September 21, 2017 10:14 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.

The average faculty work 61 hours per week—more than 50 percent over the traditional 40-hour work week, according to a Boise State University study. A lot of that time is spent alone.

When you have to grade papers, plan lectures, teach, research, meet with students and colleagues, perform administrative tasks, do consulting work, and lead teams, the overwhelm can creep up really fast.

So I called The Busy Professor. 

Dr. Tim Slater, AKA, The Busy Professor

Dr. Tim Slater is a science education professor at the University of Wyoming, where he holds the University of Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair of Science Education. After holding hundreds of workshops for thousands of struggling science professors, he realized that time management was a learned skill that few professors have ever had the chance to master. As a result, he started his blog, The Busy Professor, and is frequently an invited speaker to college and university new faculty orientations to help early career professors keep from getting overwhelmed at their first academic post.

I asked Dr. Slater questions related to grading, preventing overwhelm, and advice for new professors. His answers are straight up, short, concrete, and practical—just the way we want it.

How do you prevent overload and frustration?

Professors have a tremendous number of questions coming at them from all sides at all hours: students have questions about coursework; mentoring professors have questions about scholarly productivity; grant agencies have questions about budgets; committee members have questions about policy changes, and administrators have questions about whatever it is that administrators constantly seem to have questions about.

The requests for information is seemingly endless, and that causes tremendous overload. The only time management strategy that works is to set specific times to respond to emails and requests for information and only respond to such emails during this time.

The worst thing professors can do is have their email program on and constantly updating, because most incoming emails are distracting from their number one job priority. I recommend 90 minutes each day to disconnect.

What is the number one advice you have for new teachers?

The number one advice I have is to set several times every week where you are not in your office or available by email. If you need to catch up on the literature, a standing and unmovable weekly date in the library is essential.  If you need to write more, a weekly (or daily) and immutable writing session at a coffee shop or a restaurant is critical.  For whatever reason, no one really gets any work done sitting at their office desk. The best advice I can offer is to hard schedule time to get out!

What practical suggestion would you give for instructors whose students demand a lot of attention?

The best strategy is to be clear and consistent about when and where you will deal with them. An open-door policy is a death-sentence for professors.  As it turns out, students will be surprisingly patient if they know precisely when you are going to get back to them, and that you will be undistracted when with them.

I recommend end-of-the-day as the best time to schedule work with students because the most prolific authors consistently find that writing earlier in the day when you are freshest is most productive.

How do you balance competing opportunities? (e.g., grant-writing, journal articles, speaking gig, teaching)

Every day, people make decisions about how they are going to spend their scarce minutes. Unfortunately, most people don’t think about time as currency, and let it slip away unknowingly.

When there are competing demands, I recommend you prioritize things that show up on your CV or end of year performance review. No one gets credits for going to lots of meetings or, even, really, chairing committees. Priority number one is what makes you most marketable should you decide to go out on the job market.

My most senior mentors tell me they wish they’d spent more time writing and less time traveling, because writing is permanent. Traveling takes time away from writing and from family.

How do you approach grading with large classes? 

You can’t grade large classes in the same way you grade smaller classes. It isn’t that more students means more grading. It’s just that grading is more exhausting. It takes away from your ability to enhance your CV and end-of-year performance evaluations. If administrators insist on larger classes, then leveraging the advantages of online, self-grading systems is the best way to go.

Wait, online self-grading systems?

Most textbook companies supporting natural and social science disciplines have an option where students can subscribe to an automatically graded homework system. Some of these even work like smart tutors and give students feedback when they submit an incorrect answer. These systems are available from many textbook publishers, and the cost is passed on to the student. There might be similar computer-based homework auto-graded systems available for history and English courses too.

Anyway, for large classes, you don’t have to grade everything students submit. I’ve had great success with rolling six-sided number-cubes/dice with some dramatic flair on homework submission day to the cheers and jeers of students about whether the homework they just submitted will be graded. The scheme I use is even-numbered rolls are days in which the homework is graded, and odd-numbered rolls are submitted, but ungraded.

Tell me more.

To do this right, we require our students to always turn in homework. On days where the number cube, or die, rolls as “GRADED,” we grade the submitted homework typically.  On days where the die randomly rolls as “UNGRADED” we simply give students full points if they submitted anything that appears meaningful on a glance. In other words, we randomly cut our allocated grading time in half by giving students full points simply for submitting work that appears “complete.”  We always post an ideal solution so students can self grade, if they wish.


What if the course involves lots of writing?

In large classes, experienced teachers know to devote significant time to ONE portion of a five-paragraph essay at a time. For example, only meaningfully grade the introduction during the first few weeks of school, and help students get that part right (so the introduction doesn’t have to be meaningfully graded later in the term). During the middle of the term only grade the body of the essay and largely ignore the conclusion.  Finally, during the last one-third of the semester, focus on the conclusion (and be sure it matches the introduction). This is perhaps the best way to survive.


Love this system of random grading, Tim. So I’m curious about your daily routine. I’m always interested in being more productive. 

Most highly productive professors have a rigorous and inflexible morning schedule, knowing they can’t control the natural whirlwind of chaos after lunch. I get up early each morning and meet my writing goal of 1,000 words before I ever check my email. The moment you check your email, you are then adding things to your “to do list” that will interfere with your morning routine.

In other words, if you want to enjoy flexibility in the afternoons and spend evenings with family and friends rather than your laptop, then your mornings need to have a very strict and unchanging routine.  For me, I don’t accept any morning meeting appointments unless I absolutely cannot avoid it. And, I try hard not have an open door to my office until after lunch.  Remember the rule: Anyone who enters your office before lunch without a check for grant money is bringing some unnecessary distraction that interferes with your ability to build a winning CV.

I also have an immovable writing routine based on hours – from 6 to 8AM every day.

Thanks Tim, for helping our tribe of instructors become more efficient and productive. 

Readers, have you tried anything similar? If so, how’d it work out? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Read Tim Slater’s blog, The Busy Professor. If you teach science, check out his other blog, SCST.org/blog. You can also follow him on Twitter @caperteam.

  • I can’t believe I never thought of random grading! I’d love to know if there are students who resent not getting graded after putting in the work. Thanks for these great ideas.

    • Sometimes, there’s a little resistance from students who think that their work is incredibly precious; however, peer pressure seems to make that go away when students realize they get full points as a reward. In my class, I emphasize that great it or not, they are responsible for that material on the exam ( and given that students get very little feedback in many of their classes, getting some feedback is better than no feedback, for better or worse)

      • Thanks Tim for your explanation! I agree that social pressure will make the issue go away. I do wonder, when it comes time for student course evaluations, if they say something about it. Then again, this is probably a precious few.

  • I go along with this one with large online classes:
    “we randomly cut our allocated grading time in half by giving students full points simply for submitting work that appears “complete.”

    I look for a few key points in each entry, then I give it a grade based on how thorough it appears. On the first few I graded, I gave comments as well, then after a few, I told the entire class if they see high scores without comments, it means they are doing very well in that area.

  • I know it sounds weird to say (or admit)–giving full credit if an assignment appears complete–but what Dr. Slater says is honest. And I agree. Especially for large classes.

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