May 4, 2017 11:47 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.

A recent New York Times article titled Why You Hate Work concluded that work is a depleting, dispiriting experience:

Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession work force add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology exposes us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night.

In other words, U.S. employees feel overwhelmed. No wonder only 30 percent feel engaged. The consequence? Lower corporate productivity. Ultimately, how people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform.

That got me thinking about students.

Do they think college is a depleting, dispiriting experience? If so, how much does it hurt their learning and performance? Do we as instructors contribute to the negativity? And finally, what can we do?

According to a Gallup and Purdue University survey, six undergraduate college experiences affect work engagement and happiness after graduation:

  1. Having at least one professor who made the student feel excited about learning
  2. Feeling that professors cared about the student as a person
  3. Having a mentor who encouraged the student to pursue his or her dreams and goals
  4. Working on a project that took a semester or more to complete
  5. Having an internship or job that that allowed the student to apply what he or she is learning in the classroom
  6. Being extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending college

Graduates who experienced the first three are more than twice as likely to be engaged at work. Yet only 14 percent had them. Worse, more than 1 in 6 graduates aren’t thriving in any well-being category. And only 3 percent achieved all six.

[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]It doesn’t matter what kind of college students go to—public or private, small or large, very selective or not selective. What matters are the experiences.[/tweet_box]

Let’s look at the four core needs that increase employee satisfaction and see if we can apply them to the classroom:

  1. Physical: through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work
  2. Emotional: by feeling valued and appreciated for one’s contributions
  3. Mental: when employees have opportunities to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done
  4. Spiritual: By doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose.

People are more productive, engaged, and satisfied when the gatekeepers care. Managers and professors, are you listening?

Time to check myself. Do I ever think about students’ physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well being? Here’s my end-of-semester report card:

Physical Wellbeing
Other than short breaks in my 3-hour evening classes, students don’t have regular opportunities to renew and recharge.

Thinking about physical wellbeing is easier at the K-12 level. As a fifth grade teacher, I used to give breaks during “read alouds” that exceeded 20 minutes. Time for “Simon Says!”

Teachers in Finland give 15 minute breaks every 45 minutes of instruction. And students come back refocused. Here in the U.S., public school teachers regularly teach two hours without recharging. How can I incorporate breaks at the college level? Grade: D

Emotional Wellbeing
A couple weeks ago, I thanked a student via email for “volunteering” to teach in front of the class. I hope she felt valued and appreciated.

Another day, a quiet student shyly raised her hand for the first time. I didn’t want to make a big deal, even though my brain was shouting, WOW! So I listened, responded positively, and moved on.

I wanted to email her along along the lines of, “I appreciated hearing your thoughts on ABC because XYZ. Please keep it up!” But maybe she’d feel more self-conscious. Did I blow a chance to connect with her? But a few classes later, she motioned me to come over when I asked a class question. She slid her notebook toward me as I walked over. The creme on top? Giving me permission to share what she wrote. Grade: B+

Mental Wellbeing
Do my students feel a sense of ownership in their work? Are they absorbed? Do they get chances to define the parameters of their work and their learning?

My students prepare questions, comments, and quotations from the readings, which shape the class discussion. In this way they own their learning. However, I could allow students to determine the parameters of the assignments more. What issue in child development, for instance, would they want to explore? Free play? Teacher-student interaction? Discipline? Grade: B-

Spiritual Wellbeing
Do my students feel connected to a higher purpose? Perhaps. My big thing is to connect abstract theory and concepts to their life and their future career. We will never, for instance, just discuss Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development without applying them to my students’ experiences.

I plan lessons by asking myself: Why should they care about this topic? How does it tie into their interests? Grade: B+

My Take-Away

The point of this exercise is to focus on your students, not the content—a major premise of my book, Teaching College.

The best advertisements never focus on the particulars of their product, like the number of megapixels or the screen resolution. They focus on the benefits—the experiences—derived from consuming the product, like:

Friendship (the most shared ad of all time is Android’s “Friends Furever” campaign of cute and unlikely animal friends).

Peace of mind (Allstate Insurance).

Safety (Volvo).

Family time (see Apple’s iPhone Christmas ad from 2013).

Going forward, I want to do a better job focusing on ways to make students feel safe in the class. To feel joy. To just want to be there. To not feel like school is a job. Making sure learning isn’t a depleting, dispiriting experience is, after all, in our control.

How much time do you spend thinking about what students go through in your classroom? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Very useful! Never thought about teaching in terms of students’ wellbeing. Makes sense that if teachers take care of physical, mental, emotional, students will learn more.

  • You make several good points worth exploring. However, I think a good part of student success rests with the student’s level of what I call GAC, I’ll explain in a moment. Often students come to take my courses to fill an elective, or simply because it’s a requirement. Neither is bad, but neither indicates any authentic interest on the part of the student for the degree their enrolled in, or the careers offered after the degree.
    As a result, I sometimes find myself competing with their mobile devices for their attention in the classroom. Part of it is a lack of respect, part of it is a lack of interest for the topic or the degree. Fortunately, this isn’t a wholesale occurrence, and there are a very few who demonstrate an authentic interest (or they fake it well) in the topic, the degree, and/or the career beyond the degree.
    My teaching discipline is Criminal Justice, Security, and Homeland Security. The field of opportunity is deep and wide, but the pool of interested students is shallow. I know that part of this is also due to a lack of focus, search for self, etc., but as I shared at the beginning, I think a good chunk of their lack of interest which is reflected in poor classroom civility, is the lower level of GAC (give a crap).
    Not certain how to overcome apathy, but I’ll continue to try.

    • Thanks for your comment, EMatthews. I’m going to start using that term (“I don’t GAC!”)–just not in class haha. Anyway, you make a good point, because we’re all competing with their smartphones and their level of interest. Even more so when the course is a requirement.

      Criminal justice, security, and homeland security sound like a disipline rich with potential engagement. How do you teach it, may I ask? I’d love to get a dialogue going, if you’re open. You can always reply here or email me directly, at norman.eng@me.com.

  • I finished reading your book, Teaching College, last evening. And this provides the whipped cream, cherry on the top ending!

    I am a retired elementary teacher who is once again teaching at the undergraduate college level. I used to tell my colleagues that not one former 5th grade student ever came back to visit me and comment, “Thank you for helping me get high test scores, Ms. Harris,” or “I’ll never forget that worksheet on the schwa sound with that cute little apple up in the corner.” We are here to make memories. It’s those memories–those experiences–that motivate students to do their best…and maybe beyond.

  • This is some great info, Norm! Of course I teach in recreation and leisure studies so I feel I have a lot of leeway- like the time I wanted to make sure they understood various play theories. At the end of next class session I handed out those mini-bubbles (you get at weddings) and we walked up to the nearby bridge and blew bubbles…all 75 students were there and had a blast! I always leave comments on their papers, either on the page or on the online section in comments. Who else is going to encourage/mentor them? Shared on Facebook, Flipboard and tweeted 🙂

  • This politically correct coddling has to end or we will continue to breed people unable to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems. The love of learning should be instilled at a young age by their parents. If not, it is not the responsibility of either the professor or the college to be their parents. Caring about them as people is nonsense – that comes from within and their parents. It is up to the college to have an internship program with local companies to invest in the students and it is up to the students to join this program or not. It is not the colleges responsibility to see that students have extracurricular activities – clubs, sports, fraternities, etc,. – it is the students own responsibility. If they do join or not it is a reflection on them not the school as can not force a person to join. When I got to college I was secure in my own skin and acted and was treated like am adult not like a child.

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