April 6, 2018 8:08 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.

Mind you, these aren’t necessarily books on teaching. Or about teaching.

In fact, most are related to persuasion, productivity, behavioral economics, parenting, marketing, entrepreneurship, and other books associated with leadership or success.

So why these areas?

I grasp ideas better when they’re framed in different contexts. It forces me to get out of my own head.

Plus, teaching intersects with so many disciplines I can learn from.

What, for instance, can we borrow from motivation experts like Tony Robbins? Or Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg? Or movie director Spike Lee?

So, every so often, I’ll highlight ONE book that’s transformed my teaching. I’ll spell out the three most important points. Then I’ll apply the book’s ideas to the college classroom.

Today’s book is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (2011), by Chip and Dan Heath. They’re out of Stanford and Duke, respectively.

Switch was named one of the best Nonfiction Books of the Year by Amazon.com editors and spent 47 weeks on top of the New York Times’ Bestseller list.

Here are the 3 takeaways from Switch:

“Direct the Rider” (Provide Crystal Clear Direction)

Our brain has two sides: the emotional side (the “Elephant”) and the rational side (the “Rider”): “Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched…The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long term, to plan, to think beyond the moment.” (1)

So any time we’re faced with change—or difficult decisions—the Rider and the Elephant is going to butt heads.

I’m tired. Should I sleep in late? (Elephant)

Or force myself to get up and go running? (Rider)

I should eat healthy. Skip that donut. (Rider)

But it’s so tempting…(Elephant)

Just like the Rider, your rational side will lose eventually, because willpower is deplete-able, like a battery.

On top of that, the Rider has one big weakness: analysis paralysis. Because it’s the rational side of the brain, the Rider focuses on what to do—the pros and cons of the situation. So, the more options the Rider is presented with, the more exhausted it gets.

It’s like when I go shopping for pants at J.Crew. Do I get slim fit? Straight fit? Athletic fit? Stretch? Broken-in? Lightweight?

It’s too stressful. So I get nothing. Deal with this another time. Having too many choices can debilitate, rather than liberate.

It’s no different with students. They face a barrage of content—not just from your class, but from other courses. Social media just adds to the insanity.

You can help by being clear. Tell students what your course goal is. Tell them the purpose of today’s lecture. The point of the assignment. Don’t assume they know or care—not with the 3,000 other messages they see every day.

Students fight all kinds of distractions, so change is hard. And when something’s unclear, they’ll take the most familiar path—the status quo. You want them to change? To write that essay? To turn in higher quality work? It’ll be hard. But not because they’re defying you.

It’s because they lack clarity.

In fact, “not being clear” is a major reason people don’t do stuff they know they should do. I don’t know which J.Crew pants to get, so I give up. What about that broken faucet my wife wants me to fix? That’s been sitting there for a week. What about that DSLR camera I just got? It’s just sitting on my shelf.

I’m not sure how to approach any of it. So I don’t do anything.

But what if someone came and showed me step by step how to fix the faucet? Use the camera? I’d be all over it.

So, if you want higher quality work, SHOW your students an exemplar—what a good essay looks like. If you want them engaged—TELL them why it’s important (Why are we learning about the circulatory system?). If you want students to improve their writing, SET behavioral goals (In your next paper, focus on removing all the hyperbole).

What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity. It’s why your students don’t take action.


“Motivate the Elephant” (Appeal to the Emotional Side)

Most people think change happens when you analyze the problem and think it through. According to the Heath brothers, that only works when the parameters are known, assumptions are minimal, and the future is clear (2). So, if we’re late to a meeting with publishers, we need to figure out the best way to get there. The parameter is known (we have 3 choices: subway, bus, or taxi), the assumptions are minimal (taxis are faster than bus or subway), and the future is clear (we will leave a bad impression if we’re late). I’ll convince my colleague to take a taxi. That’s easy.

But what if the situation isn’t so clear?

For big changes to happen, appeal to the Elephant. Not the Rider. Think of the texting-while-driving issue. The simple fact is that 330,000 accidents happen every year because of texting. Good luck changing minds with that statistic.

But what if you said, “Remember what happened to your aunt last year when she ended up in a hospital because a driver was texting?”

Change happens when people see and feel first. Not analyze and think.

You want to motivate students? One way is to give easier assignments at the beginning of the year. When students achieve early on, they see progress. They get it into their heads they can succeed. As opposed to failing the first big test early on. Students will be like, “F**k this.”

Hope is the Elephant fuel. If students have hope, they will persist.

“Shape the Path” (Change the Situation, Not the Person)

It’s hard to change people. It’s easier to change the situation. For the elephant, that means making the journey easier. Like taking the path going downhill.

You want people to eat less? Give them smaller plates.

You want more employees to contribute to their 401K? Make it an “opt-out” process, rather than “opt-in.”

For students, getting them interested in your lecture is hard. Removing the friction—the obstacles? Easier.

Maybe let go of some of the requirements. For instance, does it matter what font they use? Does margin size really matter? (at one point, it mattered to me…)

In the end, it’s about shaping the environment to disallow negative behavior. To make the right behavior a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder.

Here are some other examples:

To get students on time to my 12:30PM class, I tell them to bring lunch, so they can eat in the classroom. (Granted, not all classrooms allow food and not all classrooms are empty, but whatever you can leverage, use it.) Now they want to come early. Most of them.

The Heaths suggest employing the Haddon Matrix. It’s a framework that provides a way to think systematically by, in this case, highlighting the pre-event, the event, and the post-event. For example, take a look at ways we prevent vehicle accidents:

So how do we apply the same to our courses? If we want to engage students, what are some pre-event interventions, during-event interventions, and post-event interventions? Some ideas:

Thinking about the experience learners go through before class, during class, and after class is a great approach to teaching. In fact, it’s led me to develop a teaching system focused on the the “learner experience.”

Switch radically altered my teaching mindset. Now I can’t teach a lecture without first asking myself, “What is going to move their Elephant within?” It’s rarely about the content. Or information.

It’s about connecting.

Let me know your thoughts.


(1) Note that the Elephant/Rider analogy originally came from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006)

(2) The Heath brothers quote the original work of John Cotter and Dan Cohen, who wrote The Heart of Change (2011)

  • I’ve heard about the Rider/Elephant analogy, but not in the context of teaching. Really liked how you applied “change” to moving students to action via this analogy. It’s made me really think about the importance of connecting with students at an emotional level, not on a purely academic one. Thanks for this, Dr Eng!

  • Thank you, Norman, for highlighting the Heath brothers. I read all of their books last year. Even though I am not a businessman, I respect their writings about communication. I even have their Made to Stick book by my bed to remind me to make Unexpected and Specific lesson plans.
    I teach in a community college part-time in Early Childhood Education. I’ve taught for over twenty years. I recommend your book to colleagues. Keep up the great work.
    Bob Genevro

    • Bob, like you, I love to read books about communication. And Made to Stick is another good one! Thanks for your encouragement!

  • Very interesting and useful tips from ‘Switch’. I will follow up the Haddon Matrix.

    As you say, so much good material in business education is directly applicable to the education space, but it’s not widely known… e.g. I have seen some schools use communication strategies to get students to express themselves and their opinions better like #oracy and the Harkness Method for learning by sharing opinions, with good results.

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