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Creating Effective Assignments

What makes an assignment “effective”?

To answer that question, one has to ask a preliminary question: “What was your intention when you gave the assignment in the first place?”   In other words, before the effectiveness of an assignment can be measured, the assignment has to be seen as part of a larger learning scheme of objectives and intended learning outcomes. When students ask, “what are you looking for in this assignment?” the real question might be more properly phrased in terms of what you hope the student learns or gains from the experience of completing the assignment. To the extent that you can respond to this implied question as you are creating the assignment, you increase the likelihood that you will make an “effective” assignment.

As you can see, creating assignments is part of the overall process of course design. We can see an example of this process unfolding in the Course Portfolio of T. Mills Kelly, who teaches history at George Mason University. For Kelly, structuring classroom time and creating assignments are part of a three-step process which starts with a version of the question posed above:
1. By the end of the semester, what should my students know, understand, and be able to do? Of all the possible content available to me, what did I feel was most important for my students to understand (as opposed to just being familiar with)? What skills should they develop during their 14 weeks with me?
2. Once I determined what these learning objectives were, I had to decide how I was going to assess whether or not my students had achieved the desired results. Given the average college student’s facility with what Gardner calls the correct answer compromise--the ability to provide the expected answer on a test or to a spoken question--I needed to design assessment methods that would give me a better indication of my students’ understanding of the material.
3. Finally, I had to determine what types of learning experiences would most effectively lead my students to a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Answering this question forced me to consider not only how I would structure my classroom time and student assignments, but also whether the overall design of the course took into account various student learning styles, and whether or not the course formed a coherent whole.

Communicating your expectations

Once you know the why of the assignment—and this means making explicit to yourself exactly what it is you want students to get out of it—it's important to think about how you will frame and communicate the assignment in a way that will let students know what you are asking them to do without being so detailed in your instructions that you leave them no freedom to do independent work. Communicating your expectations is like offering a road map without telling the students exactly what they will discover or experience when they use the map. The map points them in a direction and keeps them from getting lost, but leaves open the possibility that the journey will be unlike that of other students in the class.

The following links offer suggestions for making assignments that communicate clear expectations to students, motivate them to accept the challenge, stimulate their interest, and/or discourage academic dishonesty. Some focus on traditional research papers, while others provide examples of alternative assignments. Some stress theoretical investigation; others emphasize the application of learning. Some are geared toward formal written assignments, others toward less formal tasks.

Creating Effective Research Assignments--University of Maryland
Effective Assignments Using Library and Internet Resources--University of California
Suggestions for Assignments--Gustavus Adolphus College
Key Points Concerning Group Assignments--Ohio State Univ.
Designing Effective Research Assignments--Duke University
Giving Interesting Assignments--Cal Berkeley
Creating Effective Assignments--MIT
Designing Writing Assignments--University of Hawaii
How Do I Write An Effective Assignment?--Colorado State University
Plagiarism-proof Assignments--University of New Hampshire

Feedback helps

If you have any questions about any aspect of an assignment you want to give, please feel free to drop it off, with a copy of the course syllabus, at the Center for Teaching Excellence. We'd be happy to offer feedback in terms of either the assignment's alignment with the course's objectives or the clarity of the way it is presented to students. Sometimes an extra pair of eyes or ears is all it takes.

Help for students

Now and then a student won't be able to "get" the assignment no matter how clearly you have expressed its purpose and your expectations. Here at UNH there are two resources which offer students help in clarifying assignments. These are: the Robert J. Connors Writing Center and the Center for Academic Resources.

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