February 29, 2020 10:37 pm

Raising hand in class
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.

Over the past couple of weeks, I tweaked my “Question, Quotation, or Comment” (QQC) strategy, which encourages students to come to class more prepared.

And it looks promising.

If you haven’t heard of QQC, I first mentioned it on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast. Here’s a primer on it below—followed by the tweak I made.

We all know what a chore it is to get students to “do the readings.” Yes, it helps if your textbook is at their reading level (don’t assume it is!) and if it’s actually interesting. For certain courses like child development, I’ve ditched formal textbooks and used relevant articles online. Even then, students have a hard time keeping up with the reading. The fact that many of them take six classes each semester just to qualify for financial aid might be factor. My students are awash in information.

So, I make it a priority to remove whatever “friction” might slow down their learning or enthusiasm; in this case, the friction is having students type up a two-page reading response. It is, after all, an added assignment on top of reading.

At the same time, students should still reflect on what they read. The QQC helps.

How does it work? It’s simple. Have students come prepared to class with a question about the reading, a quotation that resonated with them, or a comment about a particular section. And then they explain why they chose that question, quotation, or comment. Students only need to do one of the three—not all three (unless they want to). Here’s an example of a question one student might write on the reading related to psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development:

I wonder how valid is Piaget’s theory? Apparently, most of his work and research was performed on his own children. Yet he is considered to be one of the biggest names in the field of developmental psychology. Did he validate his ideas elsewhere?

An example of a comment (reflection) on Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development might be:

When the article talks about the guilt that children experience, often as a result of parents focusing on errors and mistakes rather than gains, it reminded me of the way I was raised. My parents rarely praised me, and in fact they often found fault with even my accomplishments. I remember the time I got an award in tenth grade for perfect attendance and my dad asked me when I got home, “Why couldn’t you do this is ninth grade?”

The key to making QQC work is to devote a portion of the following class to sharing. Generally, I find that the QQC strategy gets students to come fairly prepared for class, but the reality is that there isn’t always time for sharing. And more importantly, a large percentage of students don’t get to share, since I “cold-call” only four to five students. All told, the QQC takes up at least 20 minutes of class—in a one hour and fifteen-minute class. Too many students still sat and listened, remaining uninvolved.

So I tweaked it recently.

Why not have students share their QQCs in groups? With five or six per group, each member shares his or her question, quotation, or comment—and then the group reacts. Members can offer their take, ask a follow-up question, or simply move on to the next person. If necessary, provide go-to prompts on the board, like:

  • “Can you elaborate what you mean?”
  • “This reminds of . . .”
  • “I wonder if . . .”
  • “I agree with . . .”

One member is always designated as the moderator, to make sure every student contributes a QQC within the allotted time.

My job? To walk around, listen in, offer my perspective and/or take notes.

Now everyone gets to participate. Even better, students feel more comfortable talking with their peers than to a whole class.

Some days, the QQCs are shared at the beginning of class. Why? To encourage students to clarify any uncertainty from the readings. This really gets them ready—and more confident—to contribute. Informally, I’ve seen more lively discussions among groups and a general enthusiasm compared with the cold-calls I used to do.

Next time your students read a chapter, get them to jot down a question, quotation, or comment. Have them share the QQCs next class in groups. And let me know how it works!

  • I heard of your QQC from the podcast and love it! This tweak is very helpful – will try it next class. This was very helpful!!

  • Thanks Norman. To take my QQCs up a notch, I’m experimenting with integrating Flipgrid. One of challenges of teaching across modalities is replicating the students’ learning experience from the classroom to the course room.
    I’ve found a friend in Flipgrid because a) it integrates with the learning management system
    b) it’s very simple for students to engage with regardless of their modality (F2F, Online, Blended, etc.)
    c) it’s priced right for educators…because it’s free.

    • Eugene, Flipgrid is a great tool and a great idea to integrate with QQCs! I’ve also been thinking of an online component to this. Will try this or even Padlet, a similar app.

  • This sounds very promising. Asking for a written response also means that the instructor has to read their work! I’m still thinking though that something more formal might occasionally be useful if only in something especially important, controversial, or difficult.

    • Hey Ted, I only check QQCs twice a semester, so students hand in reading responses #1-7 mid-semester and #8-15 toward the end. This is the accountability mechanism. Other than that, I don’t read their QQCs each class. It is used more as a discussion generator.

  • I teach the fifth and final year of a. Electrical Apprenticeship program.
    The students range in ages from the early 20’s through the 50’s. There is equal diversity in ethnicity, education and backgrounds in each of my classes.
    The common ground between all of them is their desire to complete the program and to be able to not have to come back to school any longer and have their evenings free.
    Our school is night school and happens after a full 8 hour day on a construction site.
    By the time I get them they have already had a full day’s work under their belts and they would rather be anywhere but in class.
    Our curriculum is arranged in such a way that the students always have reading assignments between classes and outclass work consists of discussion and questions
    About the material in the reading assignment. Trying to get them to read the assignments is like pulling teeth. The lessons are generally presented on line with the use of occasional Text books and other relevant printed material. There are homework questions that the student is supposed to answer before coming to class. We track the results of these home work questions and can tell if a student read the assignments or got the answers to the homework questions from a friend.
    Any ideas to make the homework reading more agreeable are greatly appreciated
    The QQC sounds like a great Idea. I’m anxious to give it a try in my classroom

    • Hi Tommy, let me know how QQC works in your class. I understand that student motivation is very low after a full day’s work. Perhaps videos, if appropriate and available, can substitute the readings? Otherwise, maybe in this case we need to flip the structure and give the bulk of the info in class rather than outside of class. The challenge, of course, is to keep the content engaging too…

  • I like this as the focus of a group discussion! I’m going to try it out. Mad props to Cult of Pedagogy too — Jennifer Gonzalez has some great ideas over there.

  • I just started reading your book and I love your ideas already, I already use the circle idea every class and want to incorporate more of your ideas

  • Great idea, with a very useful tweak.
    Going to think about how I can use it with my business law class going on line a week ago.

  • Hello, I have been using QQC for 2 semesters now for a reproductive health course. Students submit QQC every class on a specific article for about two months. It has increased their knowledge on several topics. I do not use it for discussion but as preparation for them to be able to apply that knowledge through group activities such as scenarios, developing strategies and so on.

    • So glad to hear the QQC helps! It can definitely be used in a wide variety of ways beyond discussions. Thanks for writing.

  • Your newsletter really gets my creativity flowing as I am planning next year’s classes. I love this tweak! I plan to have the groups get together as they enter the class and do this while I am taking attendance, stragglers arrive, etc…the wasted first 5 minutes of class. It will help focus them on the material and get the groups prepared to work together. I’ll put the questions on the board to check off as we go through the material for the day.

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