November 2, 2018 7:51 pm

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 lot of us probably learned about motivation when we took Psych 101 in college. But it seemed so abstract and so long ago. Especially when phrased in abstract terms like the theory of self-determination. Or intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. As professors now, we might have even forgotten all this. But we need to understand motivation now more than ever, especially when it comes to the students we teach.

Let’s apply these theories of motivation now. Minus the boring stuff.

We need to meet three basic psychological needs, according to researchers Deci & Ryan (1985): competenceautonomy, and relatedness.

  1. Competence: Students will more likely adopt or internalize a goal if they understand it and have the relevant skills to succeed in it. When it’s important to them, they want to master those skills.
  2. Autonomy: People want to feel they have control over their own behavior and lives.
  3. Relatedness: People want to feel a sense of belongingness and connectedness to people or groups.

Daniel Pink, bestselling author of Drive, makes these ideas easy to apply. He repackages them using the acronym A.M.P.:

  • Autonomy: We yearn to have control over our behaviors and our lives.
  • Mastery: We want to keep improving at the things important to us.
  • Purpose: We’ll be more motivated if the things we do (or learn) are meaningful.

Here’s how I AMP it up in my classroom.


When I first started, I wanted to control every aspect of my lectures. It’s natural. But students stopped owning their learning. They were less motivated, because, what’s the point? They weren’t self-directed. Now, creativity plays a bigger role. For their final child development paper, they design a PDF recommendation guide, which ultimately goes to a school teacher or parent. “Ten Steps to Helping Your Students Thrive in the Classroom” kind of thing. All backed by evidence from their readings. What a way to encapsulate learning and help their target audience.

By using a graphic design tool website (like Canva.com), students make their PDFs professional-looking. It takes the finals out of the academic realm. No more double-spaced, 12-point type sized papers in Times New Roman! It’s something a professional might actually put on his or her website. And students control almost every aspect—the title, the target audience, the visuals, and of course the content.

How might you incorporate self-direction and choice?


This isn’t easy. Mastery is about giving opportunities to keep improving, especially in tasks students care about. If they get a low grade in one of my assignments, they can revise and resubmit.

I know. I’m fortunate I don’t have a huge class. And yes, who’s got the time to regrade everything?

But isn’t the point that students become competent? That they end up leaving my course ready for the next level? They’ll only accomplish this if they try—and try again. If they get a “C” grade, with no chance to improve, then the learning stops. That’s demotivating.

Learning is an iterative process. In real life, anything worth doing takes multiple tries. We undermine motivation when we only give students one chance. In reality, of course, I don’t provide multiple chances for every assignment. But you get the picture.

Another part is to make sure students have the necessary skills to be good at something. So giving them a really hard assignment at the beginning of the semester is demotivating. Start with something you know they’ll succeed at. Build their confidence. That’s the progress principle at work, according to organizational change expert Teresa Amabile: the more people experience small wins, the more motivated they’ll push through and finish the journey.

Conversely, the more onerous that initial challenge, the less likely students will complete it. Think of big dense books or online courses with 30 lessons. There’s a reason most people don’t finish either.

How can you improve students’ competence over the content? Maybe break up assignments in steps? Maybe stop grading every single thing? Sometimes I’ll just assess them informally. For example, I’ll ask one question about what they learned at the end of class (a type of assessment called an exit slip), collect their answers, NOT grade it, and talk about their collective responses next class. Address any misconceptions. NOW it’s about learning and growing. Mastery.


I have ONE question that drives my child development course: How do you help children develop into successful adults? A challenging task, for sure, but it’s a goal. I make students memorize this! On any given day, I’ll ask one of them the goal of this course. If students think, What’s the point of taking this class?, that’s a problem. Let’s be honest. It happens. Probably a lot. We have to answer that question!

Another way I imbue purpose is to spell it out in syllabus and emphasize it the first day of class. My syllabus literally states, “This is why you’re here—to answer this [BIG] question.”

Figure out why your students are here, not just in the course, but for each class session. They need to know the “why.” This starts in the planning phase. For help, see my “one-sentence lesson plan.”

Think about one of your classes. How can you add autonomy, mastery, and purpose (AMP) to your assignment or course? Please share.

To learn more about motivation, see: 1) Edward Deci & Richard Ryan’s book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (1985); 2) their article Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation; and 3) a video based on Daniel Pink’s popular Ted Talks event, called The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (10:47).

  • I’ve heard about Ryan & Deci’s work on motivation, but it’s really helpful to see it applied using PAM. Love the idea giving students an extra chance to revise their assignments, esp since i have a smaller class. It changes the focus from getting good grades to being about learning. I’m going to try that!

  • Dig these suggestions. You could even rearrange them and AMP up your class with autonomy, mastery, and purpose! Keep it coming, doc!

  • I too follow the notion that students need the opportunity to see small wins, and I also discovered that when I take the high stress high points out of the assignment equation students seem a lot less inclined to cheat. So for some classes I have online, open note, untimed chapter quizzes, and to kick it up a notch I let them take them twice! There are typically 25 questions and I make them worth 1/2 points apiece.
    Now when the exam come around, I can easily see which students made full use of the chapter quiz and which didn’t! By reminding them that some of the exam questions will come from the chapter quizzes more students are actually reading the textbook (to find the quiz answers) and accidentally learning the material. Win win!
    Now that I have PAM and AMP to add into the mix, perhaps I can increase my overall students success in these courses!
    Thanks for the great tip!

    • I agree, Eugene–letting students take a test twice–why not? it’s all about building their competence. There’s lots of interest in k-12 education about so-called “competence-based education,” where students progress to next grade based on their abilities/understanding, rather than seat time. Hope to see more of it in higher ed.

  • Growing up, one of the most common questions I used to ask is, “Why do we have to be at school?”. The most common answers I received were that my parents had to …

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