eCoaching Tip 117 Do Your Assignments — and Learning Activities — Really Engage Your Students?

December 3, 2014

eCoaching Tip 117: Do Your Assignments — and Learning Activities — Really Engage Your Students?


Assignments are a significant part of any course experience. The best assignments— those that grab the students and keep them working far beyond requirements — generally are distinguished by their meaningfulness, connections to others, usefulness, and authenticity.

As you are preparing your spring courses, consider asking yourself this question:  How do my course assignments measure up in terms of relative time, interest, and learning benefits for my students?

Use the following checklist to evaluate one or more of your assignments — and then tweak or revise it to enrich its potential value for your students. Making small changes can often make a huge difference in student engagement.

 Checklist for Evaluating the Relative Usefulness and Benefits of an Assignment

  1. Is the purposeof the assignment clear to students so they see the connection between the assignment and achieving one or more of the stated knowledge or skill outcomes?

In other words, does the work they are to do for the assignment or activity provide learning and practice in their progression towards expertise?

  1. Is the assignment interesting to the student?

Does the question, problem, or content posed by the assignment energize the student? Does the assignment provide an opportunity for the student to create new knowledge about people or local environments or research new connections or relationships?

  1. Is the assignment life-useful for the student?

Does the assignment further a student’s confidence, knowledge, or skill set in dealing with current or future life and career situations? Is the skill, process or tool to be used help in developing transferable skills for the student? Consider assignments that students find interesting and useful. Consider digital media assignments as alternatives to traditional paper assignments.  Digital media assignments let students demonstrate their knowledge of course content through the creation of multimedia objects such as short video documentaries, digital stories, audio podcasts, digital essays, etc. (ENGAGE, 2012)

  1. Does the assignment have choicecomponents?

Choosing a topic or focus is one type of choice. Choosing to show evidence of learning by doing something other than writing a paper is another type of choice. For example, students might want to create a web site, create a video or audio presentation/podcast, or make a physical artifact.  Research on choice (Langer, 1997, Langer, 2000) suggests that choice increases mindfulness, engagement and also reduces stress. On the other hand, too much choice can result in overload, so limited choices are recommended.

  1. Does the assignment have an audience beyondthe instructor?

Assignments can energize students by simply changing the audience for the work so that an assignment will be seen, heard, reviewed, or appreciated beyond just the instructor. Examples of a broader audience might be a mini-conference, poster presentations, or repackaging of old content for a new audience shared with a large class, program, or institutional audience. Examples of a global audience would be a Wikipedia article or other new created web resource.

  1. Does the assignment reinforce core conceptsof the course and help to reveal patterns and relationships within the course content?
  2. Does the assignment help to build communityby students reviewing and brainstorming ideas and encouraging collaborative work?
  3. Does the assignment encourage students to create, make decisions, or dosomething that requires interaction with the authentic, more complex, larger world beyond the classroom or course texts?

Creating assignments with all these characteristics is likely not possible or even desirable for all the assignments in a course. However, creating one or more assignments with some of these characteristics can have a major impact on learning and community. The work of Hayles (2008) affirms the value of designing activities and assignments with the characteristics of “autonomy, competence, and relatedness.” These characteristics help students integrate the cognitive and emotional dimensions of learning, as we feel better when we have choice and “autonomy.” Competency, the building of skill and knowledge, also builds feelings of joy and success, such as “Yes, I know how to do it now!”  The characteristic of “relatedness” builds on our desire to have a voice in our learning, to figure things out while interacting with others, and to share and get feedback from others to improve our learning creations.

What are some examples of assignments and activities with many of these characteristics? Where might you start? The course project is a good place to start, followed by fine-tuning discussion forums to have more value for the learner.

Course Project Assignment Example

Course projects generally are a series of learning assignments, rather than a single event. Here is how a course project might unfold over the phases of a course and how it can be designed to be of maximum interest and usefulness to students.

  • Course Project Assignment #1: Select a topic, question, or research action for the course project.

Note: This is where personal choice, customization, interest, usefulness come into play. Also, this assignment is most useful early in the course as it helps to build purpose for learning throughout the course.

  • Course Project Assignment #2: Research and explore a topic sufficiently to develop a draft proposal of the project and possible resources to use for the project.

Note: This assignment begins to gather evidence of a student’s understanding of core concepts and potential relationships, etc. This is also a good stage for informal conversations and sharing of resources with others.

  • Course Project Assignment #3: Share progress with one other student and help, aid other student with their project while receiving input, feedback, and help with resources.

Collaborating with another student builds in relatedness to others and also broadens perspective on the course content, linking to developing a broader knowledge and exposure to multiple scenarios, questions, and problems.

  • Course Project Assignment #4: Complete a draft of the proposal for your course project.

Note: Proposal should show initial understandings of core concepts and be guided by expectations described in the assignment rubric.

  • Course Project Assignment #5: Meet with a different student and share drafts and get input. Also meet with instructor on draft.

Note: This is an informal assignment and evidence of its completion is in the meeting, discussion with the instructor and private journal entries if desired. Evidence of student discussions generally emerges in discussion forum postings.

  • Course Project Assignment #6: Course project proposal is completed, handed in and reviewed, approved by instructor. This assignment is graded based on the proposal rubric, given with the assignment instructions.
  • Course Project Assignment #7: Complete a course project milestone that describes progress, changes to the proposal, if appropriate and next steps with dates and meet with a course project buddy.

This assignment helps to keep students on track and is an opportunity for either the project buddies or the instructor to provide guidance and input. This step helps to reinforce core concepts, processes, tools, and relatedness with others.

  • Course Project Assignment #8: Progress report is handed in to instructor and graded according to the rubric.
  • Course Project Assignment #9: Course project presentation is shared with a larger group, audience, but at a minimum, 5-6 other students.

This sharing accomplishes two purposes: It broadens the audience, increasing the motivation for doing a professional job, and also is a way for other students to increase their understanding of how the content is used in authentic situations.  This is a form of vicarious practice. The instructor, according to the rubric, grades this presentation. Comments from students might be integrated as well.

  • Course Project Assignment #10: Complete course project in whatever form — paper, podcast, video, play, blog, newscast, report, plan — has been agreed upon. Add to portfolio after review and grading by instructor.

 Discussion Forum Example

Most online courses use the discussion forum as the space where students respond to questions, problems, and scenarios posed by their instructor. A good question to pursue is how do we design forum discussions with more of the qualities and characteristics described above.  Think of ways to spur connections to local community or regional events, building interest and the ability to relate to family and friends.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Pose a question that requires students to research a local event, place, or activity. In a leadership course, students might be asked to analyze how a community leader responded to a crisis and its consequences. In a business course, students might research a marketing strategy of a business close to home, such as a local non-profit. In a science course, students might research the environmental variables most significant for their region.
  2. Develop questions or problems that spur connections to local community or regional events, building interest and the ability to relate to family and friends.
  3. Rather than always having students read and respond to other postings, have students collaborate with one other student to do joint reporting, or to Identify an insight from a reading that may have continuing significance into the future and why.
  4. Design a debate format, where students choose to support one position or another position and defend it. Consider having some students post initial position papers and then task other students with a support or rebuttal position.
  5. Reflect on a core concept from a reading that touches them intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
  6. Identify one or two seminal papers and have students choose which paper to read and then present big ideas, core concepts to others for reflection and response.

The purpose of learning activities and assignments is to guide students to build the knowledge, skills and attitudes to become competent in the desired learning outcomes.   In other words, we want students to move from being a novice in a field to increasing their expertise and understanding in a field. It is the student who must do this, and consequently the student must make choices and complete activities so that this state of development and learning happens. We want to help students to build confidence, understanding on their journey towards expertise in a given area of knowledge and skill.


In conclusion, the guidelines for evaluating activities and assignments are rooted in the learner’s perspective, focusing on what students are doing, thinking, creating. We always design for our expected students, but during the course of teaching a group of particular students, it is very desirable to flex and customize our teaching for the particular set of students in a course.


Boettcher, J. V. (2011). Evidence of Learning Online: Assessment Beyond The Paper. Campus Technology.

ENGAGE. (2012). Teaching with Digital Media Assignments (pp. 18). Madison WI: University of Wisconsin. Retrieved from

Hayles, K. N. (2007). Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes. Profession, pp. 187-199.  Retrieved from

McCarthy, A. T. (2012). Designing Online Course Assignments for Student Engagement: Strategies and Best Practices. Currents in Teaching and Learning, 4(2), 31 – 41. Retrieved from

Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning.  Reading, MA. Addison-Wesley.

Langer, E. J. (2000). Mindful Learning.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(6), pp. 220 to 223.  Retrieved from

The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning (2014). Characteristics of Effective Online Assignments.Retrieved December 3, 2014 from

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher