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December 13, 2020 5:13 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!

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Sources:

(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.

Provide an optional final. This is a collection of questions pulled from the weekly quizzes. It your course is scored out of 1000 points, this final could be worth, say, 100-150 points.

This relieves you of negotiating every missed quiz or assignment. Students all want an exception made for them, so instead, tell them not to worry. They can make up those 20 points by taking the optional final.

It also serves as a nice review of the course.

Obviously, not every instructor can do this, but giving students choice is an idea that can be applied to other areas of teaching.

I just like the idea that some students may decide to forgo the final if, for instance, they’ve already scored above 940 points during the semester, which would qualify as an A! Something to think about next term as we think ahead.

Thanks to Lisa P., who teaches for the Film program @UCF Nicholson School of Communication and Media, for this tip!

Might an optional final work for your course? Leave comments below.

  • While I can’t do an optional final, I like this idea of providing some other way for students to “make-up” some assignment. I can easily see giving one more optional quiz, instead of final near the end of semester. I’ll experiment for next spring and let you know! Thanks.

  • Allowing an optional final puts some students at a disadvantage. Students who have an A already can put more time into studying for their other courses. So, some students are studying for 3-4 finals while others need to study for five finals. This latter group is at a disadvantage in the amount of time they have available for each final exam.

    • I hear you, Charles. One could plan the semester so that all the points are accounted for before the finals, i.e., all the quizzes + assignments = 900 points, which would be an A. And then those that missed a quiz or did poorly can do this as “extra credit.” So actually, it’s to help those that struggled most. That’s another way to think of it.

  • I like the idea of a comprehensive final exam and integrate it (when time permits) into most of my courses. That said, I typically have 4 exams during the course and each is worth 100pts – I try to lean more heavily on awarding points for discussions, practical assignment activities, and other team or group-like engagement. I’ve found that some of my students are really not good test takers, but are excellent communicators and engagers – while others are phenomenal test takers and essay writers, but no so much on the engagement side of things.
    Since my courses focus on Criminal Justice, Security, Drone Administration, etc., there is much more need for my students to develop and hone their interpersonal communication skills, than demonstrate their memorization skills.
    ~

    • I’m like you as well, Eugene, in placing less emphasis on finals and more on the work students do everyday—discussions, participating, reading, assignments, etc. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • As a Vocational Educator teaching high school seniors and adults to become outstanding Pharmacy Technicians, I find your concept interesting.

    There are indeed those students who learn well. Who are organized, demonstrate excellent skills and techniques, and who communicate very well. And mixed across the physical classroom are others who are not well organized, yet! Who are challenged in demonstrating the knowledge behind demonstrating great skills and techniques, and for whom either English is not their first language, or, if it is, they have not yet developed good communication skills to this point in the 9-month program.

    They must retain knowledge for our national certification exam. Learn not memorize. To me there’s a great difference. Anatomy, Physiology, and the Top 200 drugs with understanding of interactions and side effects is only “part” of knowledge they gain and must retain! Pharmacy calculations is another area requiring knowledge and skills, or medication and IV orders could go very far wrong.

    One thing found with many students over the years is commitment to quality and to excellence. I was blessed to be raised with these principles instilled from childhood. Working to instill this from the outside is challenging, at best. While giving students my all, I “must” maintain balance for the long haul. I tell them “I cannot want this for you more than you want it for yourself.” Lives are at stake at the end of their thought processes, words, and whatever they touch/do!

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