October 29, 2021 9:48 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.

If you follow my blog, you’ve heard of my series, What Do Students Wish You Knew? Each semester, I ask my students what they wished their professors would better understand about what they go through. Professors, here’s your chance to get an inside perspective!

Unlike previous posts, this one focuses on online teaching. I won’t cover topics that apply to face-to-face courses, such as “student workload” and “PowerPoint slides.” They are universal challenges addressed throughout this series.

Instead, I give you 10 insights that can shape your online instruction going forward, courtesy of our students’ voices. At the end of each topic, I summarize/offer potential solutions.

INSIGHT #1: Teaching live is not always better.

I like how [one of] my professor uses the video conferencing option and records videos that gives me the [opportunity] to watch it in my own time. English is not my main language.

I think that many professors have learned the importance of doing asynchronous classes once in a while to give students a break from remote learning where they can find their own time to really concentrate on assignments.

I have found that many times, asynchronous classes are extremely beneficial, since I can choose a time and space to dive into my learning where I can be free from distractions. Oftentimes, this is later at night when everyone is sleeping, and I can read and write better.

SOLUTION: Try recording your instruction to give students flexibility.

INSIGHT #2: Students are easily overwhelmed online.

One thing I wish professors can understand when teaching students online is to acknowledge how work can pile up easier, a lot more easily than in-person classes.

There’s a lot more components within this whole online learning thing, more than in-person…You have to watch videos, you’ve got to do reading, you’ve got to do presentations and projects, and you need to keep in mind that there’s some cases where students have four to six classes. All of that on a single monitor, you know?

So you feel kind of cooped up in a way, doing all this work. It can be pretty overwhelming; and in some cases, even intimidating to approach because you have all these stuff [sic] piled up together and you don’t know where to start.

In some cases, unfortunately, people can even lose track of things because while they’re focusing on one assignment of their Spanish project, for example, they’re going to lose sight and possibly even forget one of their assignments for a math class. We’re all human at the end of the day; we’re going to [make] mistakes like that. But it isn’t out of like malicious intent. It’s just that we have a lot of stuff going on to the point where we sometimes forget certain things that we need to do. With that being said, I wish professors can maybe even send a checklist of things do for the week.

It is difficult for students to concentrate on online courses. There are many factors that disrupt the learning rhythm when studying at home, such as noise, family activities and poor Internet. Therefore, it is necessary to give students a summary of knowledge. Summary outline of knowledge should be concise and organized. It is very necessary to guide students to study and encourage their interest in learning.

SOLUTION: Utilize checklists and summaries

INSIGHT #3: The pace online “feels” faster.

When we were meeting in person, things were paced out more. We really took the time to make sure that we learned everything and we understood everything. Now that we’re online, I feel like it just goes by a little faster. We’re trying to get so much material in, like homework and more assessments. And we’re not really understanding what we’re learning.

SOLUTION: Slow things down. Teach less topics more deeply.

INSIGHT #4: There isn’t a lot of coordination between teachers and departments.

Different teachers are using different programs. We have one teacher using Zoom, one teacher using Microsoft Teams, and other one wants to use Google Classroom.

Sometimes it can get very confusing. The college [should] decide which program to use instead of everyone using different ones. Even some teachers in the same departments use different ones. If they decided to all do the same one and learn together how to use it, then it would be easier for the teachers and also easier for the students.

SOLUTION: Get together with colleagues to plan. Involve the chair person.

INSIGHT #5: Attention spans online are even shorter than you think.

Professors should remember that people’s attention span is shorter when learning something on a screen rather than in person. Students seem less focused and less engaged online compared to when attending class in person. The absence of eye contact and the fact we are all in different locations make it easier for the mind to wander away from the course subject. 

Similarly, the fact that we are in our homes also gives rise to external distractions that also limit our attention. Most of us are in small New York apartments sharing a space with our families or others. There may be noise from children, noise coming from the kitchen, noise from the neighbors, or noise from the street. All these sounds make it easier for the eyes to drift off the screen.  

One thing that I wish professors better understood about teaching students online is “Zoom fatigue”. Some students take up to five classes and some might even take six. Staring at a screen all day can get extremely tiring especially because students don’t only stare at the screen during class time but also while doing assignments and studying. This might discourage students from studying or delaying the completion of an assignment. Students can choose to take a break every few minutes on their own time, but this becomes difficult to do when one is in class.

I think it would be very helpful if professors could attempt to fit in breaks. Students might also need that break because of the proximity of the screen showing the speaker or it might make them uncomfortable knowing that there might be up to 30 other individuals staring at them.

SOLUTION: Give more breaks!

INSIGHT #6: Students generally don’t like being forced to turn on their webcams (duh!).

Because of the background distractions, students may not feel comfortable letting others see their possibly messy and chaotic home, especially if the professor is recording. Household members may not want to be seen on camera or may not respect that the student is on camera. Those people in the house can create a distraction for even the class. Not everyone has a choice on where they can set up for class. There may be only one spot for Wi-Fi to work well or a place to put the laptop.

Students may need to use the bathroom during class time and the professor would call on them, but they would not respond or be seen on camera, so they would get a negative mark. Students who own pets may have to let their dog go outside and be forced to leave the camera for a minute but are reluctant to because of the professor’s strict policies. Additionally, some professors dislike when people eat or drink on camera, but the reality is that people may not have breaks or an ample amount of time between classes to make food or get food. Class times are very long, especially this semester for me, so I really appreciate the use of breaks during classes because it makes it easier to bring back the focus.

When going to class in person, you can freely get up after a point in the lecture to be able to use the bathroom and some professors may allow you to eat in class as long as you clean up after yourself. Going to school in person, we can get food or a snack during our break by purchasing it and eating it during the break. We do not have to cook the food or have at-home responsibilities to worry about. Going to school in-person removes some of the stress from being at home all day and relieves mental strain.

SOLUTION: Find other ways to check for understanding and build connection other than forcing students to turn on their webcam.

INSIGHT #7: Visuals matter even more in an online space.  

A lot of students as well as myself are visual learners, so looking at a computer screen and just seeing words doesn’t allow us to grasp what is being asked. Instead, use pictures while you teach—powerful bright colors to generate a more positive feeling. Use as many visual representations as needed because a lot is not too much.  It’s a very different experience to learn through a screen but it’s less difficult when you make the screen more home-y and vibrant.

SOLUTION: Use more visuals in your instruction. Less text.

INSIGHT #8: Students expect online instruction to differ from face-to-face.

An effective way to make remote learning more positive for students is to make enjoyable lesson plans, rather than the same lesson plans and formats that we’re used to on campus. No one wants to sit and look at a computer for hours just to listen to facts, data, and information.

It’s more effective to try and be more intriguing and allow us to apply the information we learn through remote learning activities or more creative aspects. This way the class doesn’t just feel like they’re logging in just to log in to every class.

SOLUTION: Ask yourself, How can you adapt your face-to-face instruction to work more effectively in the online space? Leverage the things that online does better than F2F (e.g., real time searches, multimedia & social media, etc.)

INSIGHT #9: Complaining about how teaching online is not as good as teaching face-to-face is unproductive.

I have had far too many classes where majority of the time the professor complains about remote learning and often compare how the class would have been if it were to be in person. Too often they do not realize that we also hear it from multiple professors throughout the day. As students we might be hearing the same comments at least five times each day, which at one point become exhausting.

Professors who make the best out of what they have create an enjoyable learning environment which will encourage students to look forward to attending class.  

SOLUTION: Be the model what you want to see in your class (i.e., be positive about your situation, even if it’s not ideal).

INSIGHT #10: Students feel less productive at home.

Our productivity is just not the way it used to be. I feel like a really big part of that has to do with the environment. Being in [a campus] environment alongside my peers allowed me to be way more motivated—way more productive than I am now. It was the fact that I was in a building full of other students doing the same thing as me—working with me, being in a classroom, people who had the same struggles as I did, asking them questions, seeing them do the same work—all of this affected my motivation and my productivity.

Ever since working at home, it’s really hard to stay focused on things. Like right now, I have my sister watching her show in the back and it’s really loud. And then I have my other siblings running around doing other things. I share a room with my other siblings and it’s just, it’s really hard to get into the zone and to focus on things. My ability to work on tasks is just not how it used to be, and it’s a lot more effort to get these things done.

I share a room with my sister who is also attending Zoom classes online. Oftentimes, our room is the quietest place in the house which means that only one of us can be in the room while the other one has to be in a different location where it may not be as quiet. This can sometimes make participating verbally a challenge. I have learned to really appreciate the chat box on Zoom since it still allows me to participate without verbally speaking and turning on my mic.

Additionally, there are many distractions that can make learning remotely difficult as well. Before my dog passed away earlier this year, it was challenging to sometimes pay attention because my dog was either barking, hungry, or needed to go outside. She would often whine as I sat at my desk. Since many of us also live with other people and family members, this makes it also challenging sometimes since we can easily become distracted if they decide to ask an innocent question during class time where we can lose focus and our concentration. Many times, I have had my mom come into the room as I attended class where she will ask me questions about a variety of things.

SOLUTION: Focus on teaching fewer things more deeply.

I hope these voices help you as it’s helped me in my future online planning. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Which student feedback resonated with you most? Post in the comments below.

** Note that these comments are a mix of video and written feedback, so in some cases, I’ve edited the sentences for conciseness and flow. I tried my best not to alter the meaning behind any quotes.

  • I really like #2, 5, snd 10 – which are all related to the amount of work and overwhelm students feel. We as professors need that reminder I think, and need to sometimes pause or slow down. Love the checklist idea and summary outline as well as teaching less (as hard as that is!). Thanks for this latest in the series. Always very helpful.

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