How do I design innovative assignments to foster learning in the online classroom?

September 18, 2018

By Jennifer Albat (Instructional Design and Learning Technologies)

Last week’s Midweek Mentor session featured a video called “How do I design innovative assignments to foster learning in the online classroom?” by Dr. B. Jean Mandernach, Executive Direction or the Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Not only was this video helpful for online, but for hybrid or face-to-face courses as well. No matter the format of the course, designing holistic learning experiences increases the students’ ability to learn. From the title of the video, I was expecting to be bombarded with tons of examples of assignments and assessments for the online classroom. While that was provided in a handout, the video focused on something that struck this Instructional Designer’s heart…backward design. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe explain the backward design framework in their book Understanding by Design. I was first introduced to the concept in my curriculum course during my master’s program and almost instantly, designing courses and assessments became somewhat simpler as there was a “template” for doing such a task. The Midweek Mentor video and the Understanding by Design text both highlight that you must begin with asking yourself, “What do you want the students to know or be able to do at the end of the course or unit?” If your activity or assessment has no purpose or does not enhance that goal, then why should the students complete the task? If you would like to know more about the Backward Design process, Vanderbilt University has developed a great site on the topic.

Dr. Mandernach also explains in the video that there are two types of assignments, formative and summative. The formative assignments need to be low-stakes, frequent, and provide lots of feedback allowing students to practice with the content. These could be items such as a minute paper, muddiest point, background knowledge probe, classroom opinion poll, among others. Summative assessments are less about the feedback and show that students understand the material that was presented to them. These can be blogs, wikis, podcasting, service-learning, multimedia presentations, self-reflection, etc. All assignments should be “authentic, collaborative, and relevant”. Again, do not assign something that is busy work. If it doesn’t meet the objectives of the course or unit, then it probably doesn’t need to be part of the course.

Many of the participants in the group discussion did not feel that it would be possible to do these types of assignments with a large class. Even with quizzing, the right feedback can be built in to help the students practice with material. Minute papers can be added as a discussion board either in an online class, or done as an outside activity in Blackboard for face-to-face courses. If you feel like you are grappling with how to do these types of assignments in your course, come see one of the Instructional Designers in the ITS-Instructional Design & Learning Technologies group. We are happy to help with designing assignments/assessments and helping with backward design or choosing the right technology tool for the job. Complete this form to set up an appointment.

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