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A lot of professors assign readings as follows: students read a piece of text, respond to it in some way, and 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 (Deale & Lee, 2022; Hoeft, 2012).
Maybe it’s time we stop assigning readings. Perhaps we should instead start assigning tasks.
Suppose 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 three different industries or jobs. Explain why you think they 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.
Notice how the readings here 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.”
One option would be to assign chapter 35 and hope students read and digest all the terms covered. A better option would be to focus on one particular area—the structure of leaves and their functions—and turn it into a task or assignment:
Collect three to five different kinds of leaves (yes, actual leaves!) and analyze them. Tape them onto a piece of paper and label as many visible parts as you can. The more you’re able to do, the better. Chapter 35 will help you do this. Come prepared 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 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 to do so.
Intentional reading also changes the way we read, turning each of 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” (Durik et al., 2017). With my parenting books, I have selectively skipped paragraphs, sections, and even whole chapters that aren’t relevant to me. Why wouldn’t I expect students to be just as discerning?
A task-based approach can work even for literature classes or other courses in which students read fiction. Compare two ways to approach Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man:
Read chapter one and come prepared to discuss the roles that the narrator is forced to play during his class speech.
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 one.
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 resources to help them get there. These 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, including an example for each:
Step one: Decide the task and the reading. Ideally, you want to make sure the reading is essential to doing well in the task.
Task: This week, I want my education students to be able to teach adding and subtracting with math manipulatives.
Reading: They will read chapter nine, “Estimation and Computational Procedures for Whole Numbers.”
Step two: Frame the assignment in terms of the task only. Ignore the readings in this step; they will be incorporated in step three.
Your goal this week is to figure out the best way to teach addition and subtraction using base-10 blocks.
Step three: Add the readings as a recommendation (to help students do their task).
Use the strategies from chapter nine to decide which works best for you and write a two-paragraph plan.
Step four: Tell students how the information will be used—and how they will be held accountable.
Next week in class, you will share your plan and decide which ideas work best!
Here is a fleshed-out assignment that students might see, packaged around a hypothetical scenario:
Julissa is 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” and “numbers getting bigger.” 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-10 blocks. Consider the strategies from chapter 9 and decide which resonates most with you—and which you think would actually help Julissa.
Write a two-paragraph plan justifying your instructional choice. Next week in class, you will share your plan and come to a group consensus.
Notice how I embed the reading without explicitly assigning it. Yet 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 or that students have to post their responses on the online discussion board.
As you can imagine, it’s not always necessary (or appropriate) to use a task-based approach. Some readings, such as those related to getting a job interview, are inherently purposeful or motivating for students. Readings in content-heavy courses like math and engineering may require students to know every detail; as such, a task-based approach wouldn’t be appropriate. It all 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 need 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 help students see reading as useful rather than as simply something they must do.
Deale, C. S., & Lee, S. H. (2022). To read or not to read? Exploring the reading habits of hospitality management students. Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Education, 34(1), 45–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/10963758.2020.1868317
Durik, A. M., Britt, M. A., & Rouet, J. (2017). Literacy beyond text comprehension: A theory of purposeful reading. Taylor & Francis.
Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don’t read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(2). https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2012.060212
Norman Eng, EdD, is an education lecturer at Brooklyn College and the founder of EDUCATIONxDESIGN Inc., which provides professional development training for faculty through workshops, online courses, and books. See details at NormanEng.org.