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January 3, 2022 9:36 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!

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Sources:

(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.

Six students failed my child development course this past semester. Out of 25.

That’s right, almost one-quarter of them did not pass.

I’m certainly not proud of it. In fact, it’s the first time that’s happened in my ten years teaching in higher ed.

And I strongly believe it’s because I didn’t make students’ mental health and wellbeing a priority.

According to the New York Times, “Colleges across the country are facing a mental health crisis, driven in part by the pandemic. After almost two years of remote schooling, restricted gatherings and constant testing, many students are anxious, socially isolated, depressed — and overwhelming mental health centers. At a few institutions, there has been a troubling spate of suicides. Now another swell of Covid cases, driven by the Omicron variant, threatens to make life on campus worse.”

Specifically, loss of motivation or focus, as well as loneliness and isolation, were the major concerns of college students who sought counseling during the pandemic. This is based on national data collected by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

Yet, despite this ongoing crisis, I had put the burden on students to initiate contact. With many of them struggling this past semester, it’s clear I have to take on an active role.

One way I’ll do this is to make mental health and wellbeing more visible.

Visible means more than being active. Visible also means students feel that you care. I doubt they’ll feel it if I merely list the phone number for the campus counseling center in my syllabus.

I’m also reminded of the seven touches of marketing, a principle I learned as a former advertising executive:

If you want your prospects to take action (such as buying your product, visiting your website, or calling for more information), you have to reach them at least seven times and/or seven ways.

You’ll probably need much more than seven touches these days.

With students’ mental health at stake, this issue needs to be addressed multiple times and in multiple ways throughout the semester. Only then will they “feel it.”

So here are at least five ways I plan to make mental health and wellbeing more visible:

1. Create a Mental Health & Wellbeing Activity or Assignment

This could be as simple as opening with an ice-breaker activity, where students share their common struggles. You can do this in-person, synchronously online, asynchronously online (e.g., on the discussion board), or even in a hybrid classroom.

For a student teaching seminar class last fall, I spoke candidly about the challenges I faced as a new father. One example included the stresses of teaching synchronously with twin newborns at home. This served as a powerful reminder of the challenges we all share, even if many of my students weren’t parents. Yet we all identify with external distractions on Zoom. Imagine how much more powerful this moment would be if I opened up a discussion with students.

Aside from ice-breaker activities, you can also make mental health an actual topic of study in your syllabus. Here was my recent four-part module with teacher candidates:

  1. Pre-Discussion: Is burnout a real problem among public school teachers?
  2. Reflection/Discussion: How do you deal with stress every day?
  3. Reading: The importance of cultivating a daily/weekly self-care routine
  4. Assignment: Create a personalized “self-care routine” infographic to share with the class

I was so impressed with my students’ self-care plans (see two examples below), which were created using a graphic design tool called Canva:

This topic can be brought up during the first week of school or near the finals period. Either way, it can serve as a concrete reminder for students to take care of themselves. I’ve had several students express how this assignment pushed them to think more intentionally about their health.

2. Check In With Students Periodically

How often do you follow up with individual students who struggle? I know it’s time-consuming, but emailing, say, the bottom 20 percent of performers even just three weeks into the semester can show you care. If you have 20 to 25 students (as I do), that’s 4 to 5 students per class you’re following up with. Here’s my simple note to them:

Hey [Name], I noticed that you’ve missed a couple of assignments for this class. Just wanted to check in with you and make sure everything’s OK.

While learning the material is crucial, your wellbeing is even more important. If there’s any way I can help, I will make it a priority.

Just reply to this email.

Prof. Eng

A few notes:

  • The informality of the email can help students open up, especially that last line (“Just reply to this email”), which serves as an explicit call to action. You don’t want to come across as impersonal or inaccessible.
  • You can further personalize each email with the student’s name and the specific assignments he or she is missing.
  • This template works for large classes too (just use without the names).
  • This email and any subsequent follow-up threads can also serve to document patterns of progress (or lack thereof), should you need it later on.
  • You can resend this email (or some modified version of it) later in the semester if needed.

In the end, not every student emailed will respond, but initiating contact goes a long way. You might be surprised, as I was, with how open some students can be. And if you’re not comfortable addressing their problems, simply direct them to the experts in your campus.

If students feel the stigma of getting professional help, tell them the following:

“I know it’s not easy to seek outside help. One way you can think about it is this: most of us have no problems seeing a doctor when we feel physical pain. So why wouldn’t we do the same when we experience mental pain? Our mind is just as important as than our body.”

3. Bring In External Expertise

This suggestion is fairly straightforward but easy to overlook. Is there someone (perhaps a colleague at the campus counseling center) who can talk about mental health?

One of my colleagues leads a yoga/meditation class during her time off. She’s offered to demonstrate de-stressing (breathing) techniques with my students. They also get to create take-home lavender sachets, which was a fun and active break from class.

4. Conduct a Survey

Surveys are useful at the beginning of the semester (to help you anticipate issues) or midway (to see how students are progressing). You could list questions such as:

  • How do you feel you are you doing in this class? (on a scale from 1 to 5)
  • Is something outside of school interfering with your best work in this class? Please explain.
  • How can I, as the instructor, best support you to do your best in this class?

Note that students aren’t required to answer more sensitive questions like #2 above.

If you’d like a Google Forms template to modify, go here. (You will be asked to make a copy, after which you can tailor the questions for your particular course. Once done, provide the link to your students.)

5. Lighten the Workload

At the end of last term, I asked students to fill out a “How-can-I-improve-this-class?” survey. It’s different from the course evaluations they normally complete.

No surprise – lightening the workload was a top request. This time I’m paying extra attention, mostly because of COVID. Rather than cutting out specific tasks (e.g., posting a reflection on Blackboard or coming to class with a question or comment), however, I’ll likely remove a couple of topics from the syllabus and spread the rest out. This will deepen students’ learning.

Technically, lightening the workload isn’t as “visible” a method as the other four, unless you explicitly tell students you’re cutting out topics. Regardless, reducing the amount of topics you cover is typically good practice, pedagogically speaking. It will allow you to incorporate more mental-health related content and deepen the learning for other topics.

Conclusion

The expression “perception is reality” is particularly relevant here. Even if I technically addressed mental health in my syllabus, it doesn’t mean students will feel that I care. So, I’m now more focused on paying attention to how students perceive the role that mental health and wellbeing plays in my courses. My goal? To nudge at least one hesitant student to reach out. How they respond may be the subject of a future article as I share my learning journey with you.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your feedback and experiences dealing with mental health in your class – leave a comment below!

  • Two things I really liked here: 1) the mental health assignment and getting students to create their own break plan! and 2) how you respond to students who feel the stigma of seeking professional help by telling them that we go to see doctors for physical health so quickly but not so much for mental health. I’ll definitely be using that! Thanks for this.

  • Dear Norman,
    This is a great approach and a great idea for intervention or at least an initial intervention to make them aware of some of the real psychological, emotional, and social issues our students may be experiencing. I always say to my students something is better than nothing. I did something different this past semester fall 2021, I borrow the writings of Roger’s Theory of Counseling about psychological safety and unconditional self-regard., I also ask the presenter of a leadership program to borrow her approach and modify the questions to use the idea in the classroom with group/team and academic work to create a safe psychological environment in the classroom discussions about the content topics. One question that sounds a lot like yours is “What is one thing I (Professor) need to know about you that will improve our success in this class/group/team? Again, this is a modification from the works of Jean Marie DiGiovanna: Renaissance Leadership workshop and team building for Psychological Safety.
    Thanks in advance, Norman for sharing this important information, I will also be using your ideas this spring semester.

    • Arturo, thanks for your thoughts. I’m also basically familiar with Roger’s Theory of Counseling. My ideas reflect, in some respects, this framework, but I’m also aware that this is – as you alluded to – an initial intervention/prevention approach.

  • I came across Dr. Eng several years ago with the One Sentence Lesson Plan. I have been a virtual groupie ever sense. I love the sincerity and simplicity of the touch points in this post. Dr. Eng’s heart for teaching teachers come through with everything he shares.

  • Norman you nailed it! One thing I would add is that we as educators can easily assume that the student didn’t show up for class (in-person or online) because they didn’t feel the course was a priority over whatever else they were doing.
    More than once I’ve had to remind my adjunct faculty that “their course” was not the only course the students were taking. I’m often met with some variation of, “if I make an exception for them, then I have to make an exception for everyone…” or “I tell them
    At the beginning of the semester…” with the expectation that at midterm they will remember what was mentioned once 4 or 8 weeks ago.

    It has made me take stood my emails to students who miss assignments or classes, etc., invariably my email of concerns or worry are responded to with something significant that happened: tire blew out on the highway, student tested positive for xy or z, etc.
    This has been a very different and difficult season for students trying to navigate their education, finances, and family amidst the fall of the pandemic.

    A little grace can go a long way.

  • Great post, Norman! I noticed similar trends in my classes too. I do reach out, similar to how you encouraged your students through email, but often times, they have lost their motivation already.

    I believe that stronger and healthier student-to-student relationships in the classroom can help. AskClass.org is something I created to alleviative this problem, especially for synchronous classes on Zoom. It is a simple ice breaker game to help people express who they are and speak up before the lecture starts.

    My students love the suspense of being chosen and remembering what others have said.

    https://askclass.org

    I apologize if this looks like an ad. I hope this helps other teachers who are looking for solutions to address the loneliness, depression, anxiety, and even anger among students.

    Here’s a collab video I made about AskClass:
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gOxL6iTsy9vmrg0UyuXbt8PeawkQrp-U/view?usp=sharing
    p

    • Damon it is great to hear from you! I’m loving this video and the fact that you got a rapper to do this video speaks volume about your influence!

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