At one point, while collaborating with an instructor on the design of his online course, I politely (foolishly!) suggested that we pare down the content of his audio lecture and offer some of it as a reading instead. “Nonsense!” he scoffed. “If you do that, the students will miss out on important information. No one does the reading.”

I understand this reaction. During my career as a high school English teacher, I found that students would discover all kinds of ways to avoid reading. While a handful would faithfully read each assigned book from cover to cover, most would instead find ways to artfully construct the illusion that they had. And though I designed clever reading checks with questions they could not possibly answer correctly without having read the text, I loathed asking them to recall inane details like: “What color was the kite that Hassan flew?”

Online adult learners, it turns out, are not so different from teenagers in this regard. If we can figure out how to get by in a course without needing to complete a reading, we certainly will.

But here’s the thing: avoiding the inclusion of readings in favor of offering content as videos, podcasts, or other media format will not solve that problem. Why? Because an assigned reading is no different from any other form of instructional content.

If a learner chooses, she can certainly hit pause and stop listening to your content – if she even hit play on your video or podcast in the first place. Likewise, a learner may never click on a link to an assigned reading or read through a PDF resource. An overly long video is just as likely to deter or disengage the learner as an intimidating, overly long PDF.

If mastering the content offered in a reading, video, or other resource is truly critical for the learner to meet the learning objectives, then the accompanying assignments must be designed in a way that requires a deliberate application or reference to the concepts addressed in that content.

Whether you are designing an assignment or debating whether to include a video, a reading, a podcast, or a discussion prompt, remember this: If there is not a clear and compelling reason why I should complete a task, I will not do it.

So beware of assigning readings that merely restate what is explained in the video lectures or have little to no bearing on one’s ability to complete an assessment.

As you design your assessments, consider this question: Would I be able to complete this assignment even without doing the reading, watching the videos, or discussing with my peers?

If the answer is “yes”, then you either need to revisit the design of the assignment or reconsider whether any of those content resources are really necessary.

Here are a few examples of ways to incorporate readings effectively into online courses:


This assignment from the Philanthropy University course on Global Social Entrepreneurship nudges learners to apply the concepts from the readings directly to their work:

Team Assignment: Determining the Right Structure
Identify an organization whose mission resonates with you. What is its current structure? Using both Esha Chhabra’s article as well as the Selecting the Best Structure section of Jim Fruchterman’s article from this week’s readings to guide you, draft a one-page document making an argument for and against the organization’s current structure. Include suggestions as to an alternative or additional structure and its benefits.

Discussion Prompts

Assignments are not the only way to push learners to use what they have learned from assigned readings. A well-designed discussion prompt can also provide learners with a compelling reason to do the reading, as well as offers them the chance to engage with their peers.

For example, this discussion prompt not only requires learners to apply their understanding of a reading to their workplace, but also nudges them to respond to their peers:

Discussion Prompt Example

Of course, there will always be learners who will contribute to a discussion even without having done the reading. But the quality of responses is noticeably higher for those who clearly articulate a connection to the reading. For example:

Discussion Contributions ExampleHere’s another example of a discussion prompt, from Stanford University’s course on The Active Citizen in a Digital Age.

Read the article by Caleb Crain, “The Case Against Democracy”. Do you agree with Brennan’s claim that those who “don’t bother to learn about politics [… ought to] stay home on Election Day?” Why or why not? Use the article to support your argument.

A quick skim through the responses on this discussion thread indicates that most learners took the time to read and understand one of the key points of the article, referencing arguments made elsewhere in the text beyond the claim from Brennan.

What about knowledge checks?

Finally, what about knowledge checks? Are those compelling reasons to complete a reading? That depends on the answer choices.

Most answer choices on multiple-choice knowledge checks are so simplistic or obvious that one can easily figure out the right answer about 80% of the time without needing to do the reading. While there is a slight chance that a wrong answer may prompt learners to consult the text to figure out why their guesses were off, most knowledge checks do not spur the learner to want to read.

Make sure your answer choice options are just challenging enough to send the message that reading is necessary to pass the checks.

7 Tips For Incorporating Readings Effectively into Online Courses

Here are additional tips to motivate learners to complete readings in your online course:

1. Appropriate the clickbait style of news outlets like Buzzfeed and make the title catchy:

  • Use “this” in the title: “This Is How Iranian Voters Managed To Game The Political System And Put Moderates In Power”
  • Frame the title as a question: “What new book should you read this summer?”

2. Give an interesting hook or brief summary of the reading to entice the learner.

  • For example: Read this article by Caleb Crain, “The Case Against Democracy”. Interesting to note, it was published just one day before the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016. It offers some controversial analysis of democracy and what alternatives (for better or for worse) exist.

3. Keep readings manageable (e.g., under 10 pages).

  • Remember that your learners may be reading on a mobile device which is less friendly to longer, small-print texts.

4. Provide an accurate estimated time to complete the reading.

  • Be wary of assigning readings that require more than 20 to 30 minutes to complete.
  • When calculating your estimates, be mindful of learners who are non-native speakers of the language of the text.

5. Embed an image of the reading that previews its contents.

  • This is primarily helpful if the reading itself contains appealing visuals.

6. Offer learners an external incentive.

  • For example, a signed copy of a book from the instructor.

7. Structure the course around an actual book.

  • One customer reported that participants enjoyed receiving a copy of the book in the mail and found it to be a helpful visual reminder of their participation in the online course.
If you are considering whether to assign readings in your online course or wondering: “Does anyone even read anymore?” remember that people will do the reading.
You just have to give them a reason to.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to read our Active Listening Tips article.