Designing Effective Assignments

What is an assignment? What purpose does it serve in the teaching and learning relationship? How do your students understand why, and how, and what they should learn about and apply course concepts that contributes to real-world knowledge and academic development? Below are several evidence-based models of classroom instruction and assignment design.

Just-in-Time-Teaching

Just-in-Time-Teaching (JiTT) with examples.

    1. Just-In-Time-Teaching (JiTT) – relates course content to students’ lives, builds curiosity and deepens conceptual knowledge through the in-and-out of class learning process. It is dialogic and intended to replace more traditional passive lectures and instead identify areas student’s need more instruction (bottlenecks) that better inform their understanding and learning. JiTT is a teaching and assignment process that has students complete preparatory web-based assignments prior to class in which they read, review, or do something and then answer related questions. These “warm-ups” act as a communication tool between students and their instructors, creating a feedback loop that allows instructors to modify or adapt their in-class activities and instruction that addresses learning gaps visible through the out-of-class assignments. 
      1. The process: intentional focus on using student-generated responses to make the learning process visible and to use those responses to inform in-class activities and discussion. It is formative and helps build relevance to the assignment tasks required. Detailed explanation of the four-step process can be found here
    2. Just-in-Time-Teaching cycle.
      Just-in-Time-Teaching cycle.

       

    3. Designing effective JiTT questions. Effective questions vary from discipline to discipline and instructor to instructor, but have common characteristics that make them effective for fostering deeper learning and engagement from students.
      • yield a rich set of student responses for classroom discussion (including addressing myths, misconceptions, or biases)
      • encourage students to examine prior knowledge and experience.
      • require an answer that cannot be easily looked up.
      • require that students formulate a response, including the underlying concepts, in their own words.
      • contain enough ambiguity to require students to supply some additional information not explicitly given in the question.
    4. Examples from across the discipline.

Source: Simkins, S & M. H. Maier. (2010) Just-In-Time Teaching: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy. Sterling: Stylus.

Wicked Assignments

Creating Wicked Assignments.

  1. Wicked Assignment Design 
    1. Identifies problem with traditional research assignments as student’s relying on other sources (the data dump) instead of taking risks by speculating or coming up with their own ideas (risk-aversion, avoiding uncertainty or complexity). 
    2. Students operate from the belief that you already knows this stuff, that you have assigned or presented what you want them to replicate, or that others have already said or researched everything there is to know about this topic. 
    3. Instead, the assignment requires students to assume authority by crafting questions that ask “so what?” and calls for judgments, decisions, or meaning making of outside sources. Builds in instructional activities that has them assume authority (as teachers themselves, or by applying these in uncertain context where they have to make decisions). 
      • Hierarchy between student, topic, and professor triangle
        Traditional hierarchy of student to the topic and the professor.
      • Traditional assignment in terms of authority assume that the student is “staring up” at the professor and the topic, “essentially helpless at the bottom of a long, steep hill” (68). Wicked assignments ask students to assume authority for their research, take responsibility for their ideas, and to construct new understandings of a topic (68). 
      • Example assignments include
        • Biology: “create an informational pamphlet on an emerging infectious disease, pitched to PTO [Parent-Teacher Organization] parents. Include causative agent and vector, threat to local population, and possible measures to reduce risk. (69)
        • Western Civ: You are running Congress. In an address to your potential constituents explain how the political, religious, economic, and social problems of Rome might inform policy in an American context.
        • Metaphysical Poetry: You have been invited to lecture to two separate audiences on John Donne. You are asked to deliver a sermon to a Christian congregation (you can specify an exact one if you wish) on spiritual principles in John Donne’s poetry. Then the next day you address a local atheist group on John Donne’s religious poetry. Provide a close reading of least one poem and draw upon relevant sources in our reading.
        • Nutrition: The New York state government has created a council to develop a list of recommendations regarding the lifestyles of primary school age children. As the nutritionist on the council, your job is to choose a region, examine its population, and construct an appropriate menu for breakfast, providing a carefully researched rationale that takes into consideration all the relevant components of our work this semester.
      • Presentation by Paul Handstet on why creating authority in our students and asking wicked questions prepares them for the real-world (PDF).
      • More assignment ideas from Tomorrow’s Professor (Stanford) excerpt of Wicked Assignments.

Source: Handstet, P. (2018) Creating wicked students: designing courses for a complex world. Sterling, VA: Stylus. 

Design Using Bloom's Taxonomy

Assignment Design Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

  1. Handout of Bloom’s Critical Thinking Cue Questions for designing assignment prompts and questions (opens as PDF).
  2. Simple example using the children’s story of Goldilocks:
    • Hierarchy of Bloom's Using Goldilocks example
      Source: Learning and Teaching Strategies, McGuire & Hoffman, https://www.americanscientist.org/article/learning-and-teaching-strategies

       

  3. Assignment Design Template using Bloom’s Taxonomy with examples from across disciplines (opens as editable DOCX).
Transparency in Learning and Teaching Design

Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) Assignment Design

  1. TILT is composed of three sets of factors used in transparent assignment design:  purpose, task, criteria
    1. Purpose of assignment: what skills are practiced and what knowledge is gained (real world scenarios). How do you discuss these two factors with students before student’s do any work? How can you answer their questions and make the purpose as transparent as possible? (Youtube on Purpose
    2. The Task: What to do and how to do it – discuss issues of power and choice here. How can students assume authority and take responsibility for their own learning? (Youtube on Tasks
    3. Criteria: a checklist or rubric for self-evaluation and annotated examples of excellent examples of the assignment. Have you given them examples or models of good research, what you are looking for as an evaluator? When will they receive feedback (Youtube on the Criteria). 
  2. Video from researcher Dr. MaryAnn Winkelmas on the TILT framework and how it works in assignment design (Youtube).
  3. Transparent Assignment Template (PDF).
  4. Checklist for Designing a Transparent Assignment copy (PDF).
  5. Examples of Transparent Assignments
  6. Beyond these three points of assignment design, Winkelmes’ survey results suggest a few fairly easy but important practices that can improve both current and future learning in different disciplines and for different class sizes. The information below comes from her article published in Liberal Education (Spring 2013, Vol. 99:2), “Transparency in Teaching: Faculty Share Data and Improve Students’ Learning.”

In humanities courses at the introductory undergraduate level, two practices seem to benefit students’ current course learning experiences depending on the size of the class:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment (in classes ranging in size from thirty-one to sixty-five students).
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class (in classes ranging in size from sixty-six to three hundred students).

In social science courses at the introductory undergraduate level, particularly in mid-sized level classes (31-65 students) several transparent methods have statistically significant benefits for students’ current course learning experiences:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment.
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

In larger introductory courses in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the following transparent methods have statistically significant benefits for students’ current course learning experiences and for their future learning:

  • Explicitly connect “how people learn” data with course activities when students struggle at difficult transition points.
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals before students begin each assignment.

Students at the intermediate and advanced levels in STEM courses (again, larger classes) indicated that the following methods are helpful to their current and future learning:

  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

The following practices are associated with increased current learning benefits for students in large-enrollment courses in the Transparency study (ranging from sixty-six to three hundred students in humanities and STEM courses; three hundred or more students in social science courses):

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment (introductory social sciences).
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught (introductory social sciences, introductory STEM, intermediate and advanced undergraduate STEM).
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class (introductory humanities, introductory social sciences, intermediate and advanced STEM).

The following practices were associated with increased future learning benefits for students in large-enrollment courses:

  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught (intermediate and advanced undergraduate STEM).
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class (introductory social sciences, intermediate and advanced undergraduate STEM).

In large enrollment courses where the following transparent methods were used, students responded more positively than students in similar control-group courses (where no transparent methods were employed) to the question, “How much does the instructor value you as a student?”:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment (introductory STEM).
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class (introductory humanities, introductory social sciences, intermediate and advanced undergraduate STEM).
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught (introductory social sciences, introductory STEM, intermediate and advanced undergraduate STEM).
  • Explicitly connect “how people learn” data with course activities when students struggle at difficult transition points (introductory STEM).

Source: Winkelmes, M. (Spring 2013) Transparency in Teaching: Faculty Share Data and Improve Student Learning. Liberal Education, AAC&U, 99 (2). https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/transparency-teaching-faculty-share-data-and-improve-students

Sprague Library Resources for Assignment Design

Sprague Library Resources for Assignment Design

Visit the library in person or online now to access their array of resources on conducting effective library research.

Effective Assignments Worksheet Using TILT Model – Word Doc

Effective Assignments Worksheet Using the TILT Model – PDF