Designing Assignments for the New Semester

Steven Volk, January 25, 2015


(Creative Commons; Amorparamipatria)

As we prepare to return to classes (speaking to my own institution), I’ve been putting some final thoughts into my syllabi, and particularly to the design of my assignments. I will admit that more than once over the years, I have “place-held” my assignments on the syllabus with a vague notation (e.g. “Midterm essay due on March 13”) and left the actual work of figuring out what it would consist of until, well, pretty late in the game.

For those who follow the good advice of backward design, assignments are a critical early step for overall course design: if we begin with the kind of learning outcomes we want to achieve in the course (and want to make those transparent to our students), than assignments are the necessary assessment tools by which we can determine whether they are achieving some mastery of those goals. (I’ll not address grading here, other than to say that there has been some interesting discussion lately generated by Linda B. Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Sterling, VA: Stylus , 2015). See, for example, here and here.)

What, then, should we be thinking about when designing our assignments. Here I am drawing from the excellent resources provided by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and the comments from a terrific set of panelists at the recent meetings of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U): Pat Hutchings, Natasha Jankowski, George Kuh, and David Marshall. What follows is drawn both from NILOA’s “Features of Excellent Assignments” which they have pulled together from faculty working on a specific assignment design project, from comments made at the panel, and from my own experiences as well as those of colleagues at other teaching and learning centers.

Here are some characteristics to keep in mind when designing assignments:


Queensland Classroom, 1940. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland (Creative Commons)

How the assignment’s fit into your overall course:

  • How is the assignment related to course goals?
  • How is it related to larger program goals (learning outcomes of your major, or in gen ed)?
  • Does it try to do too much (hit too many goals) or too little (essentially require student work on issues which are tangential to your goals)?
  • What will the students be learning from doing the assignment? If assignments are opportunities for learning and not just regurgitation, than we need to be clear about what our students will be learning? Think about this in relation to Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy and use the appropriate verbs in the assignment.

Assignment design:

  • Is the assignment clear to students? Think about the number of times you have written a question and gotten back responses that were not what you wanted because, strangely, your students couldn’t read your mind! Think about sharing your questions with a colleague: ask them what they think you’re asking for before sending out the assignment to your students.
  • Does it engage their interest? Will it motivate good work? Is there a way to link your assignment to some real-world application? Assignments that have a wider circulation than the student and the instructor almost always bring out better work.
  • Identify the audience for the assignment
  • Does it allow for originality and creativity (when called for)?
  • Is it unbiased in terms of student backgrounds and circumstances?
  • Can it allow for partial victories within the overall assignment, a sense of progress rather than only success or failure?
  • Does the assignment provide opportunities for feedback and correction?
  • Pay attention to the length of the assignment description. Cryptic one-line descriptions can leave students guessing, while assignment hand-outs that are longer than what they are expected to produce can overwhelm them.
  • Specify the criteria you will use in evaluating their writing. Try connecting the criteria with the assignment’s overall purpose. State the criteria at the outset, reinforce them through activities, and then grade on that basis.
  • Will you actually want to read it? Often we are our own worst enemies, designing assignments that we don’t particularly want to read, and certainly not 50 of them! How can you construct an assignment that can keep your as well as the students’ interest?

Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg (Creative Commons)

Level of challenge:

  • Is the assignment pitched at the right level, given students’ preparation and experience?
  • Does it ask more of your students (cognitively speaking) than the last assignment? Referring back to Bloom, are you making your assignments reflect higher orders of thinking as you move through your course?

As part of the DQP (Degree Qualifications Profile), the good folks at NILOA have been developing an interactive library of assignments that align with their Degree Qualifications Profile work, a set of broad learning outcomes. You can get to their library on line and, following a simple registration process, access assignments organized by content field and assignment type (e.g. History, Health Sciences, Group Projects, Capstone, etc.), DQP proficiencies (e.g., Use of information resources, intellectual skills, applied and collaborative learning), and by degree levels.

For other advice on assignment design, see Oberlin’s Library on Research Assignments, DePaul’s Teaching Commons, Yale’s Writing Center, and Minnesota’s Center for Writing.

Let me know if you have other advice for assignment design.

One thought on “Designing Assignments for the New Semester

  1. Pingback: Designing Assignments for the New Semester – Bear Medicine = Gary J. Sack

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