February 6, 2020 7:30 pm

Female Student Thinking
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.

What is the ONE thing students wish professors would better understand? Aside from the obvious—that students have busy lives outside of school, that they take four other classes aside from yours—there are always new and insightful comments that give me pause.

For this edition I’ve focused on the small details that are easy to overlook. (For examples of previous blogs on this topic, see here and here.) Enjoy.

“I don’t mind spending money buying the course text. I don’t mind doing a 15+ page reading.

It’s only when there is no acknowledgement about the reading and/or follow up discussions the next class do I feel like I have wasted my time doing something. While it’s true that the reading is ultimately to benefit me and expand my knowledge and understanding, my understanding of the material can only be further developed through guided discussion and deeper thinking.”

“When a professor does not follow the syllabus, it creates extra stress for us because . . .  

. . . we were expecting one thing and got another. This is especially for classes that have a departmental final at the end of the course, or ones that we feel are important and we need to get things done. When a grade for an assignment is promised at the end of the week, and it is not given, that also causes anxiety. We would rather a professor not promise something than break that promise by having us expect something and not get it.”

“In classes where we want to learn, it especially bothers us if the professor goes off on a tangent and doesn’t circle back to the topic at hand.

We would love to hear about a professor’s life and experience as it relates to the course-load, and if they do veer off subject, it is important that we get back to what we are learning—otherwise the class feels like a waste of time and money. In closing, stay organized, stick to the syllabus when you can, don’t make promises you can’t keep, and don’t go off on a tangent too much.”

“I HATE doing group assignments outside of class.

Yes, I am a very social person; however, meeting up with strangers in a college course is the most difficult thing EVER. Everyone in college has their own schedules and collaborating and being on the same page can often be difficult. For example, one of my professors assigned a group presentation and none of my members responded to me until the day before! If I were to be doing it on my own the presentation would have been done on my time much earlier. It is unfair to add the stress of a group project to the natural stress of going to college to begin with.”

[Author’s note: Yes, we all know why we assign group projects; at the same time, this comment tells me we need to organize and consider the user experience of group projects more carefully!]

“The biggest issue I noticed [with professors] was passion pushing.

I watched student after student get metaphorically beat for not reflecting the same excitement for a subject as a professor. This is not an excuse for not doing work or skipping class, but this is something to be aware of as you’re teaching an intro course to a class. This also applies to majors that don’t specifically lead you to one type of career, such as business or psychology. I watched professors shame students for their specific interest in the field and students drop their ideas to become uniform to the curriculum. Students aren’t in college to become their professors. Any good teacher or professor should be looking to raise students that exceed the accomplishments they’ve achieved in their lifetime.”

“Some professors assign weekly assignments, such as a short response, 1-2 page reflection on readings or the class materials or they may assign longer paper. 

However, they either don’t give you back the paper or they give it back to you with only grade on it. And when you go up to them for questions about the grade, they can’t recall yours. Therefore, I wish professors read whatever we turn in and give some comment on our work to let us know what we do well and what we need to improve.”

“Sometimes a low grade on the exam does not mean the student is not paying attention (or not trying hard enough).

The topic may simply not be sticking to the student. For example, I took biology during my second semester, I tried and studied, and it barely got me through the class (I passed with a C). That class was a 4-credit course; consequently, it dropped my GPA. I am not saying professors should be handing out free A’s, however, they should always give students room for improvement. Whether it be through extra credit, test corrections, or going to tutoring. Allow the students who fell behind to catch up.”

“The same way [professors] expect students to give their assignments in a timely fashion we expect them to grade them as well.

There are times where students give in assignments and the semester ends, and they never receive any feedback. [As a result], when students receive their grades they do not understand why they got that specific grade. It’s unfair to make students work so hard on assignments and to receive no feedback. If one does not receive any feedback, how will one learn and expand their knowledge? Additionally, how will one fix their mistakes if they do not know where they went wrong?”

“One thing I wish professors knew is how important a break is.

During longer classes I’ve often heard professors ask if the students want to push through or take a break. In most cases the class replies they want to push through. I’ve been in that crowd because the idea of getting out sooner felt like more of a relief in that moment. I’ve noticed how taking that route decreases my ability to engage and retain what’s happening in class. Not only have I already set my sights on leaving, rather than being present and learning, but my mind so desperately needs a break that I mentally begin to check out. These breaks are important not just for more efficient mental functioning, but also for bathroom breaks. Sometimes we don’t want to step out because of the possibility of missing something important. I wish professors valued and used the break as it would also show students that even professionals deem it a smart and healthy part of being a hard worker.”

[Author’s note: This student is absolutely right. Despite the fact that we ALL want to leave sooner, the research confirms that breaks are incredibly important. Read more here].

“One thing I wish professors understood is that having the PowerPoint presentations available [after the lecture] can benefit students.

It is very hard to listen to a professor, write down any information from the board, and at the same time absorb all that information. All students are worried about is getting a bunch of words into their notebooks.

Personally, I just write down what’s on the board as fast as I can without taking a second to understand what I am writing. Having the presentations available allows students to closely pay attention to the professor and only write down additional information.

However, I do understand that some professors are afraid students will not come to class, but this can be solved. Professors can have each of the presentations available to the students [immediately] after the lecture is done. Students will still need to come to class to get any information, not presented on the slides, while knowing they don’t have to write every single thing down. One of my previous professors did this for my class and I’m truly grateful for it. I was able to fully immerse myself in the lecture and then come home to review what was covered.

I think everyone can agree with this, when it comes to experience, how hard it is to write down notes while the professor is teaching at the same time. Especially since most people aren’t good at multi-tasking. Then afterwards looking at your notes and not really understanding what you’ve written down can be infuriating . . . I think having professors uploading slides can really benefit everyone. If the students aren’t able to come to class, [then] they’re able to be caught up with the slide uploads. As well as if the students aren’t good at multitasking, they’re able to pay attention to the professor and not have to worry about writing down everything on the slide and worrying, which also another thing they have to deal with on top of everything.

[Author’s note: Clearly, students are anxious about missing important information on the slides, so they copy everything down, especially if they don’t think professors will allow access afterward. Maybe the point isn’t to give students these slides, but to present information in a way where they aren’t furiously scribbling. An outline to fill in, perhaps? My book, Presenting: The Professor’s Guide to Powerful Communication, provides some ideas.]

What do you think? Any thoughts you can add will greatly help our readers!

  • Another really helpful post! Love this series. It gets me to reflect and rethink about the best approaches to teaching. The one that caught my eye was “passion pushing.” never really thought that was an issue but seeing it from students’ perspective was eye-opening and nice to know. Keep these up!

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