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Getting out of the online assignment rut...

Lately, I've been working on a few course developments and a full program evaluation. What I have started to notice was the trend or reuse of assignments across different courses. I've realized that many instructors find a teaching assignment or teaching style that works for them and then they try to make that style or assignment work for all online courses. While if tweaked properly this may be effective, it could also affect the students in a number of ways. 1) Not all students learn the same. 2) Not all students will get the most out of that project. 3) Students may start to become less encouraged or less engaged in the topic and projects. 4) Other reasons that go on and on here...


Therefore, I've been exploring the idea of how to help faculty (or other online instructors) get out of this so-called 'assignment rut' or developing and reusing the same assignment format over and over again. So far... this hasn't been an easy task for me to accomplish. However, I felt the need to share with you all about the process I've been taking.

1) Ensure your assignments are actually meeting the course goals

I've seen a lot of assignments that don't actually align with the goals of the course or requires students to do additional learning prior to completing them. In my experience, you want to have students practice what they have already learned. Put what they have learned into practice. For example, if your course is teaching about a certain topic but then you require students to learn a new topic or practice APA or citations - you must have other experiences in the course where they are able to practice these skills or learn more about the topic prior to submitting for a final project. It is also ideal to post models of previous students' work - so that your class can see what is expected of them. This is especially important in online course work as students can then see what is expected and frame questions after they have all of the resources available.

2) Allow students to be creative

As mentioned above, not all students learn the same. Do not create assignment instructions that are so elaborate and restrictive that students do not feel they can provide their own spin on the project. For example, if requiring students to present on a certain topic - allow the students to pick their own format. Have some required elements (as presented in a rubric) but allow the format to be the students' own creation. Visual learners can use powerpoints, slideshows, screencaptures, etc. Other students may be able to set up a camera and do the presentation as a video of themselves. There also may be a lot of different other formats that are out there and available that we haven't touched on. By allowing students to be creative, you also then can explore what students are using and then it becomes a reciprocal learning approach where you can take what the students are teaching you and apply in your own online course.

3) Use resources already available

There are many websites that provide different listings of online activities (such as the Illinois Online Network). These resources can provide you with a listing of activities you may have not thought of and can help you develop new projects that may work for your course. Why stress yourself out trying to come up with a brand new project when ideas are already at your disposal. When using these resources, it is again key that you make sure the project or assignment is aligning with the course goals and help your students learn.

4) Ask others for help

Many faculty or online instructors have access to students, other faculty, instructional designers, etc. who can help you think outside of the box. When you work on a course for so long, you may start to get tunnel vision and therefore cannot see other options being valid selections as assignments. By having someone else look at the course and the goals, you may be surprised to see what other activities are out there that may work. Asking for help is a skill all instructional designers and faculty should utilize.

Things to Keep in Mind

It is also important to keep a few tips in mind when developing new assignments. Harvard University notes the following:

  • "Don’t assume students are technology natives; prepare students to work in the media that is assigned.

  • Get help from experts. Even if you're familiar with certain media, you might ask someone who produces art or digital media professionally to train your students and provide support for the assignment.

  • Consider whether a digital or creative assignment accomplishes your learning goals better than a traditional assignment. If your assignment is about making an argument or engaging with print sources, then a written paper or oral presentation might be more effective than a digital or creative project.

  • Require students to cite faithfully and appropriately, which may include submitting a bibliography for a digital assignment.

  • Share your discipline’s debates on originality and source use with your students."

Regardless of how this process works for you - the main takeaway should be keeping an open mind and making sure the assignments are meeting what your students should be learning from the course. You also want to keep in mind that adding too many new elements to a course may be cognitive overload for your students. If this is the case - make sure to include resources and guides to ease the transition for your learners.

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