Choosing Assignments for Your Online Students

This blog post is part of a series to help you build an online course quickly. It is for people who are preparing to launch their third trimester in course that they thought would be F2F but will begin instead as an online course, those looking ahead to intensive May terms, and those who had planned to teach in person in the summer or fall but now find their F2F classes will be online. To follow along, begin by framing your course. Whether you select your materials first or choose your assignments first depends on a number of factors, including whether your book order is already in at your bookstore.

On the balance of work: You will have to decide on the balance between work students take in and that they push out. Here are three guidelines:

  • In lower level classes with large numbers of novice learners, most of the work will be things they take in: your lectures, assigned readings, films, and podcasts.
  • In mid-level courses that are populated by majors and students taking electives, students spend less of their time reading assigned texts or listening to lectures and more time creating.
  • For small capstone courses, students take in relatively little but produce much more. For my senior capstone in sociology, Applied Research, students have no specific assigned reading but instead must propose and execute a research project on their own. Of course, they must read in order to do that, but I’m no longer selecting the readings for them. Instead, we work together (one-on-one) to determine what kinds of articles are most helpful to them. Some students may read 15 articles, others 20, and others 25.

As you choose your assignments,  review the assigned materials and the assigned tasks to make sure that the balance between them is right for the expertise of the student.

Keep the workload even from week to week: A similar workload each week allows students to plan how much time to devote to a class so that they can schedule their work hours and their childcare. One week with 4 hours of work and the next with 26 hours might average to something reasonable, but students’ schedules cannot plan for that kind of variation. So aim for an even workload each week, however it is divided up.

Create assignments that are allow you to give feedback on process, not just product. Because online students have fewer opportunities for receiving feedback in the moment, feedback on their asynchronous work is even more important. But if you provide feedback to them only when a project is completed, they often won’t give it attention and thus learn from it. Repeating kinds of assignments (see below) and giving grades to stages of work  allows them to correct as they work. And it is often easy to grade–for example, a “redo this,” “do this better next time by doing X,” or “keep doing what you are doing!” is sufficient.

When possible, select the same kind of assignment for each  module. Students report that consistent expectations are important for them in managing their online learning. For example, make all your discussion board posts the same length; each week, require that they respond to the same number of peers. They’ll be more likely to meet your expectations, and you’ll spend less time explaining assignments.

Choose a small variety of assignments. Rather than asking students to manage 10 different kinds of tasks, keep it to just a few kinds of tasks, which will mean fewer tech challenges to them. Once they learn how to take a quiz, for example, they’ll know how to do that. But if you only do it once, then ask them to submit a video, then ask them to record a presentation, then ask them to build a wiki… well, you will get a lot of work that looks like it’s all first drafts.

I find that some combination of automatically-graded or  easy-to-grade work (objective quizzes, reading journals) provides quick feedback that can be implemented into the next unit’s work. I typically combine this with a weekly assignment that asks them to apply what they are learning to novel situations (for example, locate something outside of the online classroom that illustrates what we are learning and share it in a discussion board post) or show progress on a larger project. I add a significant project, paper, or exam requiring synthesis across the course and essays, in the last week.

I use the Kinds of assignments chart, below, to make decisions about what kind of work I require in my courses. The columns are Bloom’s taxonomy (though I make analyze a less complex task than apply in my chart). Down the side are the kinds of assignments I would consider in my classes. (Of course, your classes may require different kinds of assignments, so adapt for your needs.) Most of the work in a lower-level course is at the remember, understand, and analyze level, though a final project may involve apply, evaluate, or create. The higher level the course, the more student work shifts to the final three columns.

In all but my capstone courses, I include low-stakes, easy-to-grade weekly work that measures understanding. I think it’s most responsible, in terms of resources, that these assignments don’t tax people other than me and the individual student–which is why I don’t use discussion boards to measure how well students remember or understand a concept. (Students should understand what they are talking about before they post; otherwise, they are wasting their peers’ time. Similarly, they should be able to prove their understanding of key concepts necessary for success in their service learning, research, or creative process before they get started.) This work helps students stay on track with their learning and alerts me quickly to gaps in their understanding so I can return to them, individually or as a class, and re-teach material.

assignments chart

For each course, I include a set of “ready to learn” assignments (a syllabus quiz; an introduction to themselves on discussion board; a test of any mastery of prerequisite skills, like using the library to locate peer-reviewed articles or the completion of their human ethics training for research; a midterm and a final reflection on their learning), plus

  1. a weekly assignment to measure remembering and understanding
  2. a weekly assignment to prepare them for their final project OR to apply that week’s course content (or one assignment that does both)
  3. a final project, paper, exam, or presentation

I also want one of these to connect them to their peers. So, for example, I may have them create a study aid for one of the concepts in the unit and share it with a small group, or I may have them submit a draft of their final paper (create) for peer workshop.

File:Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation.jpg

Above, a painting of a man at his desk. Papers are in front of him, a pen is in his hand, and an inkwell sits on a book nearby. A blue oil lap glows. More than a dozen books are in the scene. The man closes his eyes and brings his left hand to massage his forehead, as if in thought. The Passion of Creation, by Leonid Pasternack / Public domain

Choose at least some assignments that provide very quick feedback. Fast feedback keeps students connected and ensures that, especially in fast-moving classes, they don’t fall behind. I recommend at least one assignment per week that is automatically graded in your LMS so they can get instant feedback, or  one that is graded on Pass/Fail. Reading journals or reading guides work well here.

Choose assignments you want to grade. Because you aren’t giving feedback directly to students in class, you grade a lot more in an online class than a F2F one. Choose assignments you want to grade. For me, that means assignments that will produce a variety of answers (so I’m not reading the same answer over and over). Consider this, too, in the context of your overall teaching load. Reading journals can be an excellent opportunity to engage your students–but if you are teaching 5 courses of 40 students each, reading 1-3 entries per student per week might not be possible.

Be mindful of group projects. Students who enroll in a fully-online degree program (which might not be your population if your university has cancelled F2F classes in the short term) typically do so because they need the flexibility of asynchronous learning. Group projects thus may be a major impediment for them. That said, assign a group project if it is necessary to reach your learning objective. But if there is another way to reach it, avoid them.

If you do assign a group project, be sure to organize groups by availability. It won’t work if one student works first shift, another works second, and the third works midnight to 8 am. Also consider assigning separate grades for students and including a self- and peer-evaluation as part of the grade to incentivize everyone doing their share.

Pay attention to limits on pacing. If an assignment includes multiple parts, give yourself enough time to give feedback on them before the next component is due. This will vary according to the length of the course and the number of students, so consider the multiple demands you will have on your grading time when you decide on due dates.

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