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:
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.]
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).
Objective: This week, I want my education students to be able to teach adding and subtracting with math manipulatives.
Reading: They 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:
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!
(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.
That’s what some professors say when I ask why they teach so much stuff. Others say, “Students need this foundation if they want to move on.” So they fill lectures with content and more content.
But research suggests more content does not equal more learning.
One study, for instance, found that psychology students who took an intro class ended up knowing only 8 percent more than those who never took the class. (1)
In another, anatomy and biochemistry students who earned high grades knew no more than students who received a lower grade—after a short period of time. (2)
How about a longitudinal study that found most knowledge gained from a marketing course is lost within two years? (3)
Faced with covering a whole introductory biology textbook in his classes, Nelson (1999) decided to cut back content and instead focus on building critical thinking skills. He gave students more examples, and had them interact with the content more. He found that not only did students remember material better, but he did not end up cutting out as much content across the semester as expected. He covered less in class but students could handle more content on their own outside of class. [boldfaced added] (4)
Think of it this way. When students absorb content passively, as they might in a lecture, their knowledge is superficial. Each piece of content is not really connected to other pieces of content (see Image A).
But when students learn concepts more deeply, the connections between and among different pieces of data are denser (see image B). One piece of content can be cross-referenced with another, which makes understanding more nuanced. Knowledge organization is like a spider web.
Will this convince professors to “teach” less? That students will absorb more content when they have the deeper, foundational connections? Hard to say.
Start by cutting out 30 percent from your syllabus. If your course meets once a week, you have about 14 to 15 chapters’ worth of material to cover, right? (assuming you teach a 15-week semester.)
Cut out 4 topics. Stretch out the remaining 11 topics. Some will span two weeks.
And how do you know which topics/concepts to keep? Here are three questions to ask:
Is this topic related to (or based on) major principles in the field?
Is it complicated (compared with other topics)?
Does it have the potential to confuse students?
The more you can answer “yes” for a particular topic, the more likely you should keep it. For instance, the theory ofsupply and demand in economics can probably fit all three criteria—it is a major pillar in the field; it can be complicated; and students could have misconceptions about it.
Same with Keynesian economics. But what about the theory of optimal taxation? It may be complicated, but is it a major principle in the field? That’s your call.
In the end, there’s no way to meet the Sisyphean task of teaching all the important content in your curriculum, so wouldn’t our time be better spent developing in students, as education expert Grant Wiggins wrote, “a thirst for inquiry”? (6) It would equip them with the ability to build upon their emerging knowledge.
Let me know what you think.
(1) Meyers, C., and Jones, T. (1993). Promoting active learning: Strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
(2) Miller, G.E. (1962). An inquiry into medical teaching. Journal of Medical Education, 37(3), 185-191.
(3) Bacon, D.R., and Stewart, K.A. (2006). How fast do students forget what they learn in consumer behavior? A longitudinal study. Journal of Marketing Education, 28(3), 181-192. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475306291463.
(4) Richmond, A.S., Boysen, G.A., and Gurung, R.A.R. (2016). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching. New York: Routledge.
(5) Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., and Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
(6) Wiggins, G. (1989). The futility of trying to teach everything of importance. Educational Leadership, 47(3), 44-48, 57-59.