Assignments | Viewpoint

Creating Assignments That Work for Digital Learning Environments

Teachers who spend time actually thinking through assignments that align with the learning outcomes of a course are the most effective at assessing the learning that has taken place. Now, however, even the most creative teachers are being stretched like never before in regards to creating assignments that work in technology-rich learning environments. While evaluating learning in the purest sense might never really be possible given the scope of variables, new technologies are making it more achievable than ever before.

When assignments are creative and applied and, most of all, relevant, so that all learning styles and aspects of course content can be integrated, students are usually more positive about their performance. When assignments are vacuous and seem only to present "busy" work to students with no apparent application to reality, students become frustrated and often feel misrepresented and diminished in the process.

To create assignments that work the focus must be on process, not task. Many constructivist learning theorists in the past have agreed on this, yet it remains a challenge. It's tempting to identify tasks, as they can be analyzed more easily, they're quantifiable and, therefore, gradable. Process-based learning is messier, takes longer to evaluate and, by definition, allows for many more variables than simple tasks. I do not mean that tasks are never to be assigned or evaluated. I mean that tasks are simply that--tasks. They do not necessarily demonstrate the learning of the student in the wider sense of the word. To shift the focus to process, however, we need to change what we value in our grading.

The Importance of Developing Technology Skills ... and Assigning a Grade
When technology is integrated into a learning environment and students are using it in their learning process, the assignments must also include technology use. For example, if students are using computers to work on projects, do research, collaborate with their peers, or interact with resources and are then assigned to write a paper on a set topic without using some aspect of the technology, the assignment will seem unnecessary and dissociated with their learning experience. We can actually evaluate the process of research, the methodology used, and the organization and application of the new information precisely because technology has been used, but we also need to include those skills in the grade allocation. The actual writing of the paper is the final step in a long process of learning. While there are writing skills required to successfully write the paper that should not be ignored, the entire process should be evaluated and the full knowledge of the student assessed.

In order to evaluate the process, I have developed a four-step system I follow with students. I refer to this as process-based assessment.

Project Design and Proposal I require my students to create and submit an actual project design that outlines the goals, timelines, resources, technology, and participants involved.

Discussion of the Process We then discuss in the class group or online and I invite comments and input from everyone on the various plans.

Portfolio Submissions Final objects and all documentation are submitted to online wikis where everything can be openly viewed.

Multiple Inputs and Evaluation Each project receives feedback from peers, participants, and me. All of this is aligned with the rubric and a grade assigned for everything.

In a technology-rich learning environment, every aspect of the technology use must be integrated into the overall assignment design and assigned a grade percentage to add value. Additionally, in a digital learning environment--whether fully online or blended--students do not respond well to assignments that sit outside the digital environment, as they become inconvenient and marginalized. For example, students should be able to fully demonstrate their learning digitally--not via hardcopy. Digitally, students can integrate images and direct links to blogs or wikis or Internet sites within their presentation, which expands the scope of their assignment and also more fully reflects not only their academic learning but their technological skill development. It also provides an opportunity for the multilayering of information that is central to a digital environment rather than a linear flow.

Content Rigor: What It Does Not Mean
When being challenged to think creatively and innovatively to use technology and create effective assignments, many educators worry that academic rigor will suffer and their students will be shortchanged. But what exactly is academic rigor? To find an answer, it's helpful to look first at what it is not.

Content rigor does not mean that students or teachers are working all the time in a class or online session. It also does not mean that vast amounts of homework are necessary. In fact, piling the work on students will just frustrate them. Academic rigor is not achieved through sternness or distancing oneself from students in an attempt to seem lofty or highly intelligent.

Instead, academic rigor should be perceived as fully accessible and "applied" content for teachers and students (in other words, not "hiding" content to trick students). Teachers should always be ready and willing facilitators to the learning process, providing whatever resources are necessary for students to succeed. In other words, academic rigor does not equal mystery. In fact, it de-mystifies complex meaning for students.

The reality is that academic rigor is about relevancy, currency, and challenge.

Relevency is not the notion that the subject area must be popular with students. Many subject areas are unpopular, but necessary. It does mean, however, that students can see how and why they are learning what they are and that it is fully relevant to their overall development. It means that students understand the necessity of what they are learning to the overall discipline they are studying. Relevancy essentially forms the academic thinking of students.

Students must be taught by current scholars, not teachers who represent "yesterday." Students know when their teacher has current examples and applications and can connect them with real and current contexts for application. Additionally, technology must be included for currency, as any subject area has a use for technology both for study and, eventually, for professional work in that field. Currency keeps students engaged and interested.

Finally, academic rigor means challenge on every level. Students should feel stretched and constantly moving outside what is comfortable for them. Something to remember here is that when a teacher does not move himself or herself outside the comfort area or refuses to appear stretched in any way, students will not only become disengaged but will not be stretched themselves. Their learning will be diminished as a result.

Guidance from your Students
As you become more familiar with your students, some adjustments can be made according to their specific learning needs. Remember that an assignment may probably never run the same way twice. That's a good thing.

When designing assignments, keep the learning outcomes of the course beside you, and use something like the following as a checklist for accountability to rigor:

  • Is this assignment relevant?
  • Is this assignment current?
  • Is this assignment challenging?
  • Does this assignment integrate technology use?

It is always a good idea to involve students in the evaluation of assignments. After every assignment ask students to complete a short survey letting you know how they feel the assignment rated in each of the areas mentioned above. Be sure to include a comment field for their ideas for future assignments. This will help to keep you connected with students and creative as a teacher.

Framework for progressive assignment creation
In terms of the value of an assignment to the overall learning of the student, the following provides a framework from which good assignments can emerge. You are a content expert and a facilitator of learning. Your job as an educator is to support each student as he or she learns, all the while forming his or her thinking within the specific discipline you teach.

Posing a Problem--Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is a skill, not a subject area. All courses should develop critical thinking in students--even highly quantifiable subjects like Math. Students should be encouraged to question the status quo of every idea, every concept, and every application, in order to be able to fully articulate their own ideas in relation to those valued in the field. The idea that this kind of thinking can only happen later on is simply not true. Even the smallest child should be encouraged to question and realize that knowledge is to be constructed and is never pre-set.

Focus on Process--Collaboration
Vygotsky (1962) referred to the zone of proximal development, meaning that there is a process to learning that must be recognized and supported and there are stages in that process that require intervention and stages that do not. The idea is that as effective educators we must engage students at every stage and provide assignments that involve both supported and independent learning. Technology is key here as so many new tools, such as blogs, wikis, and micro blogs, allow students to retain and represent their independent thinking and development through digital captures and posts. At the same time, they're able to remain part of the class community and even participate in a wider global community via the Internet. That is, students can learn simultaneously how to learn individually and as part of a group or wider context. This is vital for social knowledge construction and for relevancy and rigor. When students realize that their ideas are posted and therefore "published," they assign more value to their work and look for affirmation of their ideas from the field--this is academic pursuit at its best.

Flexibility of Presentation--Refusal To Support Rote Repetition
Additionally, students should be provided flexibility in how they present their work in a digital environment as encouragment to fully value all their ideas and their learning process. By diminishing presentation to only one option, teachers exclude creativity and innovation, both of which are vital to the overall perception of individual success for students.

Many teachers might agree whole-heartedly with the ideas in this paper and yet feel that they cannot implement them given the confines of the set programs they are assigned to teach. I understand that kind of challenge. However, I never cease to be amazed at how innovative teachers can be when committed to better learning. There are numerous examples of teachers who have implemented many of these ideas with a fairly tightly set curriculum and methodology. My sense is that these teachers are those who see standardized outcomes and curriculum as a starting point rather than an ending point. They see their role in the process as being the guide, the facilitator, the encourager, and the supporter providing students with as many options as possible to pursue their own learning rather than being controlled by someone else's standards and ideas.


Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and Language.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press



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