Designing Appropriate Assignments

The appropriateness of a given assignment for any class is determined by many factors, each of which has to be evaluated for each course and new group of students. For example, a 10-page paper might be an excellent assignment in a class of 25 students, but it becomes impractical in a class of 125 (i.e. grading 250 pages well is possible; grading 1,250 pages well is less so). Because appropriately challenging assignments are a major factor in student motivation, it is worth spending some time designing them. In addition, students will generally expect some kind of feedback on every assignment. The more complicated an assignment and the more it is worth, the more feedback students will expect. Moreover, giving timely, substantive feedback is a best practice in undergraduate education.

Factors to consider in assignment design include:

For further information about writing the assignment description, see the handout “Developing assignment descriptions.”

Size of class

As mentioned above, the number of students in your class makes a big difference in what is practical or not in terms of assignment design. Even if you only spend 10 minutes grading each student’s homework assignment, just 3 additional students in a class will add a half-hour of grading time, for each assignment.

Decide how many assignments is reasonable for you to respond to in a given week.

Consider using alternate forms of feedback (e.g. peer response, online quizzes).

Who are your students?

Are you teaching a general education course, or do you have mostly majors? Do you have freshman, seniors or a mix? How much background do students already have in your discipline? Theoretically, older students or students with a stronger background in your discipline should be able to handle more difficult assignments. However, a senior in a different major may not be any more prepared to do the work of your discipline than a first-semester freshmen.

One way to determine what your students already know is to give a pre-test. Then you can adjust the class for students’ prior knowledge. The same test can also be given the end of the semester to show students and instructors how much has been learned.

You can get a little information about your students’ backgrounds through your roster on SA. Student majors and years are available (although, of course, the roster will not be able to tell you everything about a student’s past experience).

Collect feedback at mid-term to see how the class is going for students. You can ask specifically about how challenging the students find the course. See the FDC’s CATALyst process for more information.

Course requirements

Your course may fulfill university requirements or come with special designations. For example, a Writing Intensive course, obviously, will be expected to require a significant amount of writing from students.

You can find out if your course has any special designations through SA.

Departmental expectations

In addition to university designations, your department may have expectations about your course. For example, you might be teaching a foundational course that will give students practice in certain areas before they move on to more advanced coursework.

Read the description of your course in the university catalog and/or on your departmental website. If it includes particular kinds of assignments (e.g. collaborative projects, two exams, three small papers, four completed experiments), students may be expecting these assignments and the department may be expecting that students will have done them.

Ask others in your department – an administrative assistant, someone who has taught the class before, the person who hired you – if there are any particular expectations for the course.

Learning Outcomes

Your assignments should reflect and reinforce your learning goals. This would seem to be obvious, but often we assign tasks because that’s how we learned or because “that’s what everyone else does.” Sometimes, however, these assignments do not really reflect what we actually want our students to learn. For example, if developing collaborative skills is a goal of your class, then it makes no sense to have students work independently all the time. Similarly, if you are not particularly interested in whether or not your students produce a long piece of writing, then assigning a 20-page paper makes very little sense.

Develop your learning outcomes before you write your assignments. Your learning outcomes align to specific assignments (i.e. “Students will give an oral presentation on a topic of their choice.”)

It can be useful to tell students which learning goals a given assignment fulfills. Knowing why they are doing something can be motivating for students; attention to what goals they are accomplishing by doing a certain assignment can help them understand how they learn.

Value to Overall Grade

The value a particular assignment has to the overall grade is a big factor in assignment design. Students tend to treat anything that has a grade attached to it as important, even if the instructor has stated that it is not a particularly essential task. In addition, if an assignment is a large part of the overall grade, students will often expect more clarity of instruction and better feedback.

Consider how much time you want to spend or want your students to spend on an assignment. The more important it is to you and the more time you want students to spend on it, the more it should be worth in the overall grade.

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