March 20, 2017 10:34 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.


Usually the latter. That’s why I stop asking questions like, “Class, does that make sense?”

It’s useless. Rarely do they respond with statements like, “Not really. Can you go over the theory of moral sentiments again?”

A few students might say they “kinda” get it (which means they don’t). In a whole class setting, you’ll more likely get a blank look. Or the “let-me-review-my-notes-again” look.

I was trying to describe the term executive function, the mental processes that enable us to get things done—manage time, pay attention, remember instruction, juggle tasks, and resist temptation. Executive function has been described as the air traffic controller of the brain. It’s an increasingly popular term in the field of early childhood development.

But did my students KNOW what any of this means? Just because they think they get the material as it is presented is not the same as being able to recount it.

(Psychologist Daniel Willingham explains the science behind this phenomenon in his post, “Why Students Think They Understand—When They Don’t.”)

Take a bicycle, for instance. We’re all familiar with it. But do we actually know what it looks like? Go ahead, really think about how it looks like. In fact, draw it on a piece of paper right now.


Designer Gianluca Gimini and cognitive psychologist Rebecca Lawson asked participants to do the same thing. The result? The bikes people drew were mostly—and hilariously—impractical or not functional. If you want a good laugh, check some samples here and here.

Regarding most things, we think we know. But we don’t.

That’s why marketers run ads over and over. In a saturated market, products don’t strike a chord with viewers without repeated exposure. And people will buy familiarity—even if they know nothing else about a service.

Hey, I know only one injury law firm in NYC by name—Cellino & Barnes—because I can’t get their advertising jingle out of my head.

What does all this mean for you, the instructor?

First, students absorb lectures less than you think. Second, they may confuse what they know with what they’re familiar with. I hear undergrads say, “Oh yeah, I know about Jean Piaget from another course!” But when we discuss him in class, it’s all new to them.

So double check for understanding. Here are two ways.

1. Ask pairs of students to explain the concept to each other

One hint is to incorporate the prompt, “Yes and …” Here’s an example of an exchange:

Student 1: “OK, executive function deals with organizing thoughts, impulse control, and flexible thinking, right?”

Student 2: “Yes, and working memory, I think.”

Student 1: “Yes, and it’s like an air traffic controller who has to figure out which planes to land first and which runways to use.”

Student 2: “Yes, and executive function can actually be improved.”

By articulating with peers, students demonstrate what they actually know, continue to build knowledge, and clarify misunderstandings. All in a low-stakes environment. There’s built in accountability. Your job is to walk around and listen in.

2. Use exit slips during the middle or end of class

Here, students briefly answer 1-3 prompts, such as:

Describe executive function in your own words.

Why is executive function so important to develop at a young age?

What part of executive function could be more clearly explained?

Notice the last question puts the burden on the teacher. It doesn’t ask, What part are you unsure of?, which may trigger self-esteem issues or feelings of defensiveness. For the student, it’s easier to admit to things that teachers could do better than to things he or she feels unsure of.

Collect these slips, but don’t grade them. Instead, use them to: 1) check students’ understanding; 2) identify areas of instruction you can improve upon; and 3) determine how you want to help strugglers. Exit slips may take longer than turn-and-talks, but they are more informative.

So in the end, I knew I had to find better ways to teach executive function. What did I do next term?

I pushed them to think like teachers.

Sitting in groups, students developed strategies to improve children’s working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Something they will definitely do as future teachers. I love that they came up with ideas like “counting to 10 before reacting” and “playing memory games.”

All of the sudden, executive function became meaningful and concrete. I know, because I used exit slips!

THINK They Know –> KNOW

So every time I lesson plan, I ask myself: How can I help students move from the left side of the arrow to the right?

  • I’ve heard of using exit slips. In most of my classes, students have a worksheet they complete, related to that day’s lecture. The intent is for them to read the chapter before class, complete the worksheet at least partially (3-4 questions) and turn it end at the end of class. I know many answer some questions during the lecture. I have used the worksheet to aid in small group work relating to the info. It seems to work. I will have to try exit slips in my smaller classes. Thanks for a great post!

    • Thanks Terri. I do like the worksheet method you described b/c it acts as a guide for students throughout the lecture. With exit slips, I just cut a paper into 4 pieces and have them answer on those small sheets. Let me know how it goes!

  • Norman,
    I enjoy reading your blogs, though I lecture at a state college the content of this blog can be applied to that of high school leavers. I also lecture a Management course with adults and I can apply this concept to them as well. Thanks for these invaluable insights and keep them coming – I do appreciate them.

    • Thanks Katie! And you’re right that much of this can be applied to high school. In fact, that was the the premise of my book “Teaching College”–that college instructors should look to K-12 for instructional guidance. My professional goal with this blog and my work is to bring that insight to the higher ed level!

  • I wonder, do you use exit slips every class? It seems like a great way to assess but time consuming. I would like to know other alternatives to add on.

  • One of my favorite exit strategies is called 1-2-3
    At the end of the class, students have 1 minute to tell 2 students 3 things they learned about during the day’s class. Each student reciprocates. Takes maybe 3-4 min because there will probably be some duplication. Sometimes I switch it up to 1-2-2-1 or if it’s really challenging material 1-2-1-1-1. One minute, two students stays the same but either tell 2 new things and 1 you didn’t get, or 1 totally got it, 1 kinda, 1 are you sure that was English? Students email me their ‘this needs more for me to get it’ so I can do some revision or reteaching next time. Can also do a whole class thumbs up, thumbs wagging, thumbs down. Toss out three important things you want the class to carry away with them and -with their eyes closed- thumb vote their understanding. Only takes a second to determine do you need a lot of time to address issues, a shorter special seminar or some individual or small group tutoring. These work from grade 1 on up. At least they have for me. C

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}