January 5, 2019 11:26 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.

Looking to upgrade your course syllabus this term? Maybe Professor Pam Mork’s example can help. She teaches General Chemistry at Concordia College in Minnesota.

While some students love chemistry, I’m betting most see this particular course as a requirement—and therefore one they simply have to “grin and bear.”

Below is a 3-page excerpt of how her syllabus used to look (hover over image and click/tap on the arrows at the bottom to toggle between pages):

Ghastly, in retrospect described Pam’s reaction. Actually, her syllabus is probably a lot like most of ours. As such, it serves as a perfect mini-case study for the upcoming term.

Pam’s challenge was simple: Make the course inviting. Having read my ebook, Create an Engaging Syllabus: A Concise, 7-Step Guide for Professors, she implemented several ideas, four of which we’ll share below.

(And, yes, you can view her revamped syllabus at the end!)

STEP 1. Hook students in the opening paragraph

Pam was able to alter the language in her course description to be more student-oriented (note: check with your department first, as some have strict requirements). She opened with the question on every students’ mind: Why would anyone want to study chemistry?

Countering potential objections upfront shows students you’ve thought through their concerns. After a brief explanation, Pam continues to draw readers in:

Why does a muscle contract? Why does a campfire warm us up? Why are fireworks different colors? Every breath we take is a chemical reaction. Every morsel we nibble is metabolized in a chemical reaction. Every garment we don is created in a chemical reaction. We can’t escape chemistry!

In my ebook, I discuss how master marketers use the acronym AIDA (attention, interest, desire, and action) to connect with their target audience. It’s about packaging information. Framing it. Think of this analogy: Beef manufacturers could say their product is either “75% lean” or “25% fat.” Both are flip sides of the same coin. But the former resonates with customers more than the latter.

Sometimes academics don’t like to think this way. They think it’s spin. In reality, it’s just effective communication, something we strive for when writing articles and conference proposals. With General Chemistry, Pam presented her course in a way that students will see its value and utility. That’s the premise of AIDA. How might you incorporate attention and interest?

STEP 2. Turn lecture topics into questions

The course calendar is the ideal section to transform staid topics (e.g., “Chapter 1: Atoms”) into intriguing ones. Imagine students opening up to page 3 of the syllabus and seeing the following topics reframed as (provocative) questions:

Are All Atoms of an Element the Same?

How are Chemistry and Chinese Alike?

How Do We Know How Much NaCl is Dissolved in a Beaker of Water?

Will students jump up and down and announce, “This is AWESOME”? Maybe not. But I’d be thrilled if students were simply intrigued to want to learn more.

For a reader, it’s potentially a small, yet positive moment (more on this later). As you plan your topics this term, think about  framing your topics. They don’t have to be posed as questions either. The session 8 topic in Pam’s syllabus, for instance, provides some intrigue: Let the Reactions Begin. Better than writing Chapter 8: Chemical Reactions, no?

STEP 3. Provide concrete expectations

When students take your course, I’m betting most of them wonder things like, What’s considered an “A” in this course? Or thinking, I have no idea what this professor is like.  

 Pam got creative. She shows us what an “A” student looks like, what a “B” student looks like, and so forth.

If I’m the type of student who “arrives right before class starts”—as Pam describes in the middle box, last bullet point—at least I’d know what she values: students who come early and skim their previous notes. The professor has modeled student professionalism up front.

Perhaps some readers here are tempted to think, “If Pam really wants to engage students, she shouldn’t say [XYZ]…” or I would never do [XYZ] like she did…

But it’s easy for us to judge. Instead, I hope readers sees the underlying and valid idea she’s implemented: managing student expectations, a critical skill all educators need. Most times, students will adjust to your teaching approach—whether you grade “hard,” stick to the policies, or assign tough papers—as long as you don’t surprise them. That’s what Pam has done here.

Aside from providing the usual (grading scales, homework/attendance policies, etc.), what other creative ways can you manage students’ expectations? (Wanna know what I do? I show students how I grade them on the first day of class; see my post, Show—Don’t Tell—How You Grade.)

[Download my ebook, Create an Engaging Syllabus HERE.]

STEP 4. Highlight important information

Why don’t students just read the syllabus? It’s all written there! I’ve felt this way many times. Use sidebars or feature boxes to emphasize points. Think of ways to turn assignment dates, grading scale, and even your attendance policy into points of interest. Here Pam uses a sidebar to encourage students to stay connected to the latest class news:

On the left, Prof. Mork makes her feelings on plagiarism known, without getting too technical. I’m a big fan of putting the “fine print” elsewhere—either in the back of the syllabus or online whenever possible. Out of the prime real estate area, so to speak.

But it’s more than just highlighting information. In the end, Pam is helping students. Not just by reminding them about class policies, but also by providing real help. How to improve their grades. How to study, as Pam shows here:






I’ve read and reviewed hundreds (if not thousands) of syllabi. The most engaging ones tend to incorporate a series of positive “micro-experiences.” They’re simply little moments that strengthen the connection between the student and the subject matter and/or instructor. Pam cares about her students, and it shows when she writes things like this:

Such micro-experiences shape the way students see you and the course. So, as you plan your syllabus, think of the series of improvements you can implement, which — taken together — will intrigue and inspire your students.

Side Note: I avoided talking about visual or graphic design. Most of us simply aren’t trained in this area, so we do the best we can—including me. Pam was kind enough to share her syllabus—or more accurately, her syllabus for that particular semester. No doubt she’s continued to refine it over time—to make it look and sound even better. So I refrained from commenting on color schemes, layouts choices, and other “design”-type elements. My hope is that this syllabus can open a dialogue to improve the level of our collective syllabi.

Click below to view images of Prof. Mork’s revised syllabus. Note that Pam separated her six-page syllabus into two parts, saving Part 2 to hand out mid-semester as to not overwhelm students on Day 1. Something to think about.

Part 1

Part 2

Warm and constructive comments are highly encouraged! Even better, share your syllabus below.

To download my ebook, Create an Engaging Syllabus, go HERE.

  • Perfect timing! I am updating my syllabus and wanted to really change the way I communicate with students. Starting with getting them excited and drawing them in. Right now, I feel like students don’t really read my syllabus, and truthfully it probably comes across pretty dry. Looking forward to implementing the questioning technique and revamping the course description. Keep writing these kinds of posts!

  • Celia, the syllabus is students’ first impression of us, so coming across as enthusiastic and helpful is so important. Would love to hear how you end up!

  • Hi Norman,
    I implemented your syllabus guidelines based upon you eBook and then purchased your book. I am reasonably happy with my revamped syllabus with its new focus on the student vs. the old style CYA the teacher contract version. Nowadays I find it a little awkward to talk about myself but, left in the About Me blurb in the end. I noticed Pam left that out. Do yo think student really care about that section? Do they really want to know there teacher on a personal level?

  • I was recently contemplating the history of the traditional course syllabus as I work on my online courses, so this blog was timely for me. I am going to survey students to determine whether or not they read the syllabus file. I have noticed some students primarily use the learning management system (LMS) App to access information about the course. With this knowledge, I am now going to add more web-based syllabus content in the LMS for my face to face course.

    I enjoy creativity and making content visually appealing. One of the things I am realizing is some of the things I have created were not accessible. Consider the importance of adding alternative text to any images in a document. Some students may also have problems seeing color. Personally speaking, while I am not color blind, there are certain color combinations I cannot read. The good news is there is a free resource: WebAIM Color Contrast Checker that can be used: https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/. If we use a number of images to describe content, it may be easier for accessibility purposes to create two different documents.

    • Thanks for this Alex. Many colleges have accessibility requirements (for examples all icons have to be labeled with text so they can be read by a screen reader). I’m hoping my next ebook update will include more details to address this important issue.

  • The link that shows her syllabus isn’t working. Is there somewhere to download a copy of her syllabus or access it in some other way?

    Appreciate the tips!

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