Assignment Design

A good assignment helps the professor and students pursue the learning goals of the course. Rather than starting with a prefabricated assignment, then, this is another opportune moment for backward design; ideally, you start with your course goals and think creatively to devise work that will help you meet them. In practice, this means that a good assignment generally does two things: it reinforces important learning and offers an opportunity for the professor to assess the quality of that learning.

Considering Your Course Goals

Seattle University English Professor John Bean, in his book Engaging Ideas, recommends asking yourself the following questions as you prepare to design an assignment:

  • What are the main units or modules in my course?
  • What are my main learning objectives for each of these modules and for the whole course? What are the chief concepts and principles that I want students to learn in each unit or module?
  • What thinking skills am I trying to develop within each unit or module and throughout the whole course?
  • Based on previous students’ experience, what are the most difficult aspects of my course for students?
  • If I could change my students’ study habits, what would I most like to change?
  • What difference do I want my course to make in my students’ lives—in their sense of self, their values, their ways of thinking? What is my unique stamp on this course? Ten years later, what do I want them to remember most about my course?

As you proceed, be clear (with yourself and, subsequently, with your students) on your specific goals for the students. It’s daunting to attempt to design an assignment that taps “critical thinking” (in all its possible forms), but it’s quite possible to craft something more focused, if your goal is also more focused. For example, if you want students to be able to come to conclusions amidst potentially contradictory information, you could assign a literature review that asks students to consider, weigh, and critique various scientific studies in order to summarize what we know about a particular phenomenon; if, on the other hand, “critical thinking” means (to you) the ability to question ideas effectively, you could ask students to deconstruct and evaluate an opinion piece. If you want students to gain an understanding of what it’s like to work in your field, you can get specific with that, too; would a poster presentation make the most sense, or the performance of an experiment, or an essay that conforms to your discipline’s manual of style? If you want students to have an “understanding of the topic,” does that mean the ability to produce facts when asked (which might call for a test, or a Q & A session following a presentation), or does it mean the ability to see gaps in the field’s understanding (which might warrant a practice grant proposal)? Determine exactly what you want from your students, and design the assignment to get at that exact thing.

Another consideration is the complexity of the learning goal. If you’re looking for something fairly complex, you could design assignments to build slowly toward the final outcome. For example, if you want students to be able to write a full-blown psychology research paper by the end of the semester, it might help to break that down into smaller chunks, asking them to put together an introduction first, and then a method section, and so on, each time giving them feedback so that they’re ultimately ready to successfully put together something complete. If the final project is a complicated performance, perhaps students could demonstrate successful singing separately from successful movement on the stage, and only then integrate the two.

Once you’ve determined the goals that will be the focus of the assignment, there’s no reason to keep them to yourself, of course. Share them with your students so that they’ll know the reason for the assignment, and how to focus their efforts.

Josiah Osgood discusses best practices when creating assignments in the classroom.

Reinforcing Learning

If designed well, an assignment gives students a chance to rehearse, practice, and integrate the most important knowledge and skills they’ve picked up thus far in the class—and even to learn new things. This is what makes it the opposite of busywork. First of all, if the assignment is truly germane to the subject matter and goals of the course, it’ll by necessity push students to review relevant material. Then, by asking students to restate, transform, and apply that material, the work will deepen understanding. An essay might require students to synthesize various readings or theories; a presentation demands that learners find ways to express ideas in their own words; a research proposal strengthens one’s grasp of concepts by pushing toward the application of those concepts. Along the way you might be interested in developing new knowledge or skills; for example, maybe you want students to investigate a topic but also practice the ability to work effectively with others; group work, if structured well, can help people attain interpersonal as well as academic goals. Blogging can, too.

It bears noting that, in many cases, students will need more than one round of practice in order to master what they need to master. Consider whether your second assignment should resemble your first in order to give them adequate experience before moving on to new things.

To this end, also consider whether more frequent, smaller assignments might lead to more practice opportunities (and perhaps more learning) than fewer, higher-stakes assignments.

Giving Instructions

As mentioned above, it’s important to let students know what your goals and expectations are for any given assignment. It can be especially helpful to give these instructions in multiple formats, including aloud and in writing. A written version of instructions, according to John Bean, has several advantages: “(1) it meets the need of sensing or concrete learners…(2) it gives all students something to refer to late at night when their class notes no longer seem so clear; (3) if your institution has a writing center, it helps writing consultants understand what the professor is looking for…(4) most importantly, it helps professors identify potential problems with the assignment and thus clarify its purpose and focus.” He further argues that assignment instructions should be clear about the nature of the task, the audience, format, expectations for students’ work process (e.g., revisions, group work, etc.), and the assessment criteria you’ll be applying.

Assessment

It’s also important to avoid busywork for the teacher, and busywork happens when you end up grading something that tells you little to nothing important about students’ learning, just for the sake of having something to grade. Instead, aim to assign students work that demands relevant and informative performances. The bottom line is to assign work that allows students to demonstrate what you really want to see. An open-book take-home exam isn’t a great way to assess memorization of concepts, but it can be an excellent way to see what students do with those concepts when they have time to review them and gather their thoughts.

This is another place where rubrics come in handy, for you and for the students. Designing the rubric (and see our Assessment Portal for more on this) helps you to get clear on what you’re looking for, and—if you discover that your assignment, as originally designed, won’t give you much that’s worth grading—might even cause you to revise the assignment before sharing it with the students. Then, when the rubric is in students’ hands, it will (ideally) guide them to produce an assignment that will reveal what they’re capable of.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that “assessment” is not synonymous with “grading.” It may be that you want to assign grades to each of your students’ assignments, or it may be that you want to use them simply to gather information (and you might, for example, give students full credit for effortful work rather than grades based on their relative effectiveness at the task).

Examples

  • Sherry Linkon, English 750: Humanities in the Community (A reflection assignment based on group coursework, with a clear statement about the goal of the assignment—”The point is not to complain (though some complaining may feel good) but to identify how the choices you and your colleagues make, not only about your event but in your interactions as a team, affect the project and your relationships”—as well as an articulation of grading criteria.
  • Joshua Meredith, Human Resources Management 700: Workplace Ethics (a combination oral and take-home written midterm exam, with a clear grading rubric.)
  • Deb Sivigny, Theater and Performing Studies 170: Principles of Design (a hands-on project asking students to design—and redesign—business cards reflecting, in terms of content and form, what these students “claimed as their own.”)
  • Ernesto Vasquez del Aguila, Anthropology 342: Masculinities (A final paper with multiple options for approaches and clear instructions on what each section of the paper should be doing. “Over time you will develop your own system for reading, taking notes and writing. However, despite differences between people’s approaches to essay writing, every good essay should follow this basic structure.”)
  • Sabrina Wesley-Nero, Education, Inquiry, and Justice 401: Capstone (A final proposal in which students are asked “to use the PEDIJ as a springboard toward how you define ‘what’s next’ and how what you’ve learned in EDIJ can impact education, educational equity, and/or education equality,” with a clear rubric provided.)

Additional Resources

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.