January 27, 2019 12:24 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.

In order to teach you, I must know you.

This quote by a native Alaskan educator (1) reminds me what good teaching is about. It’s why I ask students at the beginning of every term, What ONE thing do you wish all professors knew about what students go through?

And it’s not about giving students an opportunity to vent. Nor is it to show how “spoiled” this generation of students are. Because they’re not.

This semi-annual series, which I call “What Students Wish You Knew,” started in Fall 2017 and aims to remind us all who we’re accountable to. That good teaching starts by thinking about students’ perspectives and experiences in (and out of) the classroom. And sharing it with you allows me to spread the word. I’ve had professors all over the country telling me they now start the semester asking students this very same question. And the responses they get really give them pause. To reflect and remember who they teach.

Without further ado, here is a curated list of what my students last term wished their professors knew, sorted by topic. Note that each student’s first sentence is bolded, followed by a paragraph that further details his/her thoughts.

Mental Health

I wish I could tell professors that every semester basically, everyone I know and myself has anxiety and battles with sadness.

Most of the time, in my case I try to ignore them and push past the anxiety. I know the phrase “students have lives outside of the classroom” is common but it’s not just about being busy. It’s about a personal struggle that comes every semester while the teachers have assignments lining up back to back. I guess my suggestion would be just to keep in mind that students can also struggle with mental health. I don’t say it as an excuse. I know how difficult it is to have motivation to even get out of bed, so imagine being able to do multiple assignments for different classes. I think as a teacher, I would incorporate free time [based on research we read in class about how important incorporating breaks are to the learning process], and acknowledge that everyone has a cognitive load that can be overloaded when there’s too much information that needs to be crammed in at once.

If there is something I could tell my professor I would tell them how important one’s mental health is.

That all students have a life beyond the campus and classes beyond their class. Sometimes things do come up and I find it frequently that professors expect us to still continue and move forward no matter the situation. Some sickness can’t be seen just by looking at someone either physical or mental. I urge professors to take into consideration that if someone explains their situations to them; please be understanding and take part by helping. Also, not to expect the teaching experience to be same among all students. Everyone’s situation is different, and it is important to give everyone a chance to learn, achieve, and become successful.

I personally went through the worst first year of college simply because my teachers didn’t understand what was going on in my life.

My dad had passed away during finals week and I had no interest in doing anything. I needed time to think but had none, because I was focused on finishing 5 finals. I spoke to one of my professors [who] simply told me, “I’m sorry but it’s your responsibility.” As if, if they were in the same position they would say that in response to themselves. I also had professors that gave me extensions and for that I simply was thankful because how could I even think? I just wish professors were to get into someone else’s shoes sometimes.

I also shared a similar experience to this; I lost my dad before starting college. 

I remember how hard it was to continue doing all of my assignments and trying to keep everything together while dealing with his loss. I did not have time to heal and had to return to class right after. This is something I should have also mentioned, that stress can be overwhelming as it is esp. in college; add personal lives on top of it and it’s not easy. Sometimes you don’t really know what someone else is experiencing, and it’s important to be conscious of how you word things.

Teaching: Passion & Engagement

If I could tell professors one thing I would remind them that ensuring their class is interesting and engaging makes the material much easier for students to master.

Over the course of the years, I’ve noticed that while professors may be passionate about the subject he/she is teaching, their failure to connect said subject with their students creates a huge disconnect. Rambling on and on about what may seem like a fascinat[ing] theory to you may not be enough to keep your students engaged and attentive. Whether or not it’s our favorite subject, [we] students enjoy and benefit when an educator is able convey a lesson in a way that is relatable and engaging. Lessons such as these create a warmer environment for everyone involved. Students are suddenly sharing personal stores that may relate to the topic. There’s a level of comfort where questions can be asked without the eerie [sic] pressure, and time is magically flying by! Not only is the material easier to understand, but instead of students avoiding your class at all costs (trust me if you’re boring and lenient when it comes to attendance, you’ll notice most students only show up when it’s time to take a test) we may actually look forward to it. That being said, I think it is important [to] pay attention to the blank stares, bored looks, wandering eyes, and those who may have even dozed off and see where you can shake the table.

One thing I’d like to tell professors is their disposition towards the course will be reflected by the students.

Engagement and the way a professor presents themselves will impact how seriously and how much students will learn. If you’re someone who just goes by the course schedule and doesn’t really enjoy the subject you teach, it will be obvious. The best teachers I’ve had have been able to relate concepts with stories, set a tone that draws attention and engage with students in a way where they do not feel intimidated if they get the wrong answer. There is a vital importance in being able to connect with your students and gain their respect on a professional level.

One thing I would like to tell professors is . . . to be passionate about the subject he or she is teaching because most of the time the students won’t be interested in learning.

Professors should get students more involved by engaging with the class and making them want to learn more rather than reading off the slides, showing no interest or connections in what their saying because it doesn’t make sense to attend class when he/she is reading straight off from the slides whereas we can simply do that at home. Another thing would be to make sure what they teach in lectures [is] related to the exams. I get that we are in college and professors like to put “tricky” questions to test us. The exams should be based on what we have learned and to prove that we do get what your lectures [are] about.

The classes I did the best in were classes where the professor was engaging, enthusiastic, and passionate about the subject they taught.

When a professor teaches a class in a monotone [manner] or apathetically it disengages students and makes it so much easier for students to not pay attention or dread having to listen to someone who is obviously not enjoying what they do. Professors need to understand that the energy they bring to the classroom has a huge impact on how engaged and interactive students will become and can make the difference between whether they pass the class or not. Of course, at the of the day students are responsible for completing assignments on time and showing up . . . but when a professor is ready to teach with enthusiasm and passion, I believe students are much more likely to succeed in their classes.

It will [be] great for professors to include various teaching strategies that cater to different types of learning.

I have found personally that those professors that include more visuals to their lectures I have been able to learn the course material better. These professors have included documentary clips, implemented real-life scenarios in their teaching as well as other forms of visuals. In those classes, professors have been able to make the course material interesting, meaningful and enjoyable for their students. As a student, I was able to remember the topics taught for a longer period of time rather than just for that semester. It will be helpful if they use different learning … strategies during their lectures.

Accessibility/Classroom environment

One thing I would like to tell professors is to understand it is difficult to adjust to learning something new in a semester along with other courses as well.

I had [a] Calculus professor who expected students to learn a concept or a new formula in one class, which is only an hour long. He would also get upset when questions were asked about the problem. This made it hard to approach him for office hours or just to ask a question in class. Professors already have the knowledge of a specific course for many years. They cannot expect students to learn it in one seating. Professors should take their time to explain problems and be able to answer questions. Or at least make the time to review . . . difficult concepts so students can learn them efficiently.  

One thing I wish professors knew is that they should always be caring and supportive regardless of how much a student struggles with the course material.

Unfortunately, I have come along the way [sic] with a few professors that have discouraged students because they are unable to follow up with the curriculum at the same level as other students. Last semester, one of my friends was concerned about her grades and overall academic progression in the class. She therefore spoke to the professor and asked for help. However, instead of receiving guidance and encouragement, she received an “it’s going to be impossible for you to pass the course, you are[n’t] going to make it.”

In my opinion, I believe that it is important for professors to establish the fundamentals of how to promote positive reinforcement and cultivate student engagement when teaching. Students may view the cost of studying as too high due to the time consumption and effort that most assignments and class work requires. It is essential for professors to create learning environments in which they not only impart knowledge to students but also establish a trusting and caring relationship with them. Also, the course curriculum should be designed to convey genuine interest in students and to address their motivation. We should consider that professors can be a deciding factor for college majors and if a student had an unpleasant experience with him/her it may alter their future goals and plans. Overall, one of the worst things professors can do is to degrade their students. 

[Author’s note: What this student wrote echoes the sentiments by Daniel Chambliss, sociology professor and co-author of How College Works – that students often equate the discipline with the instructor: “If the physics professor is cool, then physics is cool.” If the professor is dull, the student will think the same of the discipline. If the professor is so dull that the student never takes another physics course, well, that impression could hold for the rest of her life. (2)]

Dear professors, please have some way that we can contact you and that you will answer.

I have often had professors that tell us their email but when I write them with a question, it takes them forever to respond. Personally, I love to talk over assignments especially long-term ones to ask questions and learn as much as I can from you. However, if I cannot contact you, it is often frustrating. Yes, you all have office hours but because I fill my semester with an average of six classes, I often am not free during your office hours even though I would love to talk over an assignment. So if at all possible, to make yourself and your advice available other than office hours, be it on any platform, I would certainly make use of it. That said, I understand your entire life is not just to be there for your students so thank you for all you do already for us.

To all professors: your job is to reach us. 

Whether this be on a practical, emotional, or intellectual level, part of what you do or say in your classes should resonate with your students. In order to do this, you should probably be open to questions and comments and be prepared to meet the student at their unique level or lens of understanding. Too many of you are dismissive of our questions and concerns and, surprisingly, many of the professors I’ve encountered have been belittling and condescending in their interactions with students while simultaneously shirking the responsibility of actually answering our questions. When I ask that you be able to reach us as your students, I also mean this literally. You should be there to answer our questions, if not during office hours, then through email. If you expect us to be able to answer your questions in a thorough and timely manner, then we have every right to ask that you do the same. Have the same energy of responsibility and commitment to your students that you expect us to have to your courses.

[Author’s note: This is provocative. Maybe you want to say something back. That most professors aren’t the way this student describes. Fair enough. At the same time, I doubt he/she’s making this up…]

It’s not all complaints though…

One thing I would like to tell professors is thank you for all the hard work they go through to ensure us as students that we will get a good education and the best out of their class.

Some Professors may come off as rude or not caring but Professors in general try to fill knowledge to those who are willing to accept the knowledge. As an education major, I appreciate all of my Professors and teachers of the past. 

Sometimes we don’t click right away or make any type of connections with someone in the classroom. 

We might encounter an unpleasant meeting or the opposite of the best one. We all make mistakes and not always we will be the perfect student or professor, but one thing I would like is to thank you! because I learned, and I will keep learning from different points of view. Every professor has his/her own “thing” that I am sure we as students will use as a reference for the future… Also, my experience in college has been great so far that it pushes me to continue for my bachelors [degree]. So please try to enjoy your work, so we can enjoy ours as students.

Thinking of one specific thing I would like to tell my professors is something I found a bit challenging because at the moment I found myself at a loss of words.

After hours on my computer gathering my thoughts together all I want to say is thank you. Thank you for all that you do, for being helpful and giving me that final push when I fear things may be impossible, for giving me the tools to put my best foot forward, and the patience you have with us students. I know we students are not easy to deal with at times with all our excuses, tardiness and such so thank you for everything.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome!

(1) As cited by educator Lisa Delpit in her book, Other People’s Children

(2) https://www.chronicle.com/article/It-Matters-a-Lot-Who-Teaches/243125

  • Excellent “Best Practice” especially for new teachers /professors. I retired from the Oil Industry and got a “lifetime opportunity” for me, to share my experience with Engineering Students at the university level. At the beginning of each of the last three semesters, I asked my students to share with me the answer to this very question: “My mission is to teach, your mission is to learn. What should I know about you that you think will help you learn better and deeper, and helps me teach you better?” I am hoping the students tell me about any constraints that may impede their learning, full-time job, for example, home front demands, low GPA they want to improve, a scholarship to protect, fears and anxieties that I may be able to help them resolve or alleviate…. and I got what I expected. Not all students, however, responded to my question /request; about 20% chose not to.

    • Jamal, I also make my questions optional and 20% sounds about right! Whatever question we ask is almost irrelevant. It’s about engaging them genuinely. Thanks for your comment.

  • Perfect timing for this. I think it’s easy to dismiss students’ comments as whiny or entitled. But it’s much harder to take them, internalize them and learn from them. Thanks for putting out this series to remind us each semester that every student’s voice matters!

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