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Rethinking Online Assignments

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Assignments and assessments designed to be used in person might be less effective when adapted for online learning. These strategies for rethinking learning activities for online courses can help you address these issues.

Clearly communicate assignment instructions

We often take for granted the many informal interactions that occur in a face-to-face setting. Simple clarifications, adjustments, and reassurances about assignment due dates, requirements, and expectations can be lost when going online. Consider the following strategies to address this:

  • Make instructions clear and explicit. Provide students with clear guidance about exactly what needs to be done, when assignments are due, and how this will affect their grades.
  • Allocate more time to communicating with students. Be prepared to spend more time communicating assignment instructions, sending reminders, answering questions, or clarifying requirements.
  • Be meticulous with assignment instructions. Keep assignment instructions consistent in how and where they appear in the online learning space. Be sure to highlight any changes.
  • Keep it simple. Avoid elaborate assignments that require overly complex instructions. Or, if such an assignment is important to your course, dedicate extra time to reviewing the instructions.

Make assignments easy to manage

Online coursework, particularly with asynchronous elements, gives learners more choices around how they can engage with the course. This can provide more flexibility and freedom, but it requires students to effectively and proactively manage their own learning. Help your students focus more on learning and less on managing their workload with these strategies:

  • Chunk big assignments. Large assignments put a lot of stress on particular weeks, so losing a week of work for any reason can heavily impact student success. A well-designed online course spreads the workload out as evenly as possible. With a little planning, it is also easy to accommodate extended time for short assessments
  • Create routines and habits. Consider repeating assignments that occur regularly, like weekly reading reflections, daily problem sets, or regular discussion forums. Create predictability by having regular due dates and instructions.
  • Make the content needed for assignments convenient. If students need a particular article or weblink for an assignment, make it available with the assignment instructions. Clearly label files and materials so students can easily identify what they need to complete an assignment.

Be intentional about community and student input

You may find that meaningful engagement and connection happen differently in online learning than in traditional learning. Students can become disconnected from learning if the assignments are not meaningful to them, especially with asynchronous formats. These strategies can help you to get students more engaged with assignments:

  • Try group projects, if it makes sense. While group projects can be more difficult to organize, they are a great way to get students in the course to know each other and build a learning community. 
  • Introduce low-stakes community-building assignments. Try starting students off with something very simple, like a self introduction exercise, that lets them share something about themselves and connect to one another. Then, perhaps create spaces for students to get to know each other and deepen connections around shared interests, experiences, or communities.
  • Let students influence assignments. Consider assignments that connect to topics and issues that students care about. Include an element of student choice and gather feedback from students on the design of the assignment. You might even have students contribute to rubrics or grading criteria.