December 10, 2017 5:46 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.

Final exams are upon us. Time to remind students that re-reading and highlighting their textbooks won’t help much.

Why not?

Because absorbing information won’t make it stick.

Students need to do the opposite: Get information OUT of the brain. Cognitive scientists like Pooja Agarwal call it retrieval practice. There are many ways to do this.

Today, I talk about one: Affinity mapping.

Sometimes called affinity diagrams. The idea comes from the business world—specifically project management.

Affinity mapping is a great way to organize and clarify lots of information. Like the kind needed for final exams.

Let’s take one topic: “major theories of education.” Something my students need to know in their foundations class.

Step 1: Do a Brain Dump Using Post-it Notes

Get students in groups of 4-5. Or just do this as a whole-class activity. Then brainstorm everything they remember about educational theories. Like progressivism, critical theory, John Dewey, social justice, activity-based curriculum

Write each one on a post-it note. Stick it on their desks (or the board), like this:


Step 2: Organize the Post-its

Here, students organize the post-it notes—in whatever way they see fit. No need to assign labels beforehand. Maybe students group by names of famous people. Maybe they group everything into 4 major theories.



As long as there is some sort of relationship. That’s why it’s called affinity mapping. The connections are what make learning stick. You provide guidance where needed.

Step 3: Share Affinity Diagrams with the Class

Have students take a picture of their diagram with their phone and upload it to your email or to a shared cloud-based service, like Dropbox or Google Docs. Then project the diagrams on the screen. Discuss.

No Internet service? Then have each group share how they grouped their information. Or have everyone walk around and take a look.

By the way, affinity maps are just one option. Venn Diagrams work. How about tables and charts? The point is to demonstrate what students know in graphic ways. That’s different from the typical way they process information (i.e., through lectures and texts).

The more students retrieve information out of their brain and the deeper they see interrelationships, the more the learning sticks.

That’s it.

So, what are other ways you prepare students for finals?

  • Just in time! Love this idea of connecting ideas and pieces of info to each other in order to get a deeper understanding. Will definitely try this.

  • Norman, thanks for the affinity mapping exercise/activity. I usually just hand out a study guide and wish them luck. This will give me a chance to be more intentional with our pre exam reviews and get them involved in their own learning.
    This is on my to add list for next semester. I also teach online, and have several adjunct faculty who teach online as well. Is there a way of creating this sort of synergy in the asynchronous teaching modality?

    One other question for which you may have insight. How have e-textbooks impacted your Students’ success? I have colleagues on both sides of adopting etexts, pro and con.
    What’s your opinion, and do you have any research, anecdotal or otherwise to support your position?

    Thanks Norman!

    Thanks for all that you do!

  • Eugene,

    Most of my experience with e-texts is anecdotal, although I do remember reading a study that found usability issues with etexts, meaning that students who wanted to take notes or go back to certain sections had difficulty navigating. Many of my students buy them purely becasue they are cheaper, renting them in many cases. Don’t know their impact on success. Perhaps something I might do a blog post on. Thanks.

  • Prior to exams, students demand a study guide. What is your opinion about study guides and what is the best way to make one for the students.
    I’ve heard students describe other teachers’ guides. One gives the exact answers she will be asking. So basically students just need to know the answers and they should get A”s.

    • Hi Cristina! Study guides are fine. But there isn’t one best way to make one. It depends on the course you teach, the students you have, and the exam you create. For instance, an exam mostly based on facts & terms is going to have a different study guide format than one requiring students to apply what they learned.

      I would never recommend providing exact answers in the study guide, which defeats the purpose of assessments (i.e., to determine how much students learned). Study guides should provide focus: the concepts, terms, areas that are most important.

      The key is not just to list these terms, but to draw out their thinking about those terms. Perhaps with a question or a prompt. For example, if “supply and demand” is an important term for an econ final, then perhaps write in the study guide: “Explain how supply and demand are interrelated.”

      Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how often profs just list the important terms. A good study guide will give students an opportunity to grapple with the concept and get them to explain it in their own words, I would add spaces or blank lines to encourage them to WRITE it down, rather than just think of the answer.

      • With regards to study guides, I’m wondering why the students aren’t making their own study guide. I addition to teaching the Introduction to Education class, I am on our Integration Team. We are in the initial stages of trying to implement explicit integration of study skills within content courses. One of the specific skills we are working on is teaching students to create study guides for their general education courses.

        The students can identify the major concepts of the course and through explicit instruction on how to write effective discussion questions they can develop their own study guide. Individually, students should be able to write an adequate study guide, and then if they have the opportunity to work in groups and merge their information they should have a pretty effective study guide.

        As faculty members we are all busy, so we don’t need to do work the students are capable of doing themselves. At the college level, if they are given explicit instruction, they should be able to achieve this task. If we have high expectations for our students many of them will meet those expectations and probably learn more in the process.

        • I agree, Teri, that students should take charge of their own study guides. My concern is that they don’t know how and most professors have never thought about (much less know how to) integrate study skills within content courses.

          If the first step is awareness, then the next step is education/training. And many profs simply have never learned how to teach students (the way many K-12 teachers do in ed schools). It is nice to see an emerging emphasis in this area. For now, it’s great that some colleges/admins are taking steps to augment their faculty’s instructional capacity through workshops, online courses, and teams like yours.

          I will look into writing a post about this topic.

  • I usually do a flash card session. It entices the students to summarize the key points, then write out words to help make word associations. I also recommend study groups, though I need to leave it to the students to decide who they are most comfortable studying with.

  • Calling it a Brain Throw-down instead of a Brain Dump might have a better connotation. Just a thought.
    Great ideas. Thanks.

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