Rethinking the Structure of My Online Assignments

Maroon front cover of the book Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online ClassesFull of specific and practical suggestions, Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes (Jossey-Bass, 2019), by Flower Darby with James M. Lang, is a book I wish I had had when I first started teaching online. I’ve read the book twice, once when I bought it in Fall 2019 and again in January of this year as part of a book club I was participating in.

Early in the book, Darby urges readers to “Create assignment instructions that provide a clear rationale for the work your students will do, as well as clear directions for how they can accomplish it successfully” (p. 15). This advice holds for any teaching format: online, face-to-face, hybrid, flipped, hyflex—any of these teaching situations will benefit from clearly articulated directions and rationale.

When I read the book again this year, I rethought my assignment structure, based on Darby’s example. In the book, Darby describes the template she has designed for her assignments, using these three headings:

  • Here’s what I want you to do: I explain the task.
  • Here’s why I want you to do it: I explain the reason this task will contribute to the student’s success in class and beyond.
  • Here’s how to do it: I provide detailed instructions, rubrics, checklists, and exemplars to help students clearly see and understand my expectations. (p. 17)

I liked the directness of Darby’s headings, though I tweaked them a bit. After a bit of experimentation this Spring Semester, I have settled on these headings:

  • Goals: a list of the course objectives addressed in the assignment. (required in our program)
  • What I Want You to Do: a brief summary of the activity and its relationship to the rest of the course activities
  • Why I Want You to Do It: the reason I have designed the assignment and how it connects to larger course goals.
  • Where You Can Find Help: a list of references to the course textbook, and links to course webpages and other resources.
  • When to Do It: Relevant due dates and how they fit into the larger course schedule
  • How to Do It: the step-by-step instructions for the assignment.
  • How to Assess and Track Your Work: the assignment criteria, and details on feedback and revision.

Three of the headings correspond to Darby’s. I added Where You Can Find Help to make the resources in the textbook and other course materials easier to find. Previously, I added these materials in the step-by-step instructions, but students had to read through those instructions to find them. The change pulls those references out into a more visible location.

Our LMS (Canvas) adds details on the due dates and deadlines at the end of every assignment, but they are simple dates with no explanation. I added the When to Do It section so that I could explain the specifics of the suggested due date, the grace period, and the last day the work is accepted. All that information is in the LMS notation, but students have to understand the jargon that the system uses. I prefer to explain in plain English to avoid any confusion.

Finally, I added the section on How to Assess and Track Your Work, to provide links to activity checklists as well as peer review guidelines and assignments. Since I use an #ungrading approach, students need reminders on how the system works and what they need to do to track the work that they put into the course.

I know that is a lot of sections to develop for each writing assignment and class activity, but I hope it will guide students to the information that they need quickly. Now I just have to convert all my assignments so that they consistently use this structure before the Summer I Session starts on May 24!