Creating Effective Assignments

“There is a positive relationship between the amount of homework students do and their academic achievement. Yet there is also extensive literature arguing the havoc homework plays on students” (Voorhees, 2011).

“The intent, structure, and wording of a prompt all help promote or impede student learning” (Rank and Pool, 2014).

Assignments are part of any class–whether it face-to-face or online. Technology changes at a rapid pace and therefore at least once every three years one should be reviewing and revising courses every three years. As well as changing assignments ever year. If you have been teaching for a while then, the following should be a review.
Assignments help student achievement–that is if they are well crafted (Dougherty, 2012). Are you asking your students to fill in worksheets, color maps or listen/watch to online content? In these types of settings, the students are engaged — but are the assignments helping them achieve the course objectives. Assignments must be of high worth and pertinent to the curriculum, or else students will create low-quality assignments that are not associated with the curriculum.
To align your assignments with the state or provincial standards, you should strive to do the following:
– Teach literacy skills in all content areas.
– Teach students to comprehend and critique a variety of texts and ideas.
– Write prompts that ask students to write or orally explain in response to reading.
– Include speaking and listening as a means of comprehending and communicating.
– Expect that students will use and write language to communicate appropriately for an audience and a purpose.
– Require evidence from texts and credible sources.
– Create opportunities for students to use and manage technology to learn and produce their own products.
– Write instructional plans that document and plot the teaching that transforms an assignment into learning (Dougherty, 2012, p. 13).

The content of the online course provides student activities, assignments involve a sequence of phases that lead to a finished outcome. Doing this in a face-to-face classroom is an easy tasked compared to an online environment.
Dougherty (2012) describes an assignment has having three parts: prompt, rubric, and product.

Dougherty (2012) recommends the following six steps for crafting assignments:

Step 1: Identify Content and Skills
Students absorb best when problem-solving connected with the content. During this step, you should be asking yourself, what are the skills students need to know?

Step 2: Determine a Product
The product is what the students submit into he online dropbox. The assignments should demonstrate what the students have learned. The product should not be worksheets, crossword puzzles or notes – these types of activities should be used as prime up activities to the assignment. Assignments should require multiple of skills – so students can exhibit multifaceted learning. Varying the types of assignments should make the course more interesting and could include the following ideas:

– Animations
– Annotated bibliographies
– Community presentations
– Cost/benefit analyses
– Docent lecture Documentaries
– Games
– Inventions
– Maps
– Memos
– Patents
– Proposals
– Scale models and blueprints
– Skits
– Speeches

Are there any other types of assignments that could be added to Dougherty’s list?

Step 3: Identify Demands and Qualities
In this step, one begins to consider what intellectual challenges and motivations will engage your students? Stimulating assignments involve reasoning or thinking about concerns or problems. Dougherty suggests the following Assignment Planning Guide to help with identifying the demands and qualities.

– Use verbs as the focus of demands: e.g., compare, define , construct.
– Wrap content around the verb: e.g., Compare the conquests of Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar’s.
– Align your demands to the Common Core State Standards or your state standards by adopting key words and phrases in your prompts.
– Moderate demands by choosing texts by their complexity, a feature distinguished by theme, idea, or syntax.
– Demands that involve reasoning are more demanding than those that do not. Ask “why,” for example, rather than “what.”
– Demands can be expressed as academic and workplace protocols. These protocols include specific language and skills involved in academic disciplines and workplace situations. For example, scientists are expected to say “hypothesis,” not “claim,” and to present their investigations in specific formats; workers are expected to write memos, not letters, to their bosses.
– Include behaviors that require students to master good habits necessary for academic and workplace participation. For example, you may want papers double-spaced, PowerPoint presentations in two colors, or speeches limited to three minutes. As well, students need to acquire the behaviors that allow them to discuss topics— for example, setting a goal to ask at least one on-task

– Qualities clarify what is valued in a product. Qualities are most often expressed as descriptors, such as precise, accurately ,consistently , and apt . Use language that captures or describes what the best student work demonstrates: qualities involving both linguistic and cognitive fluency; demonstrating nuanced understandings, insightfulness, and reflection; and showing a deep regard for a topic or issue.
– Use visual models and examples to communicate qualities because a visual can sometimes communicate better than words. Showing students a professionally written book review, for example, can help them understand “how well.”
– Include qualities of behaviors when appropriate. For example, a rubric for a seminar might include the quality of “responding respectfully.”

Make sure the demands and qualities list is not too long because this could be overwhelming for students.

Step 4: Write a Prompt

A prompt statement should arouse a response. The prompt should have the student contemplate the online content and create a final product. The following are guidelines that Dougherty has put forward:

– Use a question to set up your prompt— for example, “Who is a hero?” “How does a computer store information?” “Are there good and bad calories?” “Why is Iago a sympathetic character— or why not?” A better question does not yield a simple yes or no answer.
– Use a quote to set up a response to your prompt.
– Lift language directly from the focus standards you’ve chosen, or turn the standard into a prompt.
– Challenge students with prompts that ask them to analyze complex texts for authors’ purposes, structures, and methods.
– Describe a problem and ask students to solve it in some way. For example, ask students to write an editorial in which they examine a community problem related to trash and then present a solution. In science class, describe an issue about local water sources and ask them to write a report. Ask students to solve a design problem and produce a prototype— for example, a blueprint for a playground.
– Ask students to produce a workplace document, such as a brochure, report, memo, manual, needs assessment, survey, proposal, or customer communiqué.
– Ask students to synthesize research. These assignments include annotated bibliographies and reports in which they summarize research, points of view, or theories. Summarizing and synthesizing information are important academic practices, so be sure to embed these skills in your assignments so that students get lots of practice.
– Ask students to compare or evaluate ideas— academic, aesthetic, scientific, or practical— acting as an opinion writer or critic. This might be a feature article, for example, on the best irrigation techniques in a rural farm community or a critique of a film or restaurant.
– Ask students to improve on a product, service, or process and produce a blueprint or prototype.
– Hold mock online events, such as a mock U.N. or Congress, and require students to speak on an issue.
– Put on an online event, from proposal to production. This might include theater, film shows, or celebrations.
– Use prompts from state writing assessments and programs, such as AP or standardized tests, including the SAT and the ACT. These are usually available on websites as examples or released items (p. 47).

You should be writing at least two different versions of the prompts. After writing your prompts, you should consider the following:
– How do your versions differ?
– Which one comes closest to what you want students to learn about and to do?
– Which one fits your curriculum scope and sequence best?
– Is this prompt worth teaching and spending time and energy on?
– Can this prompt be managed within a time frame that is doable and sustainable? (p. 52)

Step 5: Write a Rubric
I find using rubrics very efficient and gives much better feedback to the students then just written comments.

Dougherty suggest writing your rubric with the follow guidelines:
– Decide what format— holistic or analytical— best serves your purposes for this assignment.
– Focus on what’s important for students to demonstrate on this assignment.
– Be sure your rubric emphasizes qualities.

Step 6: Do the Assignment
After creating the assignment, mark it by using your rubric. Better still have another teacher mark your assignment.
The next step is to create an instructional plan as well as sequencing assignments. These steps are discussed in chapters 4 and 5 of Dougherty’s textbook.
More or lengthier assignments do not correspond into student engagement. The more conscious the online teacher of the learning outcomes, the more likely they will be able to create appropriate tasks and assignments.

Dougherty, E. (2012). Assignments matter : Making the connections that help students meet standards. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Available at
Local Library: LB1025.3 .D68 2012
Online: via your university login

Rank, A., & Pool, H. (2014). Writing better writing assignments. PS, Political Science & Politics, 47(3), 675-681. doi:

Voorhees, S. (2011). Why the dog eats nikki’s homework: Making informed assignment decisions. The Reading Teacher, 64(5), 363-367.

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