January 11, 2020 8:54 am

Jim Burns

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.

Bombing the Guest Lecture

After more than 30 years as an executive in Silicon Valley, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to teach Business 70 at my alma mater, Santa Clara University (SCU). As part of my onboarding, I jumped at the opportunity to guest lecture one class prior to teaching the full ten-week course. I was provided with the 45 PowerPoint slides that accompanied the course book. Concerned that the text omitted important information, I added yet more content. I even timed myself a few times as I practiced the presentation out loud. How am I ever going to get through this in 105 minutes while having an interactive discussion?

It turned out I didn’t come close to covering everything, even though I felt like I was racing through the material. I had 15 minutes set aside to cover the time value of money, for instance, and I wasn’t able to even start that section. The students look puzzled, and the excitement of this life-long dream emerged into fear that I would be a total flop.

For the ten-week course, I am expected to cover economics, marketing, operations, financial markets, human resources, ethics, entrepreneurship, organizational structures, employee motivation, etc. with the aid of a lengthy and rather dry textbook, and still have time to impart key wisdom not covered in the text! How is that possible?

That’s when I read Teaching College by Norman Eng . . . twice. And my fears turned back to excitement. I had experienced many of the pitfalls he described in my guest lecture, such as overreliance on somebody else’s materials, not leading the lecture with something that engages them, and not thinking like an advertiser. I laid out a plan to ensure I didn’t become that dreaded professor.

Here is what I did . . .

The Survey

Dr. Eng, as a former marketing executive, stresses the importance of knowing your target audience. So, I gave students five minutes to fill out a brief survey about themselves at the end of the first class, which included questions like:

  • Why did you choose the business school at SCU?
  • At the end of this class I want to be better able to _____.
  • Do you have a strong feeling about what you might want to major in? If so, what? Do you think this class could provide clarity for you on your decision?
  • Are you interested in focusing more in the tech industry than others?

During the second class, I shared the anonymized results, which were amazingly consistent. Nearly all students picked this school for its reputation, small class size, and Silicon Valley location with a strong interest in tech firms. I shared a chart showing how many intended to major in finance, accounting, etc. and how many were undecided. Sharing these results built a common purpose for the students in the class and also sent a strong signal that their professor cared about their interests.

The Agreement

On the first day, I reviewed my syllabus, which was shaped by Dr. Eng’s ideas. I informed my class that the big challenge of the course was the vast amount of ground to cover. My promise to them is that we wouldn’t consume all class time regurgitating the book and the hundreds of business terms in it. Rather, I would focus on the most relevant items they will need to know to land a job and be successful in business. I promised to provide them personal examples of dilemmas I encountered and that they likely will encounter too. In return, they had to read the chapter, review the ‘abridged’ lecture material (more on this later), and submit a question related to the reading on Canvas (the online learning management system) at least 30 minutes before class.

The Question Submission

There were many reasons to have students post a question before class. First, it is hard to ask intelligent questions without doing the reading, so this process holds them accountable. Second, posting questions in advance provides a voice to those who are too intimidated or shy to participate. Finally, class time is used more efficiently as I dedicate more time to questions that students raise most.

In the end, I was blown away by the quality and intellectual curiosity of their submitted questions. Roughly 80% would submit a question before each class, and if submitted at least 30 minutes before class, I responded. Over 95% of them took just a few minutes to answer, as the questions were straightforward. Sometimes I replied: “Great question; we will cover in class today.” For the very few that required lengthy responses, I chatted with them after class. Some stated that “the materials were pretty straightforward” but wanted to understand more about [TOPIC XYZ].” I could tell they looked through the materials. The questions were often personal, like: “I am thinking of majoring in marketing. Where are most job opportunities?” Their questions helped me build individual rapport, and once again sent the message that I care about their success.

Class Time

Going over questions during class time was just the first step. Since I didn’t feel the need to cover everything, I made it a goal to spend more time creating fresh content. I posted slides—minus speaker notes, videos, and class exercises—on Canvas before class to help students focus. Class time would then be dedicated to videos and exercises that supplemented their reading. There was no need to cover every bullet point of the slides, as they were pretty self-explanatory. It liberated me to add more in class “color” and engage in rich class conversations. Furthermore, the abridged slides also helped students study for tests.

So, what did students think? I just received my student feedback and scored 4.6 out of 5.0 in my first quarter teaching. For context, most first-time professors for this course score around 3.5. Those that have taught for five plus years typically score from 4.0 to 4.2. As for students’ comments, they truly warmed my heart. Some of my favorites:

  • “Really cares about his students. Gives great real-life experience.”
  • “He is the definition of an excellent professor that you can easily approach and talk about anything related to business.”
  • “Love Professor Burns. He’s truly a great guy that wants the best for the students.”
  • “Professor Burns makes the class pretty fun and does not only stick to the textbook. Favorite and most interesting teacher I have had at SCU so far!”

I hope this post helps new instructors and professors focus less about stuffing content (as I once did!) and more about getting their students involved and learning. Maybe it will give veterans something to think about as well! If you have any comments or questions, I welcome them below.

Jim Burns is currently an independent consultant for technology firms and an Adjunct Professor at Santa Clara University. He has over 30 years of experience in high tech companies like HP including CFO, COO and general manager roles.

Connect with Jim at http://linkedin.com/in/jim-burns

  • Jim, thank you for sharing your experiences. We all know the feeling of trying to do our best the first time teaching and thinking, “I need to insert more stuff!” Your idea for the question submission and how you make your class more productive for learning was very helpful! Thanks again.

  • Jim this is an excellent reminder for me to revisit Norman’s Teaching College. We start the new semester Monday and although I’ve implemented several ideas I got from my first reading, I’m going to see what else I can integrate this year!
    If you haven’t checked out Dr. Eng’s book on Presentations, you should do so before you revise your next set of slides, it’s really worthwhile!

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