August 11, 2019 9:29 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.

When you teach, do you ever ask yourself:

What should I teach? Or What should I cover this week?

Focusing on “teaching” can be deadly. With the new semester upon us, maybe we should focus more on the “learning” part.

That realization changed everything for Professor Mark Dust.

When he walked into a college classroom for the first time three years ago, he defaulted to how he was taught: By standing up in the front of the class, reading off his lecture slides, and sprinkling some personal experiences with the material when appropriate. Yet he did well; during his first semester teaching courses in public health Mark received 92% A’s and B’s from his students.

Not bad the first time around.

But that quickly changed the next semester when his approval dropped to 79% A’s and B’s. Apparently, he couldn’t just teach the same way he taught before.

Time to recalibrate.

But like most higher education instructors and professors, Mark never actually learned how to teach during his grad studies. So he did some research. He took professional development courses at his college’s faculty development center and enrolled in his graduate school’s “Preparing Future Faculty” program.

Mark only taught two sections of the same class in public health during his first semester and “prepared like crazy so he wouldn’t look like a fool in front of [his] students.” Managing to land 92% A and B ratings on his student evaluations that semester, Mark started to incorporate more class discussions and case studies. Neither worked particularly well.

Why? He was overwhelmed with all the teaching tips, tricks, and hacks he learned.

Like throwing all of the techniques at the wall to see what stuck. While evaluations went up to 84% A’s and B’s, students were still not performing as well on critical thinking tasks as Mark thought they could.

That’s when he came upon the “You, Y’all, We” model—popularized by educator Magdalene Lampert—in Norman Eng’s book, Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting, and Engaging Students.

“What I found most appealing is the validation of my gut instinct that the ‘sage on the stage’ model isn’t right for everyone. I strongly believe that our unique perspectives of the world matter and through those lenses we see the course material. I’m not tapping into those perspectives if the students only hear how I perceive the material.

“I loved the idea of students grappling with the material first [the you part of the ‘You, Y’all, We’] to figure out what they didn’t know or had misconceptions about, seeing how another student interprets the material, and finally getting another perspective from the class and myself. Because of what I learned about presenting material and the less-is-more concept of how much material I should be covering in class, I sought out and adopted a new textbook that incorporates these principles for my health promotion theories course.

“For the you part of ‘You, Y’all, We,’ I start the class with multiple choice and true/false questions based on the reading that are in the knowing and understanding levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The students respond using a clicker system, and I post the responses as a bar graph on the board.

“If there doesn’t appear to be a clear majority of the correct answer, I will have the students turn and convince their partner why they are correct—that’s the y’all part of ‘You, Y’all, We.’ This usually reveals flaws in their thinking while reinforcing the students who know the correct answer. Another benefit: it preserves ‘beginners’ eyes’ as the students grapple with the new material. I, on the other hand, don’t have beginners’ eyes anymore and might not remember the struggles I faced when first exposed to the concepts.

“If needed, I will then lecture for no more than ten minutes before presenting a challenge question that requires them to apply and analyze. That’s the ‘we’ part of the ‘You, Y’all, We.’”

So, did students perform better?

Over the past two semesters, Mark’s student opinion surveys increased to 88% and 92% A’s and B’s with multiple comments such as:

Dr. Dust is the best thing since Betty White (because she’s older than sliced bread!).

Dr. Dust helped us by allowing us to answer the questions on our own and then with a partner before we discussed them with the class.

The in-class activities and peer work really helped reiterate and reinforce what was being taught. Dr. Dust facilitated these timings which in turn effectively helped deliver the material because we didn’t have time to get off track.

GPA distributions have increased as well. Last semester, the class averages on exams increased from 78.5% to 82% in Mark’s theories course.

Not that exams and student evaluations were the sole indicators of awesome instruction, but they were concrete. In reflecting, Mark explained:

“These methods worked because students saw they were actually learning. I tell them the first day of class that my classes are not ones where you memorize and regurgitate facts for the exam. They are responsible for their learning, and I am here to facilitate that learning. I will not stand up here and tell you everything you need to know for the exams, and I will do very little actual lecturing.

“This catches them off guard a bit, since that’s what they’re used to. I tell them those kinds of classes bored the crap out of me when I was in college. I’ve learned that one of the best ways to learn something is by doing and making mistakes. This is where the learning that sticks occurs.

“I’m continuing to slowly add more ideas from the [Teaching College] book into my courses. There is just so much good information within that I wouldn’t be doing the techniques justice if I tried to do it all at once. This semester, I’m adding case studies to my theories course and revamping the research methods course to incorporate more small group discussions and challenge questions.”

Mark’s new approach highlights his new focus on learning—rather than teaching. It’s a mindset among top professors and instructors in the field.

How are you focusing on learning, rather than on teaching?

Learn more about “You, Y’all, We” for your classroom:

Immense thanks to Dr. Mark Dust for sharing his journey in this blog. As an adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health at California State University, Fullerton, Dr. Dust teaches Stress Management, Determinants of Health Behavior, Health Science Planning, Research, and Evaluation, and Personal Health. He is a disabled combat veteran and his research interests revolve around the concept of building physiological resilience for the prevention of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For more information or to contact Dr. Dust, connect with him on LinkedIn or email him directly, at mdust@fullerton.edu.

  • I love this you, y’all, we method! it completely flips the order that most teachers do – which is lecture, then get students involved. but i wonder, does it work for all kinds of classrooms? how about levels of students? curious to know more about details behind it. will check out the other sources you cited in the article.

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