Why Assignments?

Assignments allow students to practice the learning expected of them in a college course. With prompt feedback, they can make adjustments and prepare for the next paper, problem set, or exam. For instructors, assignments, if designed well, provide an opportunity to assess student learning. In order that students are able to learn in incremental steps that build on each other, teachers need to attend to the relation between each assignment and the capacity of all assignments in the course to prepare students to succeed in the course. We call this work at connecting and sequencing assignments alignment.

Alignment is one feature suggested as part of a strategy for course design called ‘backwards design’ in which the instructor, in planning a course, begins with a choice of the outcomes. “What do I want students to be able to do at the end of this course?” is the operative question that establishes a terminus toward which a series of assignments are constructed to enable students to gradually master a set of skills in concert with concepts and facts. This series of assignments culminates in a final or summative project that coordinates the accomplished skills of prior assignments.

Over the past decades, the older convention of mid-terms assignments, tests, papers or exams followed by ‘final’ assignments of some sort has been increasingly replaced by smaller assignments that build students’ capacities in a gradual way. These smaller assignments are usually coupled with other ungraded assignments that prepare students for the graded exercises by providing them the opportunity to practice demonstrating the required skills and knowledge.

Assignments are most effective when specifically directed towards a learning goal. Connecting an assignment to a skill or content goal motivates students to complete it, even if the assignment is a reading assignment without an explicit writing task connected to it. Further, making transparent the connection between assignments, and between assignment goals and overarching course goals, also supports and motivates student learning. For instance, reader response papers, which help students prepare for in-class discussion, can help them to focus attention of those aspects of the text most relevant to the issues raised in the course. Alternatively, open-ended response papers are often taken by students to be a surreptitious way of checking up on whether they have completed the homework and this belief, in turn, discourages careful reading.

Assignments can take many forms depending on the desired outcomes. They can be anything the students are required to do that is related to the learning in the course, whether it be a simple reading assignment, some kind of written work (hyperlink to internal guide titled “Designing effective writing assignments,” by James Nemiroff), a field trip, or a problem set. It is helpful to think of them as work that complements the work performed in-class: assignments either prepare students for that work, or allow students to apply the lessons learned in class afterwards. In short, assignments should be connected to what teachers do in class, whether it is a lecture, a discussion, or a laboratory session. Connecting in-class and out-of-class work is very hard for many students to do on their own, and so instructors are advised to be explicit about this when describing assignments, whether during face to face time in class or on the syllabus itself.

One issue frequently raised is how much out of class reading and ‘homework’ is too much? That depends entirely on the nature of the work and hard and fast rules are hard to apply. Students are pragmatic guardians of their own time, so connections made between any learning exercise and graded work is one way of focusing student attention on the importance of any given assignment.

Assignments can be categorized also according to their relationship to a final grade. ‘Low-stakes’ assignments are graded on a pass-fail basis, as a way of giving students an opportunity to apply new learning and providing them feedback in a low risk environment. This assignment might be followed up by a ‘high-stakes’ assignment where the same skills are tested and graded. Coupling low stakes and high stakes assignments allows students more opportunities for practicing new skills and receiving constructive feedback. Both negative and positive examples of important assignments are also very helpful to students since it gives them a concrete example of how to apply given guidelines that may appear illusively abstract.

Recommended Reading

  1. Designing effective writing assignments,” by James Nemiroff, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching 
  2. Designing problem sets,” by Nicole Tuttle, Department of Chemistry and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching


Creating Assignments to Structure Your Course Workshop