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Overview: Creating Assessments and Assignments

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Assessment Types

As instructors, you set learning outcomes and, through assignments, you assess student progress toward these intended outcomes (note that the word assignment refers to the set of tasks a student completes while assessment refers to the manner of evaluating students). The work we assign students typically doubles as a way to assess their progress. These assessments can be divided into formative and summative ones that differ in their purposes (more below). You’ll want to ensure your course has a healthy mix of both so that you have a way to evaluate learning (summative assessments ) and provide developmental opportunities for students to practice and receive feedback throughout the course (formative assessments).

Summative assessments are commonly used at the end of a module, unit of study or topic to show you how well students have achieved/learned your course objectives. They are often high-stakes, such as a final exam, research paper or report. They represent the culmination of a module, unit of study or topic within a course.  Therefore, summative assessments are useful for evaluating how well students have understood the larger lessons and complex knowledge and skills of a course.

Formative assessments are the opposite of summative assessments. They serve as knowledge or skills checks throughout a module, unit of study or topic, and help you and your students gauge their progress. Unlike summative assessments, formative assessments are low-stakes and allow students to test their knowledge without undue pressure. Quizzes with little or no point values, brief reflections, online discussions -- all of these are examples of formative assessments. They let you monitor student progress and provide timely feedback to direct students' learning, and thereby serve an important role in a course.


Get Started

To start, consider how students will engage with the content in your course. What do you want them to be able to do by the end of the course, and how will they demonstrate it? The answers to these questions will determine your learning objectives and course assessments. Assessments should be tied to your learning objectives and give students an opportunity to demonstrate and build knowledge and skill.

We encourage you to consider these questions before designing assessments:

  1. How will formative assessments, or assignments, help build students' skill toward the summative assessments in your course?
  2. How much time should students spend on the assessments? When will they be due? How do they fit in with the week/module? 
  3. What opportunities for feedback do the assessments provide, and will you be able to provide feedback in a timely way?
  4. What does success look like? What are the criteria and expectations? Do you have examples to show students? Do students have the skills and tools they need to be successful? 
  5. Are there different ways students can demonstrate learning? For example, students could either submit a written or video reflection, allowing them  a choice in how to show their learning.

Set Expectations and Timing

  • Set smaller weekly assignments to gauge students’ engagement as they asynchronously interact with course material. 
  • Spread out low-stakes opportunities evenly throughout the course to help students track their learning and progress.
  • Make the purpose of the assignment clear to students: why are they doing it and how does it align with the learning objectives? Transparency about purpose can increase the relevance of coursework for students and thus improve their motivation. Considering using the Transparent Assignment template. You can also use a rubric to set clear expectations. Canvas allows you to easily add a rubric to any assignment.
  • If you have a single, longer assignment you may break down the assignment into smaller parts to be completed over a series of weeks. With a high student submission pool, it can sometimes be tricky to provide timely meaningful feedback before the next assignment is due. Plan the assignment stages and due dates around when you can get the most grading done.

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