Assessment Design

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Anton Chekhov writes, “”Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It’s important to think of online learning similarly. We’re helping students piece together their stories by parceling it out into chapters. If an assignment doesn’t serve a larger purpose, remove it.

1. | Emphasize “Inquiry, Discovery, and Active Engagement.”

In her article “What Makes a Good Online Course?” distance education expert Jamie Littlefield writes, “Reading a generic textbook and answering fill-in-the-blank questions isn’t a natural way to learn.” Consider instead project and/or problem-based approaches, “which encourage students to participate in self-directed learning, peer learning and teamwork, and help them hone their presentation skills” (Wilcox & Sarma 7).

The Glossary for Educational Reform defines project-based learning in the following way:

any programmatic or instructional approach that utilizes multifaceted projects as a central organizing strategy for educating students. When engaged in project-based learning, students will typically be assigned a project or series of projects that require them to use diverse skills—such as researching, writing, interviewing, collaborating, or public speaking—to produce various work products, such as research papers, scientific studies, public-policy proposals, multimedia presentations, video documentaries, art installations, or musical and theatrical performances, for example.

In the book Essential Readings in Problem-based Learning, John R. Savery defines problem-based learning as “…an instructional (and curricular) learning centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem” (5).

2. | Make Your Instructions “as Explicit as They Are Flawless”

In a traditional classroom, students will ask clarifying questions when their instructor gives them an assignment, especially when words like “substantial” or “brief” are used to describe length requirements. These sorts of questions are less likely to occur online, which is why specificity is so important. In his article Designing Effective Online Assessments, Todd Gilman writes,

…if you ask students to ‘briefly identify’ a list of important people, places, and technical terms for a particular assignment, everyone will immediately wonder ‘how briefly?’ Yet few students will ask for clarification, and most will instead seek to be as long-winded as possible, hoping that their largess will translate into more points. Your phrasing, with its breezy imprecision, will have had exactly the opposite effect you intended. Instead, be specific about what you want: ‘three to five sentences devoted to each question’ or, at the vaguest, ‘no more than one substantial paragraph.’

3. | Use “Models of Selected Assignments.”

Todd Gilman also recommends providing students with “models of selected assignments so students can see what you consider to be good work” and adds,

I know that seems like spoon-feeding and, believe me, I would never consider doing that in a face-to-face graduate course. But somehow it hits the right note online because it cuts down on the confusion for students. Good students worry about absolutely everything, beginning with matters as small as whether they need a cover sheet and an abstract prefacing their work. If your posted model lacks those features, that’s important information for some students and will save them anxiety and wasted effort.

Model assignments are simply another way of ensuring that students can help themselves if they are uncomfortable asking questions. Model assignments are analogous to the instruction manual that came with your iPhone: Many people will never take that manual out of the box, so confident are they of their ability to figure things out on their own. Others will consult it only for help with one or two specific features, and still others will want to read it cover to cover.

4. | Highlight Previous Learning “in the Context of Whole Tasks.”

In their report Online education: A catalyst for higher education reform, authors Wilcox and Sarma state that assignments should “recall and highlight previously learned topics in the context of whole tasks. Steadily expand the scope of problems, enabling students to take on increasingly challenging tasks.”

What Wilcox and Sarma are referring to is scaffolding which can be built into assignment instructions. In their article “Effective Principles in Designing E-Courses in Light of Learning Theories,” authors Muhammad Afifi and Saad Alamri write, “…many studies conducted into support strategies have found that effective scaffolding offers learners the support to help them attain a high level of achievement” (136).

5. | Accommodate “a Range of Learning Styles.”

Accommodating a range of learning styles in the classroom is a research-based best practice. In her article “Designing Effective Online Courses: 10 Considerations,” Mary Burns, senior technology specialist at Education Development Center, states that course developers “should create an array of assignments, activities, and assessments that allow learners to interact and practice with content in multiple ways, on multiple cognitive levels and using multiple measures and methods to assess learning.”

6. | “Discourage Mind-Wandering” with Frequent Assessments.

Research shows that students who have frequent opportunities to interact with content are more likely to stay involved.

The mind wanders naturally, and the focus of the brain falters in time as ‘task-unrelated” thoughts gain hold. This phenomenon has now received significant attention from cognitive psychologists as well as from neuroscientists. Psychologists have shown that formative assessments interspersed with content delivery discourage mind wandering as well as reduce stress among students. (Wilcox and Sarma 9)

7. | Capitalize on Peer Learning “to Improve Performance.”

According to Wilcox and Sarma, “the absence of social contact impacts motivation” in negative ways and contributes to higher rates of attrition (8). In their report A Design Case of Scaffolding Hybrid/Online Student-Centered Learning with Multimedia, authors Hsaio, Mikolaj, and Shih provide compelling evidence to support the inclusion of peer learning alongside problem-based learning: “The intent [of their study i.e., the implementation of a semester-long group project]…was to simulate the actual working environments that graduates of the program would encounter when they started their entry-level positions…”

8. | Employ the “Element of Surprise.”

Avoid overly-formulaic or robotic approaches to assessment because as Jamie Littlefield explains, good online classes “have something extra that gives them that additional ‘oomph.’ It’s clear that designers of the best courses think outside the box. They avoid giving the students the same bland experiences week after week and surprise them with real opportunities to develop their thinking and grow as a learner.”



Afifi, M. K. & Alamri, S. S. (2014). Effective Principles in Designing E-Courses in Light of Learning Theories. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 128-142.

Burns, Mary. (2016). Designing Effective Online Courses: 10 Considerations. ELearningINDUSTRY. Accessed on August 8, 2017.

Craig, Ryan. (March 9, 2017). Make Online Education Great (for the First Time). Forbes. Accessed on August 8, 2017.

Gilman, Todd. (March 22, 2010). Designing Effective Online Assignments. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Hsiao, E., Mikolaj, P., & Shih, Y. (2017). A Design Case of Scaffolding Hybrid/Online Student-Centered Learning with Multimedia. Journal of Educators Online, 14(1).

Littlefield, Jamie. (2017). What Makes a Good Online Course? ThoughtCo. Accessed on August 8, 2017.

Project-based learning (2013, August 29). In S. Abbott (Ed.), The glossary of education reform. Accessed on August 8, 2017.

Savery, John R. (2015) Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions. In Essential Readings in Problem-based Learning. Edited by Andrew Elbert Walker, Heather Leary, Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver, and Peggy A. Ertmer.West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press. 5.

Wilcox, K., & Sarma, S. (2016). Online education: A catalyst for higher education reform. Cambridge, MA: MIT Online Education Policy Initiative. Accessed on August 8, 2017.