Create meaningful assignments that promote course learning goals

March 7, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Generic assignments (write a 10-page review of the literature on a topic) create problems. Without clear, explicit expectations, students might draw incorrect assumptions and produce work that fails to meet instructor goals. Worse, a few students will seek generic “examples” from the internet or submit work from paper mills, creating problems with academic misconduct.

 How can we avoid miscommunication and create assignments that work as effective learning activities and assessment tasks?

 Articulate the learning goals for the assignment. What do you expect students to learn when they complete this assignment? Do assigned activities allow students to practice skills described in course goals and show you what they have learned? When the connection between an assignment and its purpose are clear, students are less likely to perceive the assignment as “busy work.” The work itself will reflect relevant student skills and enable you to evaluate student learning.

 Consider the current skill level of your students. Do students have the existing knowledge and skill to complete the assignment? For example, does the assignment require specialized research or library skills? Does the assignment require students to know how to use the writing conventions for the discipline (language use, citation styles)? Do students know how to manage their work and complete the assignment? If your course articulates learning outcomes for these skills, how do you expect students to learn and practice these skills during the term? Consider breaking a large assignment into milestone assignments that will allow students to practice, benefit from feedback, and acquire necessary skills.

 Connect the assignment to practical, transferrable skills. Assignments should entail tasks and activities that require students to use knowledge and skills they learn in the course to perform realistic work similar to work professionals in the discipline complete. Adjust expectations to reflect the level of the course. Expectations for assignments completed in beginning or advanced undergraduate courses should be different than those for graduate-level courses.

 What the assignment description should communicate to students

  • Purpose of the assignment. Describe the course learning outcomes the assignment serves. Explanations about why an assignment is important and relevant to course goals can motivate students to devote more time and effort to the assignment.
  • Hallmark characteristics of the work students should produce. Describe the components and special characteristics of the work you expect students to produce. For example, do students know how a “literature review paper” differs in content, format, or acceptable resources from an “empirical research paper?”  
  • Describe the practical “nuts and bolts” of the assignment. Identify major components of the assignment and describe how they fit together logically. Provide guidance about the process or steps required to complete the assignment. Beginning students will need more explicit process descriptions than do more advanced students. However, all students benefit when they complete a complex project through a series of milestone assignments that structure and sequence the process.
  • Describe the criteria you will use to evaluate the quality of student work. Describe the characteristics of high-quality work and lesser-quality work. Rubrics are excellent ways to communicate expectations for quality. A checklist, text description, template, or model paper can also communicate expectations. Students should be able to connect the assessment criteria to the task, purpose, and learning goals of the assignment.


Boye, A. (November 23, 2015). How do I create meaningful and effective assignments? Retrieved from

Palmer, M., LaFleur, J, & Gravett, E. (2016, November). Transparent Assignment Rubric. POD Network Conference, Louisville, KY.

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