Assignment design encompasses the visual and cognitive organization of assignment information in a format that is sufficiently accessible to all students. This includes, but is not limited to directives for the completion of the assignment, how the assignment will be assessed, due dates, and more. Effective assignment design means students spend less time trying to understand the assignment and more time doing the actual assignment. In this article, we list suggestions for information to include on an assignment document for a course:
- Description of the assignment: A description can be structured in a variety of ways depending on your engaged learning outcomes. You could structure it as an open-ended problem or prompt that students need to solve together. To learn more about problem and project-based learning, click here. As you write your own description, consider how you can engage students and pique their interest with something that feels relevant to their lives and/or future lives. How can you get them to see the relevance of what they are learning beyond those four classroom walls?
- Learning outcomes: Learning outcomes (including objectives and goals) not only provide guidance for your assignment design, but also let students know what you will evaluate them on. Including learning outcomes on the assignment shows students how learning outcomes relate to the assignment which can often help students see how individual assignments relate to the course at large. For more about writing student learning outcomes, click here.
- Supplies, resources, and/or skills needed: Depending on the outcomes, this component could include mention of technologies (and the requisite skills needed to use these technologies), media, readings from various sources, etc. This can also help students plan better. For example, if they need to use a specific educational technology, they may need to practice with said tool a bit before creating their product. Or you can make them aware they need group communication skills and are expected to have those skills to successfully complete the assignment.
- Timeframe: Give students an idea of how long it should take them to complete the assignment whether in class, outside of class, or both. This helps students learn how to prioritize. For example, a student may end up devoting an inordinate amount of time to a task that is only worth 5% of the overall assignment grade when they should have spent more time on a more significant component of the assignment. Remember, most students are novice learners, and organizing and prioritizing is an important lifelong learning skill for them to develop.
- Instructions: While the description is designed to summarize the assignment and pique students’ interest, the instructions break the assignment into achievable and specific steps. Be careful not to conflate instructions with criteria. Instructions are steps students take to complete the assignment, but criteria are how you will evaluate the quality of the assignment.
- Assessment plan with criteria: Students want to know how they are going to be evaluated to guide the product they need to create. What evidence will you need to determine if students have learned the requisite material? What will demonstrate thus learning to you?
- Support you will provide throughout the class: Instructor support to students comes in many forms. You may design and/or select resources or students may have to do this themselves. Or maybe you will provide feedback during office hours at a point in the semester. Or to support collaborative learning, you may help with conflict resolution. What support will you provide as your students progress throughout this assignment and how will you provide said support? Clarifying this from the beginning can help students determine when to seek help from you.
Finally, the layout, or presentation of the assignment information, can be as important to maximizing student learning as the information. For tips on organizing assignment information, see this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog. Also, keep in mind that an assignment document should be accessible to all students. This means including headings and “alt text” with images or providing captions that thoroughly describe images, as well as creating accessible tables and charts. The following list includes links to webpages on how to ensure the accessibility of course documents and materials:
- Creating alt-text for images
- Creating accessible Word documents
- Creating accessible PowerPoint documents
- Creating accessible PDF documents
- Creating accessible tables
- Converting image-based PDF’s into text-based Word documents
- Closed-captioning for videos
- Closed-captioning for YouTube videos
Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (n.d.). Accessibility Online. Denton, TX: University of North Texas. Retrieved from https://clear.unt.edu/teaching-resources/accessibility
Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2017). Course Design Institute 2017 [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.
Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.