September 24, 2018 8:18 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.

[This post is originally published on Faculty Focus. See original article HERE.]

Professors tend to cover a lot of content over the course of one class session. Yet students will probably forget most of it by the end of the semester. Why? One reason is that we focus too much on teaching, and not enough on learning. Students, therefore, don’t really get to grapple with the topic you just lectured about. They’re too busy taking notes. And most times, they don’t see a point to learning all this “stuff.”

Enter the one-sentence lesson plan.

The one-sentence lesson plan helps professors focus on learning—rather than on teaching—by answering three simple things: The what, the how, and the why.

The what

First, what do you want your students to know (or be able to do) by the end of class? Here, you identify the skill or the content to be learned.

For example, I want students to be able to evaluate the credibility of sources. That’s a skill. Another example is: Students will be able to explain and apply Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development. That’s content.

More importantly, identifying your what forces you to narrow your teaching. This is the hardest part for most professors. Even if you have more than one what, this exercise still pushes you to prioritize. I recommend you “niche” your lecture topic down to one major concept.

The how 

Next, how will students reach this goal?

In other words, what method, strategy, tool, or activity will you employ to make sure they know what they’re supposed to know or gain the skill they’re supposed to gain? This is the hands-on part, where students grapple with the content.

Building on the first example, I might write: Students will be able to evaluate the credibility of sources by “triangulating” information. That’s how students will be able to evaluate sources—the strategy. However, there are other ways to learn this skill. I could just have easily stated:

Students will be able to evaluate the credibility of sources by discussing in groups the pros and cons of each source.

In this case, the how is an activity or method.

The why

Finally, why are students learning this?

This is the “so what?”—why do students need to know or do this? What’s in it for them? How do they benefit? It’s about understanding your audience. Usually, the why starts with the prompt, “so that . . .”

Continuing with the evaluating sources example, I might state:

Students will evaluate the credibility of sources by “triangulating” information, so that they make better buying decisions.

The why is the most important part of the one-sentence lesson plan. As teachers, however, most of us overlook it. Yet this is the part students care about. When they know the purpose, they will absorb the topic more deeply (1). Yet too often we just assume students know why they’re learning a particular concept. Will students really know why they’re evaluating sources? Not necessarily.

Another reason to articulate the why is because it can help you open your lesson. For example, if “making better decisions” is one of the reasons we learn to evaluate the credibility of sources, then I can use that as a jumping off point. I might start the class by posing the following:

Class, say you want to buy a new flash drive. You want to make sure it has enough space to hold not just your school work but also your media, whether it’s pictures, videos, whatever. Also, the flash drive has to be reliable, because your last one died and you lost your paper! Finally, the flash drive has to be affordable, right?

I want you to take your phone right now and Google the words “best flash drive.” Which specific sites do you visit and why? Jot down your thoughts and reasons.

Now, students are making decisions about what to buy, as well as activating prior experiences related to buying. This will motivate them to learn about your content; in this case, how to evaluate the credibility of sources.

Compare that opening with a more mundane, typical way one might start his/her lecture: “Today we’re going to learn how to evaluate the credibility of sources . . .”

Professors do this all the time—we introduce the content up front: “Let’s start by going over Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development . . .”

When we start with the content first, rather than with the why, we rob students of the opportunity to contextualize the topic. Asking students about their experiences buying a new flash drive will help them relate to the potentially dull topic of “evaluating the credibility of sources.” Research such as those by Ambrose et al. (2010) suggest that anchoring new topics to something familiar helps students learn more effectively (2).

Based on my one-sentence lesson plan, here’s a simple breakdown of my lecture:

  • Opening: Ask students their experiences searching information on the Internet
  • Mini-lesson: Teach them how to triangulate information (or better yet, start by asking them better ways to find information)
  • Guided practice: Model your “think-aloud” as you demonstrate with a new topic (e.g., evaluating the credibility of sources related to climate change)
  • Activity: Students apply the triangulating strategy (using their smartphone)
  • Closing: Discuss why good judgement is important in the information age

All that from a one-sentence lesson plan.

According to marketing consultant Simon Sinek, the why drives behavior. In his bestselling book, Start with Why, Sinek argues that successful organizations understand that people won’t buy into whatever is being sold unless they understand why they’re doing it. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, for instance, didn’t just market computers (i.e., the what). He marketed the idea to challenge the status quo—to “think different” (the why).

Similarly, in education the why drives the desire to learn. Wouldn’t it be great if you had the answer to the age-old student complaint, “Why do we have to learn this?” With the one-sentence lesson plan, you’ll have the answer.

Here is the template:

In this class, students will be able to [accomplish Outcome X] by [using Method Y], so that [they will be helped in Z way]

Is this like a learning objective?

One question professors often ask me is: Isn’t the one-sentence lesson plan really just a learning or behavioral objective?

Not quite. Learning or behavioral objectives may articulate the what, but they don’t always define the how. More importantly, typical objectives never define the why. The one-sentence lesson plan prioritizes the purpose (the why) as well as the method of learning (the how), which makes it more learner-centered. Furthermore, the one-sentence lesson plan leads into powerful lesson openings (and closings) that traditional objectives do not do.

I realize that the why isn’t always easy to find. Why, for instance, do students need to identify the slope of a line in math? You have to get creative. Maybe to help them understand the rate of change? The key is to make the concept concrete, like looking at how money can grow over time. Students will want to know about that.

So, when you plan, start with the what. It’s the easiest. But when you teach, start with the why.

With a one-sentence lesson plan, I can go in each day with a clear idea of what I want to teach, how I’m going to teach, and why I am teaching it. That means everything to a busy professor—and the overwhelmed student.

(1) Yeager, D. S., Henderson, M., Paunesku, D., Walton, G., Spitzer, B., D’Mello, S., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 559-580.

(2) Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Hello,
    I like what Eng said. It can even be applied to what I will be teaching at our local college soon, meaning Hand Sewing and Machine Sewing. The students won’t be learning how to do what Eng was talking about, but the theory is the same.
    My students will probably show up on a voluntary basis since there will be no grade or credit given. They will show up because they truly want to learn how to sew, so that helps. I must be doing something right because when my students I had at out local Community Center finished my hand sewing class, they claim they had fun and go home and fix favorite sweatshirts and stuffed animals. It was kids that did that and they are only 9 years old!!! I think I was unintentionally doing what Eng was talking about and didn’t even know it!!!

  • I think this 1 sentence lesson plan will help me clarify why i’m teaching what i’m teaching. it’s so easy to forget because there’s so much to cover. Love the “why“ part most of all, but it’s also nice to get clear on the how. Thanks for this!

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