January 15, 2017 2:19 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.

Sorry, but college students couldn’t care less about your course.

It’s just one of many hoops they jump through to graduate and get a good job. While they care about doing well, more often than not your students feel powerless. They’re a captive audience.

That’s why you must sell what you’re teaching.

No, selling your course is not sleazy. In fact, psychologist Daniel H. Pink argues in his book, To Sell is Human, that teachers sell ideas every single day. Even more so in what entrepreneur James Altucher calls the idea economy.

Start by rethinking your course syllabus.

It is, after all, the first piece of communication your students read. Think of it like a sales brochure:

  • What problem does your customer have?
  • How can you address it?
  • What are the benefits (of your product/service)?
  • How can they learn more?

To help, think of the marketing acronym, AIDA, which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. To be effective, your syllabus needs to: 1) get students’ attention; 2) get them interested in reading further; 3) increase their desire to learn; and 4) get them to do something—in this case, to show up to class every day ready.

Let’s look at three ways to incorporate AIDA into your syllabus.

1. Rewrite your course description and objectives

The best books hook you in the first sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” In journalism, they say, Don’t bury the lead. Yet most syllabi start with dry course descriptions and objectives.

Students gloss right over them.

To change that, answer the question they want to know: Why is this course important? Here’s how I rewrote my course description for Child Development:

Did you know that telling a child he or she is “smart” is not such a good idea? That listening to adults talk is not necessarily the best way for young children to learn? That “failing” can actually be a good thing? This course helps you better understand the young learner and how to develop them into successful adults.

For a would-be teacher, this (shortened) course description intrigues by challenging their pre-existing notions of educating children. Yours might answer big picture questions, like How does your brain work? Or What is the nature of justice?

As for the course objectives, use easy-to-read, every day language (“You will be able to …”) rather than formal wording (“Students will be able to …”). Think: sales brochure, not contract.

2. Incorporate sidebars to address student concerns

Students scan your syllabus for clues. They’re asking themselves, Is this textbook expensive? What does a typical class session look like? How much work do I need to put in? What’s the deal with this professor? Will I be able to handle the work? How likely will I get an A?

I use sidebars—like the ones you see in magazines articles—to provide “inside” information. This includes a preview of a typical session, the best websites to get the textbook, tips for doing well in the course, and information about me. Actually, I provide a short bio/profile, like the ones you might find on social media. Why not incorporate formats they know?

3. Think about what makes your course unique

What separates Coke from Pepsi? Apple from PCs? That is your unique selling proposition, or what marketers refer to as your USP. Apple’s USP is ease of use. Domino’s Pizza guarantees delivery in under 30 minutes or else the pizza’s free.

What do you provide—or what can you provide—that increase students desire to learn? Remember AIDA. Maybe you have proprietary material—your own work (blog perhaps?). Maybe you use hands-on practice other course sections do not, or have a killer guest speaker. In my theory courses, I teach students how to present (something they all do but never learn to do well). Nobody ever shows them how. My syllabus highlights this.

In the end, the best marketers and salespeople aren’t trying to rip you off. They’re thinking, How can I provide value to my customers? In your case, you have ideas—content—students could benefit from. With the amount of distractions in their lives, however, they don’t always see it. The syllabus is a great place to show them.

Disclaimer: With some departments, you have little leeway with your syllabus. They require you to follow a standard template. However, I would still revamp my syllabus to be more student-centered while including the necessary language and/or elements. Show it to your department head. What do you have to lose?

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