January 14, 2018 4:33 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.

I used to hear students grumble about their grades:

“I don’t understand how I ended up with a C.”

“I was late only three times!”

“I think it’s unfair that I got a B even though I got As in basically every assignment…”

And I’m thinking, Why are you surprised? I explained everything in the syllabus! That attendance is mandatory. That it’s worth 20 percent of the course grade.

So why do students act surprised when they get lower end-of-term grades?

Part of it is because I’m telling them, rather than showing them. Communicating effectively put students in our shoes. Or anyone else’s shoes, for that matter. That’s what teaching is about.

Students too can have ridiculous expectations. Especially when it comes to their grades. So, to minimize complaints, I show students my thinking process as I’m determining final course grades. On the first day of class.

And it only takes ten minutes. And two steps.


Step 1: Pull Up An Old Grading Sheet

This could be from last semester. Make sure it includes the attendance record for each student and all their assignment grades (see example below). Replace the student names with generic labels like Student 1, Student 2, etc.

(If you don’t have a grading sheet, make one up beforehand or download my spreadsheet template. Strategically fill in the grades—with some good, some bad. You’ll see what I mean.)


Click to see detail


When you’re going over the syllabus, tell students: “I want you to understand my grading process up front—what goes through my head when I’m determining your final grade. So, I’m going to show you. You’re about to get a peak into the mind of Prof. Eng! So pay attention…”

Then pull up your grading sheet on the projector screen.

Step 2: Do a “Think-Aloud”

Strategically narrate how you figure out students’ final grades. Here are some examples:

“Hm…OK, I’ve entered all the grades for the assignments, let’s see what they get for the course. Student #5 did really well on the Text Response papers. He got 40 points out of 300, but didn’t put enough time on the final paper, which is worth 50 points.”

“How about Student #19? She did pretty well on the assignments. B+ student. But, wait, I remember she had some attendance issues. Let’s check. OK, three absences. Wow. And she never gave a doctor’s note or anything. So that’s gonna hurt. That’s 10 points deducted from her 89 average, so she’s going to end up with a C+.”

“And I can’t believe only a third of the class did the extra credit. That one point is a freebie! Student #24 got an 89, a solid B+. If he had done the extra credit, his final grade would have been an A-.”

“This student is texting all the time. So her “citizenship” grade is gonna be low. If I’m an employer, I’m NOT hiring her.”


For students, this can be a “wow” moment: You mean two absences can really hurt my grade? Professors actually notice when I text under the table?

Students see consequences. While they seem obvious to you, for a lot of students they’re not. You need to spell it out. And students don’t always think of the consequences when it’s written in the syllabus. So show, don’t tell.

Your think-aloud makes it real.

Here’s where I transition into talking about being professional. How not to appear entitled, immature, and/or shortsighted. Not just to me. To employers and colleagues.

Do I hear less complaints about grades? I think so. Just one ten-minute investment on Day One—without being preachy. Just show them what it’s like to be you. And students will respond.

Try this exercise and let me know your thoughts.

*** To get your grade spreadsheet template, sign up to get my free Teaching College Starter Kit.

    • Dennis, I hear what you’re saying. I find that the impact does stay with them. But I do remind them about attendance and grading policies throughout the semester.

  • I have realized that as well. They need reminding. Students focus on what’s in front of them. They most often ask about their final grade with less than a third of the semester remaining. One of my resolutions is to remind them in every class after midterm where to look to get the grading details . It’s all there, they just need to refresh their memory and to look at it before it’s to late to change their behavior.

  • This is just another excuse to lower educational standards. If the instructor, teacher, professor, etc, issues a syllabus at the start of a course, then it is the students responsibility to read it and understand and accept the requirements for the class and grades. This is not only reducing educational standards but breeds self-entitlement and the lack of taking personal responsibility by the students. Enough of this politically correct BS.

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