October 7, 2017 7:31 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 professor once told me, “Students are NOT customers. To say they are is insulting to both professors and to students.”

Unlike customers, students are not always right, he argued, and that we shouldn’t tell students what they want to hear. Rather, as experts we need to tell students what they need to hear. Anything else is pandering.

Other critics fear that selling implies a transactional relationship, one where students pay for a degree. Most folks just aren’t comfortable with the term selling. They think of people like this guy:

Sleazy. Sales-y. Manipulative. Fake. Tricky.

But that’s just a perception. Selling is really about packaging information in ways that move others.

Look at the way clothing catalogs are put together. Every season, they focus on a particular theme, such as back-to-school, the holidays, or the summer season. Doing this makes them coherent, relevant, and meaningful to their customers.

It’s no different when we present research findings in an article. Except we use theoretical frameworks to contextualize our topic, set up our purpose, and shape our message.

It doesn’t matter how objective we think we are. We’re still framing our communication no differently than a lawyer framing her case, an advertiser framing his product, or a journalist framing her story.

Same in teaching.

If I’m lecturing about the law of supply and demand, I’m not just defining it. None of this: “Supply and demand is the amount of a commodity, product or service available and the desire of buyers for it, considered as factors regulating its price.”

Yet citing textbook definitions is common practice in many PowerPoint lectures. If it were me, I’d rather ask students, “Have you ever tried to buy, say, airline tickets or concert tickets and then come back to find the price went up?”

That’s how you get them intrigued about supply and demand.

In fact, K-12 lesson plans often refer to this part as the hook. I’m “packaging” or framing the content for my particular audience. There’s no trickery involved. It’s producing a clear, digestible, relevant, and meaningful message.

In that respect, I’m absolutely selling the idea of supply and demand. Is it then too much of a leap to say that teachers are sellers of ideas?

Author Daniel Pink doesn’t seem to think so. He refers to this as non-sales selling. Writers sell when they tell a story. Parents sell when they raise their kids. Colleagues sell when they collaborate. Friends sell when deciding which movie to see.

We’re selling every single day.

In a customer review for my book, Teaching College, one reader praised it but recoiled at comparisons to selling. This, despite the fact that I incorporated marketing terms like target audience, ideal customer profile, and unique selling proposition throughout.

We have this hang-up when it comes to selling. But if it’s about moving others, then isn’t selling the essence of great teaching?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • As a teacher, I feel like a performer more than anything else, because I’m constantly trying to keep students engaged. I do like the idea we are packaging info in a certain way. I guess there is an element of selling here.

    • LTC, I get what you mean by performer–something I hear a lot. I think that’s all part of this idea of selling. Actors are selling a performance to an extent, right?

  • Teaching truly is, in my opinion, selling. We are selling ideas, we are persuading our students why they should complete assignments, we are persuading our students to follow the course protocol, and we are trying to convince them to get involved with campus activities. We also are selling ourselves to them as subject matter experts.

    In a school with high standards, though, we are not trying to “sell” degrees as proprietary schools tend to treat as degree mills. In education, when an administrator says he or she is customer service oriented, the hidden meaning is to sell the students our program and then make it easy for them to pass. However that is not the kind of selling that should occur in properly accredited schools that are non-profit.

    • Couldn’t agree more, John. But the reality is that education schools in particular are a cash cow for the university – esp where there are too many graduates in elem education than there are positions.

  • The key is to keep it authentic…and we can do that be believing in our “product.” Also understanding the needs of our students…like all good salespeople, we need to be able to read and understand others. This is something that needs to be approached intentionally.

  • I like the idea of packaging information and delivering it in a way that students can understand it. I am compensated for my experience, skills, and ability to ‘cause my students to learn’ not simply stand and deliver.
    So I know in essence I’m ‘selling’ but I truly feel that I’m transferring knowledge.
    I used to think my job was more ‘edutainment’ rather than education, but since reading your book Teaching College, and listening to podcasts like Teaching in HigherEd, I’ve begun to see how to make the course information relevant without succumbing to being a performer, or simulating enthusiasm. Students know when we’re faking it.

    • Definitely authenticity is important. It’s the connotations of selling we seem to have a problem with. But when seen in the perspective of packaging information, or organizing it, in ways that resonate, I hope professors can see the value of a marketing mindset.

  • I have been a post-secondary classroom educator for fifty years and one month exactly. I have taught undergraduate and post-graduate courses at private and public colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. I am almost done. My approach hasn’t changed since my first class in the Fall of 1967. It has served me and (I hope) my students tolerably well … so far.

    I do not have any wares to peddle. I do not try to motivate students to read or write or perform in any way. I merely show them how, provide what I think are interesting questions for them to consider and see if they can do anything with them.

    I assume that they already have an interest in my courses because they enrolled in them. If they do not, or if they decide they made a bad choice, I say “good-bye” and wish them well.

    What I don’t do is put on a smiley face, display phony enthusiasm and assure them that they will have “fun” or (worse) travel further down a “path to success.”

    I do not perform. I do not try to be funny (though I can be in a somewhat sardonic fashion; but, I am long past looking “hot”. I do, however, encourage genuine interest in their work and reward it as fairly as I can.

    Mostly, I tell them the truth (or as much of it as I can muster) about the world, my discipline, the fads and foibles of education, and them (or as much of them as they permit me to observe).

    And, when anyone tells me to “pitch” something – either to the authorities or to the students within my reach – I respectfully decline, go home and play “Sell, Sell, Sell” by Alan Price from the soundtrack of “O Lucky Man!” It usually quiets my nerves and lowers my blood pressure sufficiently to carry on.

    To reduce education to a commercial transaction is to degrade the process and disrespect everyone involved.

  • What do you gain by equating selling and teaching? When we use a metaphor, there is some currency gained in meaning through the equation. Usually we want to take advantage of a transitive property such that be saying that teaching is selling we can tap into ideas about sales that can inform teaching…or the metaphor is intended to spark innovation and creativity by relating two previously unrelated ideas in a way that opens up new thoughts and ways of seeing. I do not see the advantage to this metaphor.

    • Chris, I am definitely tapping into ideas about sales that can inform teaching: 1) that selling is about saying things a certain way to move people to action (i.e., buying, finding out more info, etc.), and 2) sales is about understanding your prospects–their needs, wants, frustrations, etc.–something many teachers aren’t necessarily thinking about (many are only thinking about teaching content).

      And isn’t my post specifically what you refer to as opening “up new thoughts and ways of seeing”? I’m specifically wrote that selling is about packaging information in a certain way to move others–something I don’t hear too much about in the education circles (I hear more about the “student as customer” metaphor). The advantage of this metaphor is to get instructors to think beyond merely “teaching” content. People who sell (marketers, etc.) are keenly aware of their prospects’ needs, something we as professors can benefit from.

  • Some interesting comments, but I’ve heard this all before. If you equate teaching with selling, then your courses will probably reflect this commercial nature. If it helps you sell books, then it serves your purposes, not necessarily those of the students. In this university for profit era, with students as consumers, I guess this overtly capitalist approach to teaching might be unavoidable, though I suspect the great teachers I studied under, both as a PhD in the Humanities, and the great thinkers and writers of many cultural perspectives whose works I have taught, would cringe at this metaphor. For me, of little use.

    • DWH, I hear what you’re saying, but as I mentioned in my post, the idea of equating teaching with selling is about packaging information a certain way–something I believe all teachers (should) do. Nothing about commercialism mentioned here, except what readers inject based on their perceptions–again something I point out. Nothing to do with capitalism. In fact, I’m very much against the idea of privatization of schooling. This is merely a metaphor that helps some see teaching as more than about teaching boring content.

  • Setting up a straw man-defining selling as persuasion. Persuasion is only one tool used by salespeople to get you to buy the product. Teaching in higher ed is about showing students the options and letting them make up their own mind and develop their own skills! Is Teaching some to ride a bike persuasion. I think note. Please no more of this economic rationalist imperialist infusion of customer in human relationships. It is where suckers moon. You have been sold a puppy perhaps?

    • Of course teaching to ride a bike is persuasion, of sorts. Same with a dad teaching his kid to play baseball. or piano. he’s passing down what we believes to be of value to his child. often times, parents end up having to persuade their kid to learn piano! according to some, there is no such thing as teaching completely in a vacuum where you just show students the options. This goes back to the idea of the teacher as critical theorist or social reconstructionist. Is their job to educate objectively or to pass down culture? i think educating completely objectively is not possible. we all grow up in a certain culture, nation. we’ve been shaped by our parents, teachers, etc. and yes, we pass down our biases. and by virtue of what we decide to include or exclude in our curriculum we are making choices of what to teach. and when we teach a topic, we are carefully crafting that narrative. that’s selling. nothing wrong with it.

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