October 9, 2019 9:49 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.

It’s just past mid-semester. How’s your teaching going so far—are students engaged and learning?

Here are some imperfect and wholly informal indicators. But indicators nonetheless.

Students are participating.

The most obvious sign is when students raise their hands. But we know the same handful of students are always participating, which distorts our perception of engagement and learning. Educator Jennifer Gonzalez calls it the Fisheye Syndrome, where certain visible students appear “larger” than others.

It’s more telling if there are NO (or very few) hands raised. This suggests issues with engagement and the learning environment. Have you made the classroom a “safe” space to talk? Have you made accommodations for shy or introverted students? Students won’t talk if you cut them down (or cut them off), make sarcastic remarks (you may not even realize it!), or make them feel stupid in any way.

Basically, teachers who go out of their way to encourage participation will engage more students. If you haven’t made a point to do this, then you’re leaving it up to the whims and dynamic of your particular group.

Students’ work is promising.

Are students “kinda” getting the assignment? At this point in the semester, we’ve all been grading assignments, whether it’s text responses, article analyses, or problem sets. If students collectively demonstrate a decent grasp (as in B grade), then that’s positive. Basically, anything that isn’t a “wow-this-is-bad” reaction while grading can be considered positive. And I’m not talking about students’ bad writing. (That, apparently, is a pervasive problem beyond the scope of this article.) 

Aside from raising hands and students’ work, experience tells me that there are other subtler signs that indicate engagement and learning. Usually, it’s when students go out of their way (i.e., above and beyond what’s required) to show they’re engaged with your class. Even a few students can be telling! Here are some specific indicators:

A non-regular participant actually participates without your prompting. 

It could be a shy or introverted student or simply someone who sees little reason to raise his/her hand. By default, the quieter folks won’t participate (or email you) unless it’s important (e.g., they can’t come next class or they have a question about the assignment). So when they do, it’s because they’re compelled to talk. Hopefully, it’s because they’re engaged.

I had a student last semester who simply felt more comfortable emailing me than talking in class. But midway through the semester, she started to raise her hand—every once in a while (about once out of every 3 classes). Speaking up is less likely in larger classes, however. But if you get that kind of message from one, two, or three, that’s big. You’re doing something right.

Students are posting more than the minimum for online discussion boards.

Yes, most times, students will post the minimum. The required number of comments. But do they respond to others without your prompting? Do they share additional information, say, from an article they read on their own? Or answer questions others pose? Note: if students don’t go above and beyond, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t engaged. However, the presence of “above-and-beyond” posts might indicate above average interest (in a particular topic or the class in general).

There is at least 90 percent attendance every class.

This is a tricky one. A lot depends on your attendance policy. A hands-off, laissez-faire approach will likely mean lower attendance rate on average. Much as with discussion boards, I’m referring less to the absence of students and more to their presence. Two or three absent students in a roster of 20 to 25 is not unusual. But if you notice that every class 90 plus percent of students are just there, it might show they care. Then again, it may be due to a stricter attendance policy. Just remember, it’s about patterns of behavior, not one particular thing. Attendance is simply one indicator. 

You hear good things about your course.

Typically, students may tell you stuff or you hear indirectly from colleagues and/or other students. Some examples: 

  • “Professor, do you also teach [course XYZ]?”
  • Students tell you what other professors do that annoy them.
  • More than normal amount of students visit you during office hours (without prompting)
  • Your department colleagues tell you they hear good things about you from students

Again, this is just another indicator. The lack of them doesn’t necessarily mean anything; but if they exist, that’s something. 

Students stay after class.

This is related to the previous. Do students stop after class (or email you) to:

  • Express their appreciation for this topic/class? 
  • Add something they didn’t get a chance to articulate during class?
  • Ask follow-up questions?

This suggests they care. Of course, this may just be the “A” students, but even top students will clam up if they feel the teacher is inaccessible. Particularly telling is if “average” students come after to talk. 

However, this is different from students who stay after because they are confused; especially if it happens regularly or if several students are asking. You may need to clarify the content. 

You’re not experiencing “pushback.”

Pushback is anything that students have an issue with. Say you want students to work in groups. Or present on a topic. Do they complain? I don’t mean isolated complaints. I’m talking more about a pattern of complaining. Typically, there’s something behind the complaints, the pushback. That you either haven’t addressed an important need or that you’re being seen as unfair in some way. Or that the course is not meeting their needs. 

Once, my students complained to me about a course taught by another professor. They wanted better preparation for the departmental math proficiency test (which they needed to pass in order to become a K-12 teacher), but he was ignoring their needs. Apparently, he (and the department) felt it was the students’ responsibility to pass this test. While that might be true, this test was given as part of the course, so students justifiably assumed they would receive some support. Are there subtle or explicit ways students demonstrated some pushback in your course? If so, it can interfere with trust, engagement, and learning. 

If students are going out of their way to “push back,” pay attention. They may be subtle. You might feel they are ganging up on you or communicating what seems like minor (oral or written) comments. 

Have you experienced any of these indicators mentioned above? 

If so, these are signs of engagement, if not learning. That’s good. But what happens if you don’t experience them? Does it mean you’re not effective? Not necessarily. As I mentioned, the absence of these experiences is less important than the clear presence of them. The reason is because there are so many other factors involved, including the instructor’s personality, the classroom environment, and students themselves. So going out of their way to stay after class and talk, write an email of praise, or add an extra post on the discussion board is more indicative of engagement and learning. Do any of these experiences sound outside the realm of reality? They’re not.

By the way, you might have noticed I didn’t bring up tests as indicators of engagement and learning. They don’t really tell you much, since they often illustrate Campbell’s Law at work: anytime you grade people and make it high stakes (as you would in a test), you end up undermining the very thing you’re trying to measure. In this case, student learning. Students cram and often forget content afterwards. 

The only time tests might indicate something is when a lot of students do poorly. Then there’s usually some underlying resentment, discontent, or apathy. You just may not sense it. When I first taught an education foundations class in 2013, I lectured straight from the textbook with PowerPoint slides. The publisher’s test bank—multiple choice and short answer questions—comprised the midterm. And students failed for the most part. But they never overtly expressed any problems—at least until I asked them point-blank. Too much boring content, apparently, that didn’t relate to them. And it didn’t matter that they seemed to like me. But they never went above and beyond. 

That’s the bottom line. Do you students ever go out of their way? Beyond the typical behaviors like the ones listed above? I’d love to hear about them.

Not sure where you stand? Then give students a mid-semester course feedback form. No names. Nothing will be as enlightenment (and as painful) as asking them directly. You’ll know very quickly where you stand. Here’s my feedback form below—feel free to download, modify, and use. 

Mid-Semester Survey TEMPLATE

Download Word template Here: Mid-Semester Survey TEMPLATE

  • Interesting article. However, it seem to portray a utopian view of education. The reality is a lot different. Every measurement I have seen, in our school district, clearly shows that student engagement and academic attainment is plummeting downwards. This is particularly baffling, given that the district has increased spending on school facilities, resources and teacher training. Even where we have implemented many of the suggestions and strategies mentioned in the article, nothing seems to work. More experienced colleagues tell me it seems to get worse every year. Not a very positive outlook for the future!

    • I hear you Dorian. Truthfully it’s a larger societal issue, if not also socio-economic. There are also lots of districts and colleges (at least pockets of them) that have shown promise. Spending can help if it’s leveraged properly. I for one believe that much has to do with improving factors outside of school–outside of school facilities, resources and training. There’s only so much that teachers can do–as much as they can influence–which appears to be a small amount compared with tousled factors. Agreed, not positive. But I’d love to hear solutions that address outside factors, which I think will help students engage and learn more in school.

  • I wonder if it’s possible that even with high percentages of students in attendance that there’s minimal engagement? Especially with strict requirements. How do we balance attendance policies with engaging students?

    • I’ve spoken with professors who try to treat college students as adults and allow them to make decisions about attendance. In most cases I tend to disagree, as students will typically think short term, urgent issues over long term benefits of learning. That’s why I make it the goal to just get students interested in your discipline at the undergraduate level. “Rigor” and content is useless is students don’t care.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}