Title

Rethinking Your Assignments for Online Learning

Some options.

April 2, 2020
 
 

Much of the advice about moving courses online is practical and straightforward:

  • Let your students know how to reach you and get help.
  • Be explicit about requirements and due dates.
  • Keep your presentations simple.
  • Integrate existing online resources into your class.
  • Identify and support struggling students.
  • Make sure students with disabilities are well served.

But this advice is largely about knowledge transmission. It’s not about student engagement and learning.

What can we do to advance and assess student learning? 

Let me suggest some activities and assignments that work well in an online environment – that are easy to implement, do not boost your workload, and do-able by students with limited access to technology.

1. Engage students with surveys, polls, and quizzes.
Frequent low-stakes assessments enhance student engagement and learning – and do not need to be done synchronously.  Activities like survey, polls, and quizzes keep students focused and help you and them monitor their engagement and command of the course material.

2. Use the discussion board as more than a space to share opinions.
Too often, online discussions are shallow and superficial, disconnected from the other facets of the course’s learning experience.  To make these conversations more meaningful, consider using the boards for a variety of purposes:

  • As a space where students can brainstorm solutions to a problem or respond to a case study and address a hypothetical or take on a role.
  • As a space where students must respond and build on a previous response.
    • As a space where students must succinctly critique an argument or reading or analyze an image, text, artifact, film clip, chart, or other item.
  • As a space where students reflect on what they have learned.

3. Have the students write a brief explanation of a key concept in the class or write an abstract of an article.
One of the best ways to master a concept is to teach it or summarize it, and this activity requires students to demonstrate their command of a topic or a reading.

4. Ask students to identify, describe, and evaluate an online resource relevant to the class.
Have the students locate a website, a database, an online simulation, or a recent news article that speaks to issues you are dealing with in the course.  In the process, the students might alert you to a resource that you may wish to integrate into the class.

5. Have students write an op-ed essay, a policy brief, or a news article on a topic covered in the class.
If one of our goals is to help novice learners emulate expert practice, give your students opportunities to engage in the kinds of authentic activities that professionals undertake.

6. Let students engage in data visualization and analysis.
Ask your students to explicate and analyze a graph, a chart, or a diagram, or, alternatively have them visually represent or statistically analyze a data set or the results of a laboratory experiment.

7. Create a research methods scavenger hunt.
One of my goals as an instructor is to improve my students’ research skills, and one way to do this is to create a “scavenger hunt,” which includes questions designed to familiarize students with a wide range of library resources.  Here are some examples:

  • A letter written from Paris to a correspondent in London bears the date "Paris 9 juil. 1672." By fast post and packet, letters could reach London from Paris in two days. Yet the reply to this letter, written the day it was received, is dated, "London, July the first, 1672." How do you account for this?
  • Give the important historical meanings of the words "enthusiastic," "awful," and "blue stocking."
  • By 1902 how many articles or reviews dealing with Karl Marx could be found in British and American English-language periodicals?

The current crisis has changed the way we deliver our courses.  It should also alter our instructional activities.  We need assignments that can’t be completed with a Wikipedia or Google search, and that encourage immersion, engagement, and active processing of information.  Our activities should involve research skills, weighing evidence and arguments, critical analysis, and application.

In creating your assignments, make sure that your students can complete the activity successfully regardless of their circumstances.  That’s one reason why the assignments I have mentioned do not require collaboration.

Also, tightly align your activities with your learning objectives.  Make sure that the assignment helps students solidify the knowledge and skills you want to cultivate.  Additionally, share the rationale for the assignment with your students, who need to understand that the activity is not simply busywork. 

Online assessments need not be confined to tests – which are problematic since they tempt online students to cheat. The kinds of assessments listed above have a different purpose: To have students engage and process the course material, encourage them to think critically, analytically, and independently, and apply their knowledge and skills in authentic contexts.

Steven Mintz is senior advisor to the President of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives

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