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Designing Effective Assignments

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Why is it Important?

By choosing your learning outcomes and corresponding major assignments first, you are identifying essential content and attainable expectations for what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course. This assignment-driven course, then, will likely look very different from a coverage-centered one in which topics are listed and scheduled. Instead, course content and practice activities are chosen to prepare students to successfully complete those assignments which measure essential knowledge, skills or attitudes (KSA). Of course, assignment-driven learning experiences depend on the assignments being effectively structured and timed. 

How Do I Get Started?

Best Assignments:

  • Effectively measure at least one learning outcome in the course.
  • Are designed at an appropriate level of challenge with adequate preparation (practice with parts of it in and out of class) and support (online resources and samples, in class feedback prior to grading, etc.) provided.
  • Are as authentic as possible, i.e., similar to real problems/situations that professionals in your field face; expect students to use authentic tools, processes or skills to invent potential solutions.
  • Require judgement; rely on provided resources; afford opportunities for peer/self-assessments with time to revise/redo; include a mix of convergent (correct answers, use of concepts, etc.) and divergent (innovative, problem-solving, critical thinking, unique) tasks, require a mix of individual and team work if task is often done in groups in authentic settings)
  • Are structured in ways that reduce plagiarism and procrastination.
  • Include peer review and self-assessment opportunities (prior to submission) based on characteristics of excellent work.
  • Offer a variety of ways to practice and learn, not just exams, essays and research papers.
  • Are significant enough to promote targeted, deep learning, without being longer or more robust than needed to fit the learning outcome (more frequent, focused assignments with targeted feedback can contribute more to learning than fewer, larger/longer, more time-consuming assignments)
  • Provide detailed prompts and descriptions of the assignment, which communicates to the students the purpose (why?), procedures (how and when?) and standards (what?) for the expected product.

Communications to Students

When developing the communications about each assignment for the students, include the AMPS: (Walvrood, Effective Grading)

  • A = who is the audience for the "project?"
  • M = what is the main point and purpose of the assignment?
  • P = What patterns and procedures are required?
  • S = What are the standards and criteria that will be used to evaluate the "project?"

What Are Some Examples?

Authentic assignment examples

(Adapted from Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences and others)

•Team projects that simulate ones carried out in real-world settings
•Product development tied to professional settings
•Writing of many types required in related fields
•Case study analyses on real-world problems
•Clinical evaluations
•Science lab reports
•Proposals for new initiatives based on trends or data, written to real or hypothetical groups (e.g., city council, non-profit foundation, etc.)
•Presentations to simulated or real-world target audiences

Other unique assignment examples

(Suskie, Assessing Student Learning; Walvrood, Effective Grading; Nilson, Teaching at Its Best)

  • Abstract or executive summary
  • Advertisement
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Brochure or pamphlet
  • Case study analysis
  • Field notes/observations
  • Infographic or other visual aid, such as a diagram, chart, mind map
  • Handbook or instructional manual
  • Journal or log of practicum experience
  • Letter to an editor
  • Dramatization (skit, script, simulation, role-play)
  • Reflection on what and how one has learned
  • Review and critique of performance, exhibit, work of art, poem, one's own work
  • Analysis of survey results
  • Budget with rationale
  • Imaginary dialogue between real or historical characters
  • Lesson design for a specific audience
  • Project management plan
  • Analysis of situations familiar to the student in which a concept is applied
  • Work of art
  • Performance of hands-on skill, such as career and technical skills tied to training, motor skills such as in sport, clinical skills for health workers
  • Free writes in response to prompts in class
  • Technology-supported written projects such as blog posts, wiki constructions, web page resources 
  • Technology-supported speech projects such as podcasts, video clips, or online narrated tutorials

What Are Additional Resources?

In Sauk Library

Nilson, L. (2010). Teaching at its best (3rd ed.; especially Chap 17)

Nilson, L. (2015) Specifications grading. Sterling, VA: Stylus Pub.

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd ed.; especially Chp 10). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walvrood, B. & V. Anderson (2010). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Writing Assignments

These could be standard research papers (any length), essays, or reflection papers, or they could be technology-supported writing products such as a series of blog posts, wiki constructions, or web page resources. In addition, there are many shorter, engaging writing-to-learn assignments, such as some listed in the examples section above. If quality of the writing is to be included in the evaluation criteria of the assignment, these resources can provide useful guidelines for these types of assignments:

Cornell University's Center for Teaching Excellence: Writing Assignments 

Faculty Focus: Keys to Designing Effective Writing and Research Assignments

University of Maryland University College: Effective Writing Center: Writing Assignments

Speaking Assignments 

These could be standard individual speeches/presentations, group presentations, interviews, or debates, or technology-supported speaking products such as Camtasia or Jing-narrated tutorials, YouTube video clips, podcasts, etc. If the quality of the speaking is to be included in the evaluation criteria of the assignment, these resources can provide useful guidelines for these types of assignments:

University of Southern Mississippi: Speaking Center: Designing Your Speech Assignment

Critical Thinking or Problem-solving Assignments

These assignments may involve speaking or writing as part of the final product, but the emphasis is clearly on demonstrating higher-order thinking in the development of the assignment content or in the production of the product itself. They can be larger, multi-part projects such as lesson plans, design projects, major case-study analyses or proposals, but they can also be smaller, lower-stakes assignments such as article critiques, lab reports, focused literary analyses, weekly analysis responses applying new concepts to an event or situation familiar to the student, etc.

Critical Thinking Community: A Sample Assignment Format

Lane Community College: Critical Thinking/Problem-solving (see section 5 "Critical Thinking/Problem-solving Assignment Content Criteria")

Research Assignments

These may be standard writing or speaking assignments that require extensive library research, or a wide variety of smaller, integrated assignments designed to give students a variety of research experiences using tools or strategies relevant to your discipline.

Sauk Library Presentation: Creating Library Assignments

University of Maryland: University College: Tutorial for Developing and Evaluating Assignments

Temple University: Improving Student Research

Rubric for evaluating handouts describing library research assignments (PDF)

Evaluating Assignments

More detail on this topic can be found in the Assessment area of this web site.

Association for the Assessment of Learning in HIgher Education: Sample Rubrics

University of Wisconsin-Stout: Rubrics for Assessment (for many alternative types of assignments) Rubistar (make your own rubric or edit others online)

University of Southern Mississippi: Assessing Speeches Effectively

University of Southern Mississippi: Grading Rubrics and Critique Forms

Linda Nilson, College Teaching, 51:34-38: Improving Student Peer Feedback

Teaching in Higher Assessing and Tracking Blogs