• August 28, 2015

Designing Effective Online Assignments

If you've never taught a course online, chances are you've never considered how you might adjust your tests and assignments to suit the electronic medium. At most, you've probably shuddered at the thought of having to devise what you assume would be a dumbed-down, self-grading, multiple-choice, Web-based quiz.

If that weren't bad enough, you probably also imagined the students being fed the answers by a friend, the two of them side by side at the computer. It all seemed so degrading, so futile.

Cheer up: In my years of online teaching, I've never given a quiz or a test online, much less a multiple-choice one. That's mainly because the temptation to cheat on tests is overwhelming online, even with short-answer or essay questions, which, when administered online, are essentially open-book tests (unless they can be proctored, which is usually impractical). Actually, I've never given a multiple-choice test in a traditional classroom, either: I think they are a lazy, one-size-fits-all substitute for actually assessing what students have learned. But I digress.

Online teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level poses specific challenges for both instructors and students. In a column last month (The Chronicle, February 26), I sought to combat some of the myths about distance education. As I mentioned in that essay, in addition to my day job as an academic librarian at Yale University, I have been teaching online courses for several library schools since 2002, and have also taught some online courses on writing or research skills for undergraduates.

Here, I would like to offer specific suggestions for how to design effective assignments in the online realm. (I won't offer tips on tests. I grade students on the basis of course assignments, including major papers, and on their contributions to asynchronous threaded discussions.)

Your main goal should be to enable students to learn independently. If students feel they have enough direction to be successful on their own, they will eagerly absorb and master the course material. You also want them to learn independently because, even if you were available to them 24/7, many of your students would never contact you for any reason.

No matter how much encouragement you offer, some students will take the perceived anonymity of distance education as an opportunity to hide from you and even from their classmates. I always clearly state in my syllabus that I will grant extensions if requested in advance of a due date, yet many students choose instead to forfeit points and turn in assignments late, so averse are they to direct contact with an instructor.

In fact, I suspect some students take courses online instead of face to face precisely so that they can remain below the radar. If you try to offset that tendency by, say, forcing students to work in groups, the class will hate you for it because, just like in face-to-face courses, the more conscientious students will wind up doing everyone's work so that their own grades don't suffer.

So your top priority in designing effective online assignments should be to make sure the work can be completed by each student on his or her own. Students should not be left to wonder whether they are proceeding correctly at any point along their path to completion of the work. That means that your instructions on how to do the assignments have to be as explicit as they are flawless.

For example, 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."

If you want students to find information from a source other than your lectures and assigned readings, you need to tell them so and direct them where to look. For example, if you want students to obtain an informed, authoritative source for a ready reference question, say so upfront. Similarly, if you object to them using certain sources, you need to say that, too. If you don't consider Wikipedia a reliable source for college-level work, state that outright and, by way of explanation, direct them to a good Wikipedia-use policy, like the one crafted by Alan Liu, a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which is available online. In a face-to-face course, you can give such directives in passing. Online, there is no "in passing."

The same holds true when you ask students to include a bibliography using a consistently applied style. If you expect accuracy, lead by example. Don't just tell them, "Cite your sources according to The Chicago Manual of Style" and assume your students will be able to do that successfully (or will even bother to try) with no further guidance. Show them properly formatted citations for books and articles that you think they are likely to use—especially for electronic sources, which are the trickiest to cite. Take nothing for granted and leave nothing to chance.

Along with your detailed instructions, it's also helpful to post models of selected assignments so students can see what you consider to be good work. 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.

All of that said, you don't want to stifle students' creativity and freedom to be self-directed. So mixed in with your directives should be some components of assignments that allow students to set their own agendas—within limits, again, to avoid confusion. One assignment that works especially well for many graduate-level library-school courses I've taught is an article review. I ask students to locate a scholarly article published within the last three years (or one less recent, if currency is not crucial to the subject of the course) in a peer-reviewed journal on library and information science or book history, and then present a two-paragraph assessment comprising a précis and critical evaluation.

That assignment yields many benefits. First, it requires students to search indexing and abstracting databases effectively to find an article that meets the specified criteria (e.g., it must be at least 10 pages long, show evidence of research, and relate to some aspect of book history before 1700).

It also trains them to understand what a scholarly article is; to tell the difference between scholarly and nonscholarly writing; to distill someone else's lengthy argument into a concise few sentences of the student's crafting; to think critically about what they have read by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a professional's research; and, thus, to become participants in the conversations that preoccupy members of the profession for which they are training. Most important, it empowers them to choose what they want to read and write about while still providing enough guidance to ensure that they do not choose poorly.

Thinking carefully about how to make sure that students are actually learning something online is an important question. And your answer can mean the difference between a challenging course and one that feels like a perfunctory exercise.

Todd Gilman is librarian for literature in English at Yale University Library and a part-time instructor for the Schools of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University and Wayne State University as well as for the journalism department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


1. profmomof1 - March 22, 2010 at 08:18 am

All good points, although exams (whether multiple choice and/or essay) are not a problem online; my university has a proctored test center for this, with much better security against use of texting etc. for cheating that I could provide in a face-to-face class. Students not in our town arrange proctors at other universities, public libraries, etc. So computer-based exams work fine with no worries about cheating.

2. 22258596 - March 22, 2010 at 09:14 am

Is it true that the Federal DoE is requiring the use of proctors for online courses? Could someone clarify please?

3. majortb2 - March 22, 2010 at 09:46 am

To 22258596: DoE does not require proctors for online courses. DoE asks accreditors to ensure schools have quality DL programs.
Check your regional, national or specialized accreditors policy guidelines for distance ed for your specific situation.

Many now call out identity in distance ed and there are three common options:
1. Secure user id/password (since they are easily shareable, how they can be called secure?)
2. Proctored Exams (often impractical and expensive as noted above) and
3. New Technology, which can be anything, such as 3rd party challenge questions, hardware for biometrics or web proctors.

4. affuller - March 22, 2010 at 10:08 am

Do you read all the papers reviewed by the students? If so, with a large class - 50 or 60 students - this assignment online or f2f would be a nightmare. Choosing a list of articles for a large class would be more manageable but leaves out the info seeking/locating tasks.

Any thought about good online assignments in a blended environment with a large class - e.g 150 students.

5. matchett - March 22, 2010 at 11:28 am

These are all good points. But you're mistaken about the uselessness of objective quizzes. They can to facilitate critical reading and reflection -- and deeper understanding of key ideas and argument presented in reading materials. If they are presented to students as "self-assessments" and the grading policy is appropriately tweaked to motivate their use in this way (relatively small grade impact and a generous revision policy for the quizzes, combined with research and writing assignments that require them to demonstrate their understanding of and ability to use ideas from the reading material), online quizzes can make up for the lack of face to face discussions where instructors guide students through the readings.

6. byronbrown - March 22, 2010 at 11:47 am

Thanks, affuller, for your question. Two thoughts:

1) Proctored distance exams in online courses are not impractical. What they require is some (high level) administrative help in solving what may be a payment problem. Students shouldn't, I think, have to pay extra just because they're taking the course from a distance. In the absence of that at my own institution, I've had great success asking the students to arrange testing, usually with public libararies, who seem willing to do this for free for their members.

2) Good online assignments exist for some of the hard sciences, and social sciences. Check out OWL for chemistry, for example, and LON-CAPA in physics and other fields. Aplia in economics and business has some good stuff. But without proctoring, any online assignments need to be relatively low stakes for obvious reasons.

7. happyadjunctfaculty - March 22, 2010 at 12:24 pm

The author makes a good point when addressing the issue of group assignments.

I have some online MBA students who wish to work in groups because it mirrors the traditional MBA program requirements, thus legitimizing their program. Others, however, must work alone because of their work and family responsibilities. These students often are out of the area, or are writing their papers at 2am, and cannot meet readily.

I offer students their choice of group (of 2-3) or individual papers for their major deliverables. Each group then feels invested and empowered in their decision, their education, and the outcome. I have had many students thank me for my flexibility in this area. I think it also helps reduce the need for deadline extensions and the like.

8. jenny_franklin - March 22, 2010 at 01:10 pm

First, I am not proposing objective testing should be the only assessment method in use in an online course - far from it, but demonizing multiple choice testing is a popular position - but it more nearly reflects MC testing as practiced, not its potential, online or face-to-face. Given the pressures of time and lack of support for time-intensive grading practices as well as a more general lack of knowledge of theory/practice of test and measurement regarding test construction OR sound assessment alternatives, ambivalence toward MC testing as well as over-reliance on it is understandable. Nonetheless, it is techically possible in many academic disciplines to build MC items that test learning outcomes beyond mere recogntition/discrimination/recall (e.g. case based items), but it is timeconsuming.

However, the point I want to make is: thinking of assessment as an instructional strategy, online assessment tools offer entirely new possibilities - not just automation of of the same old MC stuff.

Using typical course management systems conditional feedback quizzing logic, automated feedback, hints, and automated scoring, it's possible to create quizzes that are actually instructional, i.e., tutorials, letting online students test and build their own knowledge. For example you can build a "test" that has clear explanations for why each distractor is not the correct answer as well as hints and tips and you can set the test to run over and over again until the student achieves a criterion score. If the quiz is an effective tutor and you have other (cheating resistant) exams in place that retest later, you can create incentive for a student to use that quiz as a learning aid to prepare for the "real" test.

9. wjmark - March 22, 2010 at 06:58 pm

I teach on-line classes at both a community college and a four year university and each uses a different method. The community college has a learning center that places students at a computer and checks their ID. All my exams are computerized including required essay component. The system grades the multiple choice and I grade the essay on line.
At the University I meet face to face with all the students 7 times in a quarter. Three meetings are for lecture on the essay topics and then a review session to answer questions from the on-line and textbook material. This method is not 100% on-line but I feel more secure that the person taking the exam is the person enrolled in the class.

10. toddgilman - March 23, 2010 at 10:37 am

Dear affuller (#4), Yes, I do read all students' assignments and give each student comments in their grade book. But my classes are never more than 30 students so this is still manageable. I'd have to give much thought to an effective assignment for 150 students that wouldn't require endless hours of grading while still ensuring students were actually learning and that I would be helping them improve their work. Regards, Todd Gilman

11. arrive2__net - March 24, 2010 at 03:48 am

These ideas ring true based on my experience as a student and as an instructor in distance education. Some of what the article said, I had learned myself, but I hadn't realized that others had the same experience. Multiple-choice tests have merit in their place, they are usually more reliable than essay tests and the students can see that they have been graded fairly and consistently. You can only really use them when they are consistent with the course objectives, distance or f2f. In distance ed they would seem to have limited use as described because of the possibility of help. It is good that the article mentioned that many distance students really prefer to remain anonymous, you can't take it personally. It is occasionally true of f2f also.
Bernard Schuster

12. kerr7920 - March 24, 2010 at 05:55 am

Gilman's essay reinforces a point that many administrators don't get--online teaching is not automated. It requires real, creative, thoughtful labor from actual, qualified instructors, and that labor needs to be compensated at a fair rate. Online teaching still draws skepticism because so many of the bean-counting administrators who are pushing it see it as a way to reduce labor costs, and seem to think that once a course is built, it can be delivered by any trained monkey who can push a few buttons.

13. proflkr - March 28, 2010 at 09:39 am

As noted by several above, there are many excellent uses of multiple choice, multiple answer, matching and other automatically graded tests - both online and in the classroom. Online students in particular need and strongly desire immediate feedback on a regular basis. Well designed quizzes support self-assessment by creating nuanced choices that assist students in understanding new material. An iterative quiz engenders active reading and guides student focus as they take on large quantities of new material, struggling to understand key ideas. I have been teaching college for 25 years, 10 of those online, and currently work as an instructional designer training faculty. One of the myths that new online instructors believe is that assessment can't be done online. Another myth is that they will interact with students less online than in the classroom. In a well designed online course, with well designed assessments, there are more opportunities for students to interact with the instructor and the material, and assessment activities - even MC quizzes - are valuable interactions. A well designed MC assessment is time consuming to create and as someone else has already mentioned, all LMS have robust tools to provide feedback and branching strategies, as well as a variety of ways to assess understanding through question design. Simplistic questions with obvious distractors, rather than nuanced questions where the distractor measures the level of understanding or misunderstanding of concepts, are not very useful in the long run. I agree that most MC assessments are lazy, but that is because they are not well designed. Simply eliminating this kind of interaction and feedback, especially in an online environment, can undermine student success. I propose faculty learn all they can about assessment techniques and apply them liberally to their course design.

14. ronfitch - April 01, 2010 at 03:56 pm

I appreciate your well-considered article. Of course assessments may be offered online.

The types of assignments you describe - with detailed direction and rubrics, subjective question type, use of modeling proper answers, etc. - is really good assessment technique, whether for online or face-to-face courses. When I worked with faculty in designing online courses, I strongly advised them to do just that. In addition, if they really wanted to include online quizzes or exams, I always told them to consider it an open-book assessment and deign it with that in mind, while combining it with other assessment types.

To echo proflkr's post, assessment activities - even MC quizzes - are valuable interactions.

One area which has not yet been properly researched is online cheating. Yes, the perception is that it exists and many *believe* it occurs more than in face-to-face courses. But of the handful of studies I have seen (with very small samples), that appears to be incorrect. Although there is a large body of research dealing with cheating in face-to-face courses (which does occur with greater frequency than most faculty and instructional staff realize or believe), I don't think we are in a position to make any claims about online instruction.

With the Higher Ed Opportunity Act of 2008, there are a number of vendors at conferences now pitching identity authentication and e-proctoring solutions. Interesting times.

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