January 8, 2018 8:37 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 love and hate knowing what students think of me. Don’t you?

You should.

You should love it because it’s the best way to improve your teaching. The more you know how students think, the more you can customize your lectures.

You should hate it because…sometimes you don’t want to hear it.

My popular original post, Professors: I Just Wish You Would…, got instructors talking. Some thought students made valid points and others…not so much.

Here’s how it works: Every term, I ask my undergrads what one thing they wish all professors understood better. And they never disappoint. Some complaints will sound familiar (stop giving us so much work!), but maybe–just MAYBE–it’s because we keep ignoring them.

Welcome to the Spring 2018 edition. Enjoy.

One thing I wish all professors would understand is that when half of the semester comes rolling around we all need a mental break. 

Professors should be aware that we just need that one day off where we can use it to simply relax or catch up with work because as we all have mentioned some of us have multiple classes and work full time that rarely even have time for [ourselves].

As a student, I wished all my professors knew that their class is not the only class we are taking. 

We are taking many other classes in order to graduate on time. On top of that [some of us] are working full time to pay off college. Sometimes it’s hard of us to be up-to-date with all the readings and assignments. We students are human after all, not a machine. We shouldn’t be penalized for every little thing. For instance, lateness, missing homework, etc. Professors should understand this situation, as I believe they would have faced the same situation. It should be okay for a professor to cut students some slack once in a while.

One thing I wish all my professors (especially math professors) [knew] is that not everyone can do certain things as good as you. 

So stop assuming we are as smart as you are (in your top area) and teach us the way you think genius should be taught.

One thing I wish professors better understood is that one assignment or exam should not be more than 30% of your grade.

Not everyone is a good test taker and there is so much that could have been learned by a student but when taking the exam or assignment [their] mind could just go blank.

I honestly wish some teachers knew that students are less interested in the class when they don’t get to know us personally.

I feel if a teacher doesn’t know my name I am not going to be as engaged as I would be in a class oppose to a teacher that does know my name. If there’s not a name to the face of a student, then I know that the teacher is not interested in teaching us in a way that would help us and only teaching us in ways they want to. I feel they’re just slapping a grade to our names based on our papers but not our effort in participating only because they don’t know who we are.  And yes, people are going to say ‘Well, it’s your job to go up to the teacher and make yourself be known,’ but not everyone has the enthusiasm to do so.  Some people are shyer than others.

I would like that professors have a better understanding…that perfection is not everything in the academic field.  

That there is no space for perfection. It is better if they can understand that the effort that students put in is all it matters. As long [as] the students hand stuff in, I believe that grades should be base[d] on effort and not perfection.

I wish all professors understood that most, if not all, students have other responsibilities other than school.

Sometimes I feel like professors forget that students have jobs and families to tend to. We would never hand in late assignments intentionally. We know how much that would affect our grade…because we’ve been so backed up with everything else, it gets out of hand.

I wish that some professors knew that students can’t dedicate all their time and effort on school only or a specific class.

Although we as student are enrolled in the class we also have to dedicate time to work (financial stability), taking care of family business and even preparing for other classes at the same time. Some professors would actually come to class and state how many hours a week students should put in work for that class specifically.

I believe some professors understand the fact that we are all human beings with different responsibilities and aspirations.

To those professors I want them to know those due date extensions and time taken to explain assignments are appreciated and have saved many students from being overwhelmed. During this semester one of the concepts I remembered was that some people have ‘fixed mindsets,’ some have ‘growth [mindsets]’ and some have a little more of either. This is something I would like professors to know about their students and remember that not everyone learns the same and to have an open mind.

Another thing I would like to tell professors is, greet us with a smile.

When professors don’t smile or are mean, it doesn’t make feel comfortable to ask questions or even speak in class. When professors are nice I feel more motivated to attended class. If professors are mean, I tend to dread going to class. 


Personally, I like the comments about giving students a mental break and the last one about greeting students with a smile. So simple; yet incorporating these ideas can make a world of difference. Which ones grabbed you?

  • Very timely post! Part of me love how candid students are but part of me wonders if they are any more busy than we were back in the days. Will keep these in mind! Keep these coming.

    • I’m not sure if they’re busier but their attention is probably more splintered than we were. Social media and all.

  • Several things resonated with me. I’ve been both teacher and student and have felt frustrations on both sides. I’ve had courses where one paper counted for anywhere between 75 and 100% of the grade! Ridiculous! As a teacher, I set clear guidelines for assessment tasks. Effort is never one of them. Understanding concepts, demonstrating the ability to make connections, using resources effectively and creatively, integrating diverse opinions, in short using higher order thinking
    skills should be the focus when assessing student work. While I may admire how hard a student worked on a task, if the understanding of content or concepts is palpably
    missing there’s really little to assess unless I have included a specific rubric on effort (handed out well in advance of due dates) and I have no business putting a grade on it. How would I assess ‘effort ‘? The idea that life gets in the way of task completion has merit but needs judicious application. If student work is consistently late or incomplete, it’s time for a sit-down face-to-face to find out what’s going on. I am recovering from a serious
    illness and stuff I should have had done is not anywhere near done. But
    my profs and my committee all
    know I’m not slacking. Life is in the
    way. But I also know that in the real
    world I sincerely hope my car
    mechanic gets the work done on
    time, my lawyer did her prep and
    wrote her briefs carefully and
    accurately before the court date, and
    my surgeon knows every possible
    avenue and outcome before scalpel
    is laid to flesh. In the real world there are real deadlines which must be met or one does not keep one’s job. As a teacher, I give students extensions on individual grounds. And yes, sometimes I get suckered. But mostly not. As a student, I do not believe as did a fellow student in a previous class -a student who handed in not one assigned task, who consistently arrived late and did not participate when there, and who consistently and blatantly lied about it all – that the instructor of the class
    ought to be grateful that s/he even
    bothered to show up let alone do the
    reading, writing, and thinking the
    class expectations outlined. S/he
    had a busy life. S/he was trying but
    expectations were just too high. There was a student who perhaps (?) was unclear on the concept of what being a student entailed.

    • I do agree about not grading effort. I decided to put that comment up b/c it is the unvarnished way the student thinks. Keeps us at least in the loop about what expectations they have (no matter how unrealistic they are). Thanks for your thoughts, Carol. Always enjoy hearing from you!

  • Wow! This actually made me feel a lot better about my teaching. As a new professor, I imagine my students think I’m horrible and wish they had ANYBODY else!

  • Interesting comments! Professors don’t know their students’ names? For shame! Every teacher, no matter the level, should make an effort to at least know their students’ names.

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