hot-selling book, Hacking Engagement Again: 50 Teacher Tools That Will Make Students Love Your Class.

“Jim, if you could recommend 5 tech tools that professors should use right now, what would they be?” I asked.

He didn’t disappoint. Not only does Jim describe each one, he includes links to his podcast for more details about each tool.

So let’s get beyond PowerPoint, shall we? Take it away, Jim.


Slides that display questions AND group responses 

Modern educators are discouraged from being the sage on stage. As the overused cliché goes…Instead of being the sage on stage, be the guide on the side.

I’m not a huge fan of this mantra. I understand the need for presentation styles to evolve, but sometimes you need to jump up in front of your kids and inspire them! Even though much of my instruction is flipped, it’s still important to present in front of students. While my kids enjoy my recordings, periodically I treat them to a live performance.

A few years ago, my wife and I watched Jersey Boys on the big screen and then we saw it live on stage. There was no comparison. Sometimes, you have to go all Broadway on your kids. Sometimes, you need to be the sage on stage.

And here is where Pear Deck makes its dramatic appearance.

Infuse your presentation with highly interactive engaging prompts by utilizing this amazing tool. Morph your static sit and listenfests into intense student collaborationfests. Transform your lectures into twenty-five separate and simultaneous student-teacher conversations. Pear Deck allows you to:

  • Upload an existing presentation in Google Slides or PowerPoint
  • Permits students to follow your presentations on their devices, while you control the pace
  • Empowers instructors to insert engaging prompts before and during your performance
  • Hides student responses till the teacher decides to display them and student names remain a mystery

Pear Deck creates a collaborative and engaging presentation environment. Embrace this new way to present and enthrall your kids.

Follow this link to hear me discuss Pear Deck on my podcast Hacking Engagement.

[Norman Eng’s note: I love that Pear Deck allows students to make use of their smartphones, tablet or laptop FOR CLASS PURPOSES. We need to leverage their digital dependence for learning, rather than stifle it.]


TECH TOOL #2: EDpuzzle

Making Videos Interactive 

Teachers need to go where the kids are. When in Rome…do like the Romans. When it comes to reaching contemporary youth, please understand that they love video. Whenever there’s downtime, kids immediately start watching video on their devices. Educators need to embrace this tendency.

Unfortunately, in many classrooms, video is handled in much the same way as it was in the 1950s. The entire class watches on a big screen at the same time. I loved “Movie Day” in high school. It was a great opportunity to zone out for 50 minutes!

Update the way you deliver video with an amazing free tool. EDpuzzle allows you to embed questions inside a video.

Kids watch and then interact with you while they answer your questions. It’s an awesome way to introduce collaboration and participation, engaging kids in the process. It’s also an amazing accountability factor. You can see just how much a student has watched and their responses to your prompts (see screenshot pics below). Also…kids cannot fast-forward. They can pause and rewind, but not skip ahead. It’s similar to on-demand programming. Another huge selling point to EDpuzzle is how it works in concert with Google Classroom.

It’s time to revamp the way students watch video. EDpuzzle will make “Movie Day” collaborative and engaging!

Follow this link to hear me discuss EDpuzzle on my podcast.



Interactive digital documents you create for students

Kelly Hilton, Lisa Highfill, and Sarah Landis are the co-creators of HyperDocs and authors of the HyperDocs Handbook. These ladies have designed a remarkable website providing teachers with digital lesson templates and plenty of sample HyperDocs.

Aside from outstanding organization, the templates are beautiful, which should never be underestimated. To begin creating, simply FILE > MAKE A COPY and complete the stages of the lesson cycle by adding instructions and resources.

I became aware of HyperDocs because of my mentor Kristen Kovak. My mentor is a grand total of 24-years-old. Older teachers like me, need to get over ourselves and learn from the youngins. Not long ago, Kristen waltzed into my room and challenged your humble narrator to start utilizing HyperDocs.

My initial reactions was, Oh great! Here’s another thing I’m going to have to figure out.

The good news is that mastering HyperDocs was easy. You create them by making a copy in Google Docs and then morphing the HD Girls’ templates and then BAM…you upload your creation to Google Classroom. Below is an example I created for the Korean conflict (and here’s the link).

North Korea 5 Es Lesson Plan Template


[Norman Eng’s note: You can insert links, videos, and any other resources related to your topic for students. This self-paced learning allows students to work on their own or in groups while you move around and work 1-on-1. You can even differentiate a Hyperdoc for an individual. No one will even have to know.]

HyperDocs is a tool you’ll use weekly, if not daily!

Follow this link to hear me discuss HyperDocs on my podcast.



Turning class discussions into chats

Okay…here’s the situation. The semester is winding down and you need to include one more Socratic Seminar on an important topic. But…you look at the calendar and there’s no time.

Sound familiar? It’s a classic necessity is the mother of invention situation.

Plus, I was sensing that the enthusiasm for class discussion had waned as the semester dwindled. The idea of conduct a class Twitter chat dawned on me as I moderated a Twitter chat pertaining to my first book. Individuals from around the world were chiming in with their thoughts and ideas.

Granted, these tweets were meager expressions, but they were often accompanied by links and compelling images. I could explore the tweets deeper implications by clicking on a link during, or after, the chat. I also concluded that in a classroom setting, an extensive debriefing session could be conducted the next day.

I became determined to reignite conversational passion using this modern medium.

What materialized was awesome and will become a standard activity at the conclusion of every semester. I decided to take my final Socratic Seminar virtual and make it a class Twitter chat. But none of this would have transpired if it weren’t for the guidance of a friend and her insistence that I learn how to use Tweetdeck.

Tweetdeck allows you and your students to schedule your tweets. I exposed my students to Tweetdeck and let them play around with it a bit. Remarkably, few were aware of this powerful tool.

Then, I unveiled the class hashtag. Be creative and concoct a unique one. Finally, I previewed the questions and the times they would appear. Students then dove into Tweetdeck and started scheduling their responses. I challenged them to include links and images in their tweets. They were also reminded to include the class hashtag and the time in which they wanted their tweets to appear.

When the chat commenced (I conducted mine on the following Sunday evening) Tweetdeck freed all concerned to like, retweet, and respond as the chat unfolded.

My class Twitter chat was epic. The hashtag was #heywc1 (Hey World Civilization 1”). Feel free to check out the kid’s posts.

The next day, we had an extensive debriefing where students collaborated in small groups about the interesting ideas that surfaced during the chat. I found that students were quite comfortable expressing themselves with Twitter and that many of their 140 character tweets were merely doorways to more extensive messages.

Follow this link to hear one of my students talk about his experience during the Twitter chat and his thoughts on Tweetdeck.

Twitter is a fact of modern life. Embrace it and all its potential to engage your students.



Voice recording your feedback to student assignments (Time-saver alert!)

How would you like to grade papers…with your voice?

Okay…here’s the way this went down! I was a college freshman and I had a long way to go in the writing department. I needed to cite more, I needed more supportive evidence, and my sources were meager and of low quality. Sound familiar? When I got my paper back, I noticed the grade…which was a C, shoved the paper in my book bag, and went on with my existence. The next class, our professor urged us to read the comments she’d wrote on our papers. I read a few, but then I got discouraged and quit. It seemed like she was yelling at me. I missed some great directives and advice.

Now, I teach 18-year-olds how to write research papers. I totally get the struggle of students not embracing advice on how to evolve as writers. Karma is a beautiful thing. I was frustrated because I knew my students needed help. And then…I met a lovely little app called Kaizena. It detonated my paradigm on providing students with feedback. It transformed grading papers into a collaborative process.

Kaizena is voice grading. You highlight a portion of kid’s paper, hit record, and start enlightening.

The green highlights on the right indicate voice feedback by the instructor

There are a bevy of benefits to utilizing your voice as opposed to your default red pen:

  • Your voice is far more emotive than a simple written comment
  • Your voice can be far more encouraging
  • Your voice can better communicate tone and emphasis
  • It’s easier to listen than it is to read, hence kids are more inclined to listen to your comments
  • Most educators can speak a lot faster than they can type or write
  • This method invites collaboration because students respond to comments

With Kaizena, students are far more likely to listen and then apply important directives they may have previously ignored. Student writing could become a collaborative process.

Follow this link to hear me discuss Kaizena on my podcast.


Thanks Jim for your recos! So, which of these tech tools will you use? Share any other tech tools you found have 10X’d student engagement!


Want more ed tech tools and other teaching hacks? Read James’ new book, Hacking Engagement Again: 50 Teacher Tools That Will Make Students Love Your Class. You can also follow him on Twitter @jamessturtevant and his podcast Hacking Engagement

  • Love to hear about technology! Especially Pear Deck–which sounds like it can be used beyond classrooms to get audiences participating. Same with Kaizena. It could revolutionize the way professors choose to use their time. Thanks Jim and Norman! Looking to hear more practical and useful ideas.

  • Norman these tech tips are awesome!its 3AM and I can’t wait to start trying these out. I love the Tweetdeck hashtag option as the end of the semester always results in a downward flow in energy. However, Pear Deck and EdPuzzle are at the top of my Must Try list!
    I already use a similar system for recording feedback on student work and taught a workshop at a faculty professional development conference recently. That said, I’m always on the hunt for better, faster, and easier (cheaper is also a consideration).

    As always Norman, you brought the ‘good stuff’!


    • Eugene, thank you for your kind words. What system do you use for recording feedback? Would love to share it with everyone!

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