Before you plunge into creating your content for that online course, you first need to create your learning objectives (LOs), I will cover that in another post. Actually, before you create the LOs you need to plan your course, which means I have to make another post about that (great! That’s good news!). In the meantime, just after you complete this step, you need to plan the activities that will give students an opportunity to practice what you have been teaching, which it will help them for the test.

This is the part where you will create assignments, and they should have a purpose, and that’s not just to keep your students busy. I have seen many courses where students attend classes (or recorded lectures) and later take tests. This works if your test will cover a chunk of the course material, but many courses just go over textbook chapters until they hit the middle of the course where students are faced with a middle term exam, with no activities planned for students to practice. They were expected to read chapters and attend lectures (or watch recorded classes) and no more.

You need to give students an opportunity to practice what they are learning, and this is especially important for online classes. That is the purpose of assignments, to make students apply their new acquired (and previously known) knowledge. These assignments will help them see the gaps in their knowledge, what they need to study, and most important, it will encourage them to ask questions in the LMS and during virtual office hours.

The kind of assignments you can insert in your courses should be aligned with the course objectives, and yours. Like they say, there are many ways to skin a cat, you can make assignments in many formats: written, problem-based, research, interactive materials, field study, and so on. We will discuss a few in this post.

Written Assignments

These are the most used in the online environment, LMS systems have evolved to allow for this type of assignment. Of course, these assignments are hard to grade if you have a class of more than twenty students, unless you have help. It is recommended you create rubrics for written assignments, this way students can understand what is expected of them, this rubric shows the elements that will be graded in the assignment. In another post I made the case for providing the best feedback, and rubrics are a part of this process. It would be hard for me to recommend a book on how to create assignments because it can vary from discipline to discipline. If you are teaching an online English composition class, this book might help you, if you are teaching a mathematics course and you need tips for written assignments, this book might be for you.

Online Discussion Forums

These are similar to written assignments, except you need to prepare the discussion prompt in a way students can appreciate the learning value in their submissions. You may use open questions that can start a discussion or conversation. Once they submit a response, you can reply by asking more questions. Or you can require students to respond to other students with questions as well. You may build a case study and ask students to analyze the procedure they would have used, why they would prefer that choice, and the deficiencies of the outcome reported in that case (this could apply to courses in health sciences or engineering).

In statistics courses, you may select a study that computed statistical data and ask students how they would go about calculating that data, or if they would have used the same technique the researchers used. You can ask students to explain the advantages or disadvantages of those techniques. On subject of History, you could select a passage from a writer or scholar that developed an essay or analysis of an event in History, and ask students if they agree with the analysis, or if they disagree, the reasons for doing so.

Research Papers

This could also fall under written assignments, what separates this assignment from others is the amount of time it requires to prepare, and the writing style used. It could also have many components, for example you could require students send a draft to you for review, a final presentation might be a component of the final grade. Writing a research paper is certainly different from writing an assignment that is asking for your input.

You can grade students on the writing style they use for this assignment, which is not the same style you would use for a discussion post or for a written assignment on a problem. Along with posting the assignment, you should include guidelines on what the research paper is expected to include. Of course, if your course is about doing research, this is how you will be assessing their progress in the course. If your course is on a different subject, you need to provide these guidelines and maybe resources where they can learn or review on how to prepare a research paper. There are many resources out there but check out this book.

Report on Field Work

Instructors use these assignments to assess the student’s understanding of the material and their research skills. You might ask them to interview experts on the field; you can look at the kind of questions they will be asking, you should give them an opportunity to submit these questionnaires to you. You can determine if they are understanding the subject, or if they need corrections.

In biology courses, you may assign a field research project where they will be required to prepare a report, which should include data. This assignment will help you to determine if students can identify which data to report, how to report the data, writing style and format, and if they can reach conclusions based on the data they collected. These assignments can be modified to apply to other subjects where field research is feasible.

Final Thoughts

There are many other assignments you could use for your online course, just remember they need to fulfill your learning objectives. The assignment needs to have a purpose, and students should feel they accomplish something after they complete the assignment. It is important to keep the communication channels open, you will need to provide feedback that can help students improve their next assignment submissions. Assignments are an important part of online learning, this is where students can apply what they learned in the course, unless you choose to use a test or quiz. Keep in mind quizzes are more appropriate after covering a small portion of the course, do not wait until you have covered a lot of material to test students. In this latter case, assignments can reinforce learning better than a comprehensive test.

As always, let me know what you think by filling the form below, leave a comment and I will reply as soon as possible. Alternatively, you can send me an email to jcastro@elearninginmotion.com.