January 19, 2021 3:35 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.

You ever have students miss an assignment? 

Or forget to do something they’re supposed to do?

Or just in general get easily confused about class?

I do. It frustrates the heck out of me, because I feel like I’m SO CLEAR. Like, Were you not paying attention? 

Now I realize that being clear is just one part of being a good teacher. Students have so much going on, so it’s easy for them to overlook your tasks and assignments. 

That’s why I use checklists now. 

They’re so simple. But they WORK. 

How I Use Checklists

For each weekly module, I have something that looks like this: 

Do you see how each task has a checkbox next to it? 

Don’t worry about details for each task or assignment yet. Just give students the overview first.

Also, include not just assignments, but small tasks too if needed. Things like:

  • Sign up for Office Hours!
  • Coming up: Fieldwork report (in three weeks!)
  • Complete at least 2 hours of clinical observations this week

When I use checklists, students appear to be more on top of things.

The Power of Checklists (A Quick Story)

In his bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande explains how checklists completely transformed patient safety:

In 2001, a critical care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give a doctor checklist a try. He didn’t attempt to make the checklist encompass everything ICU teams might need to do in a day. 

He designed it to tackle just one of their hundreds of potential tasks: central line infections.

On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting in a central line. Providers are supposed to:

    1. Wash their hands with soap.
    2. Clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic.
    3. Put sterile drapes over the entire patient.
    4. Wear a mask, hat, sterile gown, and gloves.
    5. Put a sterile dressing over the insertion site once the line is in.

Check, check, check, check, and check.

These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious.

For a year afterward, Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line infection rate went from 11 percent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections, eight deaths and saved two million dollars in costs.”

Pronovost recruited more colleagues, and they tested some more checklists in his Johns Hopkins ICU. One aimed to ensure that nurses observed patients for pain at least once every four hours and provided timely pain medication. This reduced from 41 percent to 3 percent the likelihood of a patient’s enduring untreated pain.

They tested a checklist for patients on mechanical ventilation, making sure, for instance, that doctors prescribed antacid medication to prevent stomach ulcers and that the head of each patient’s bed was propped up at least thirty degrees to stop oral secretions from going into the windpipe. The proportion of patients not receiving the recommended care dropped from 70 percent to 4 percent, the occurrence of pneumonias fell by a quarter, and twenty-one fewer patients died than in the previous year.

The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the ICU create their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.

These checklists accomplished what checklists elsewhere have done, Pronovost observed. They helped with memory recall and clearly set out the minimum necessary steps in a process.

Checklists, he found, established a higher standard of baseline performance.

For students, checklists can help organize their work. Did they finish everything that was assigned for the week? Did they leave anything out? That’s probably their biggest concern.

Secondly, having a checklist summary at the top of the module acts as an easy reference.

How Do You Actually Insert Checkboxes into Your LMS? 

That might require creativity. 

For some, maybe you create a word document and then save it as a PDF for students to download. Many students like having that physical copy. This way, they can check off each task with a pen when done. 

If you’re on Blackboard learning management system (LMS), simply click the “html” view in the tool bar. Paste the code: 

<input type=”checkbox”>YOUR WORDS GO HERE<br />

If you’re on Canvas, it’s less straightforward. But there are workarounds posted on the discussion board here. 

If you’re on Moodle, there’s also a workaround video posted here. 

If you’re on other LMS’s, like Google Classroom, just search “how to add checkboxes [or checklists] for [your LMS].”

What Do Students Think of Checklists?

Checklists can help your students do well in your class, but don’t take my word for it. Below are the actual feedback from my students last term. 

(Note that their responses were based on the question: What worked well in my class? Responses about checklists were unprompted.)

I thought writing out all of the assignments the students had to complete in the weekly content tab was very helpful, especially the boxes you added that students could check off after completing an assignment.

Our checklist for the week; it allowed us to see what we need to do and what we have done already.

I loved reading your weekly content posts. They were easy on the eyes and I really appreciated you putting the checklist for us because I was able to see what I still had left to complete. 

[What helped was] The fact that every week there was a checklist and a timeline. I knew exactly what to expect on a weekly basis.

It was also really easy to see what work we had to complete and I liked the little checklist you created in [Blackboard]! I think it was really nice as I liked being able to know what I have completed.

The weekly content was really helpful and the checklist because it allowed me to be on track of my work.

In summary, you can mitigate the overwhelm. Checklists can help students manage the workload better by allowing them to check off, one by one, each task they complete. In this way, they won’t miss anything!

Please let me know your thoughts below!

  • I always use a checklist for myself and I also include a list for students of the activities they have to do, but I didn’t know I could add a checklist in blackboard! Golden! Thanks for that!

  • On Canvas LMS, there is an option to add requirements for each module, so students are required to “mark done” a page. Enabling this feature might also help students organize class material.

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas!

  • Thanks for the visuals! I think the html embed you suggest would work on Moodle, too! Moodle also has “activity tracking” already built in, which sounds like what Megan describes above – but the checkboxes are on each assignment, not all gathered in one handy place.

  • D2L has a clunky checklist function I used it last year: students ignored it. I think the difference is that I had it at the bottom of the module. I’m going to try it again in Fall, from the top.

    • I do think that the idea of checklist makes sense; but definitely how easy it is to see it and use it matters. My checklist is essentially the first thing students see and easy to refer to. Keep us posted if changing the placement of it helps.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}