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Create high-impact assignments

October 17, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Create high-impact assignments

The success of team-based learning depends on the quality of the assignments instructors design for team projects. The principles for creating a high-impact assignment that engages students in complex, high-level thinking also apply to individual assignments.

The “four S’s” describe four characteristics of successful team-based learning projects. These characteristics also apply to high quality projects that students complete alone.

  • Significant problem. The assignment must pose a problem that captures interest and that students recognize as a relevant problem. Make the value and relevance of the problem explicit when you frame the problem in the initial assignment. Don’t rely on students to discover the importance or relevance of the problem on their own. Pose a problem that requires students to apply course content and is sufficiently complex or ambiguous to produce multiple solutions.
  • Same problem. Create a single problem, case, or question for students to solve. The problem should be complex enough to generate multiple reasonable solutions. When students work on the same problem, the different solutions they generate create the foundation for a rich discussion among students (or among a student team) about the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed solutions. When students are allowed to select their own problem for an assignment, learning stops during class discussions when students attempt to share what they learned from their individual problem. Resist the temptation to engage student interest by allowing students to select different problems. Although unique problems selected by students may enhance interest and engage the student in the process of problem-solving, they do not deepen their learning by examining how other students solved their problem.
  • Specific choice. Completing the assignment must require students to apply course principles and content to make a specific choice as a recommended solution to the problem posed. The problem posed should create a situation in which students must apply course content, disciplinary models, and analytic processes to make their choice.
  • Simultaneous report. Create a reporting process that requires every student (or team) to report their choice at the same time. Clicker questions or response cards are one mechanism for simple choices. More complex choices/solutions can be presented in a gallery walk of posters. The ensuing class discussion of the various solutions will engage students and deepen their understanding of course concepts.

What makes a problem significant?

Significant problems ask students to engage in class content in meaningful ways. Pose complex problems that will generate multiple solutions that may all be acceptable but might vary in quality. Avoid questions or problems that can be answered by mechanically repeating textbook content or applying a “plug and chug” process.

The following three versions of a problem represent different levels of problem quality:

  • Least effective: Make a list. The question asks students to identify the characteristics of a high-quality problem solution. Usually students can find such a list in their textbook. “Solving” this problem only requires students to locate and copy the list. Discussion of different lists among students is likely to be deadly boring.
  • Moderately effective: Make a choice. Present a case study and ask students to identify the best choice for this case. For example, present students with a set of data on multiple measures (quantitative or qualitative) and ask them to predict an outcome (e.g., next likely event in a geopolitical conflict, impact on an ecosystem, impact on group dynamics, success of company or marketing scheme) or select an explanation (e.g., choose a medical diagnosis, select among competing theoretical explanations).
  • Highly effective: Make a specific choice. Which piece of information from the case is most critical for making a choice (i.e., for predicting an outcome, making a diagnoses, supporting one explanation over another). This assignment is more effective because it requires students to be able to make the list of key characteristics and complete the activities for the make a choice assignment and then go one step further. This assignment requires students to move beyond rote reproduction of a collection of “facts.” Instead, students must evaluate options and, if working in a group, discuss the merits of options with others before making their choice. The class discussion of specific choices broadens the analysis by increasing the diversity of proposed choices and considering the strengths and weakness of each proposed choice. Students and groups are sufficiently invested in their choice to support a spirited and thoughtful discussion.

Activities for a gallery walk activity

Students rotate among the posters, evaluate, and provide feedback on the solutions.

  • Ask students to vote on the best solution among those posted. Class discussion focuses on why that solution is better than the others.
  • Students identify the single greatest weakness of each proposed solution. Class discussion might focus on how each weakness might be addressed to create an improved solution.
  • Students develop a list of best ideas and a list of “remaining problems” questions based on all of the posters. Class discussion might involve developing a new solution that incorporates the best ideas from several posters while minimizing the problems identified for individual solutions.


Michaelsen, L., K., & Sweet, M. (2008). Creating effective team assignments. In L. K., Michaelsen, D. X. Parmelee, K.K. McMahon, & R. E. Levine (Eds.), Team-based learning for health professions education: A guide to using small groups for improving learning (pp. 35-59). Sterling, VA: Stylus.