February 20, 2019 7:12 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!



(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.

Manatees. Cheese. Broomball. Earth day. Canada. What do these things have in common? Well, nothing. Especially when you randomly pair them with dentists, senior citizens, second graders, Congress, and a high school marching band.

But when combined into a first-year composition course for college freshmen, they do create an experience for students.

I teach first-year composition to college students, and I know that we can talk about rhetorical concepts such as “audience,” “purpose,” “context,” and “message,” all day, but until the students grapple and engage with it themselves, it doesn’t take on nearly as significant of a meaning.

I first came across Norman Eng’s work while in graduate school. I was teaching a section of first-year composition for the first time. Like many graduate students, I worried if I was teaching students everything they needed to know. Afterall, I was learning along with them.

One line from Norman’s work changed my perspective on teaching, which is his focus on becoming a facilitator of meaningful experiences. Suddenly, I didn’t need to know everything to be an effective teacher. I just needed to focus on creating relevant, meaningful experiences for students. Now I try to incorporate this into my teaching in some way every day.

Which brings me back to manatees. I used to (and still do, I admit), often focus on what I want students to learn or do by cramming class sessions with informational PowerPoints and providing students with note sheets to follow along. However, I also try to think about what experience I want students to have in the classroom by thinking about a story or situation to frame our lesson around.

For example, one activity that my students (and I) enjoy, involves tailoring a topic to a specific audience. In all writing and activities, thinking about audience is important, but often in an introductory English course, it is difficult for students to conceptualize “audience” as anything beyond their teacher.

To get students thinking critically about audience, and how to tailor a message to a specific audience, I facilitate a creative presentation. I type up the following sample “topics”: manatees, cheese, Earth day, broomball, and Canada. Then I list five sample “audiences”: dentists, senior citizens, second graders, Congress, and a high school marching band. Students form teams and draw one sample topic and one sample audience per group. They are asked to create a three- to five-minute presentation about this topic tailored to this specific audience. I ask them not to share their topics or audiences with other groups. We have to guess when they present. Each group also needs to include a visual component to their presentation, and I intentionally leave this open.

After some head-scratching, funny looks, and a few “Are you kidding?” questions, the groups get to work and begin tailoring their topic presentation to the target audience. I’ll never forget when a group of my students lobbied on the Senate floor for American cheese to be taken off the market because it’s “not even real cheese”, or when a group of students led a high school marching band in a class-sung “Oh Canada.” And the whole class enjoyed when we played Earth Day-themed bingo at a senior citizen home.

It is my favorite class period of the semester. Students laugh and are engaged. Although we talk about audience all semester, we all experience audience in this activity.

Although it’s not possible to replicate this kind of activity every day, I like to open class periods with a short story or thought-experiment when possible. Learning about cover letters and resumes becomes a lot more fun when students visualize their dream job posting and even share with a partner sitting next to them what their dream job is before we dive into the nitty gritty of writing job documents.

3 More Ways “Facilitating Meaningful Experiences” Has Changed My Teaching

I open up with an engaging prompt or video. I teach two courses online, and I used to start each weekly module with, “This module introduces you to…” Yawn. Now I try to include an interesting story or question as the “hook.” For example, our module on “Revising Writing,” opens up like this:

You’re running a marathon. You pass mile 23. Do you give up? Say “good enough, I already ran 23 miles”? No! You keep going to finish your race. The same is true of business writing. You have written drafts of three business letters. Now, here come miles 23 to 26. Time to revise.

I use lots of white space on assignment sheets. I write in short paragraphs and use bulleted lists to organize information because I know many students are accustomed to reading information like that outside the classroom. Major assignments should be introduced in a way that’s easy for students to comprehend. I try to organize the information in the easiest way possible for students to understand, focusing on what Norman calls the “Learner Experience.”

I start every class with “How are you?” and actually listen for their responses. It sounds silly, but sometimes students just want to verbally share that they’re stressed out over a test. It’s a good way to gauge the energy level of the class, too. Sometimes I ask students to turn to someone next to them and check-in for 30 seconds. In early morning classes, sometimes I ask them to jot down whatever is stressing them out and then put it aside. It’s not a perfect method, and I’m sure some students find it irrelevant, but I’ve also had students at the end of the semester say this class felt like a family.

“Become a facilitator of meaningful experiences.” Easier said than done! But it is a question worth asking each day we step into the classroom. How am I creating a meaningful experience for my students today?  What will make them grapple, laugh, head-scratch, and sing “Oh Canada” to the Senate?

If you have thoughts or comments, please share below!

Megan Pietruszewski is an English Lecturer at Clemson University where she teaches writing courses such as Technical Writing, Business Writing, and first-year composition. She is interested in writing-across-the-curriculum and implementing client-based service-learning projects in advanced writing courses. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

    • Hi, Erin! Thanks, I’m glad you like the idea of a class check-in. It seems to help build the classroom community. It’s also fun when students realize they are in other classes together and start to ask and check-in with each other about upcoming projects in their other classes (unprompted from me!).

  • Megan, thanks for your article! It was really inspiring to see how you helped students really get the idea of “writing for your audience” and created meaningful experiences for them. Something I’ll keep in mind. Hope to hear more.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lauren! I’m glad you enjoyed this lesson. It’s a fun way to build classroom community, too!

  • Great post and great blog. I teach ESL writing in a community college in the Pacific. If the textbook is the “script,” I’m constantly localizing it to open up more possibilities for relevancy. A big challenge is just to get students to participate, since they are very self-conscious speaking English in class due to the size of the group. My take-away from your post is to liberate myself from the script even more. Thank you.

    • Megan’s experiences really crystallized the idea to get away from the “script,” as you referred to it. I think a lot depends on the comfort level of the instructor, but at the same time, she gives us a great method we can apply to our own classes!

    • Hi, Mary, thanks for sharing your take-away to liberate from the “script.” Yes, I love the way you worded that! I used to teach ESL and I understand how some students are timid to speak because of the fear of making mistakes (which is certainly true of native speakers, too!). I love your focus on keeping the class relevant to them. That’s a great reminder!

  • Totally stealing how you start class!! I never thought to have them tell me how they feel or what is stressing them.

    I teach STEM, so I can’t directly use some of what you use, but it does challenge me to think hard about how I can facilitate learning in my STEM class, particularly by making it more relevant to my audience. Bravo! I’d love to have had you as my Freshman Comp teacher.

  • How fun was that exercise? And I was only reading about it! Thank you, Megan, for reminding us about being Facilitators of Meaningful Experiences, where meaning is facilitated by humor and creativity. I’m inspired by how you put your own learning into concrete outcomes that benefit your students.

    • Hi, Chris! Thanks for your reply to remind us about humor and creativity in the classroom. Yes, I have to confess…much of the rationale for me repeating this exercise semester after semester is that it’s so much fun for me to watch the final presentations! The other students get a kick out of it, too. No group has ever done the exact same presentation!

  • Hi Megan,
    What a great way to start a class by asking students what stresses them out! You can certainly understand your students better by just listening to them! I also love the idea of us being facilitators of meaningful and relevant experiences. I try to carefully listen to what my students share in class, including their frustrations, and I try to tailor my presentations and class activities accordingly. Go Tigers!

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