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Assignment design: sequencing assignments

Footprints in sandThe goal of assignment sequencing is a stepwise development of students’ skills (i.e., movement from preliminary to higher level critical thinking or disciplinary skills) through a progression of assignments that all fit together to produce a larger end product. It involves exploring subject matter in increasingly complex ways or from different angles. Assignment sequences can augment a cohesive course design in that the sequence steps can highlight various key components while the end product can incorporate all elements of the course.

Sequencing Possibilities

  • Use a book-end or entry-exit model. Have students write down everything they know about the targeted issue/skill set at the beginning of the assignment sequence. At the end of the sequence, have them write down everything they know in light of their new experiences.
  • Submit drafts. You might ask students to submit drafts in order to receive your quick responses on scope, content, and progress in assignments.
  • Require consultations. Have students consult with those who work at different stages of a process, and summarize what they learned (i.e., architect, site planner, construction foreperson, landscaper, real estate agent).
  • Explore a subject in increasingly complex ways. A series of assignments may be linked by the same subject matter or topic. Students encounter new perspectives and competing ideas with each new assignment, and thus must evaluate and balance these various points of view and ultimately adopt a position that considers them.
  • Change modes of discourse. Have students' assignments move from less complex to more complex modes of discourse (e.g., from expressive to analytic to argumentative; or from lab report to position paper to research article).
  • Change audiences. Have students create drafts for different audiences, moving from personal to public (e.g., from self-reflection to an audience of peers to an audience of specialists). Each change would require different tasks and more extensive knowledge.
  • Use logical stages. A different approach to sequencing is to create a series of assignments that culminate in a final writing project. In scientific and technical writing, for example, students could write a proposal requesting approval of a particular topic. The next assignment might be a progress report (or a series of progress reports), and the final assignment could be the report or document itself.
  • Submit sections. A variation of the previous approach is to have students submit various sections of their final document throughout the semester (e.g., bibliography, review of the literature, methods section, etc.)

Benefits of sequencing assignments

  • Provides coherence within a course
  • Sustains instructors’ interest in a course
  • Mirrors professional work in any discipline
  • Can be used for group assignments
  • Guarantees progression and continued effort on assignments (no room for last minute/night­before work on a large project)
  • Allows students ample time to develop more complex ideas/skills
  • Encourages complexity without overwhelming students
  • Helps to foster students’ confidence in skills and knowledge
  • Allows students to see progress and purpose in their work
  • Stimulates and sustains students’ motivation for tasks

Drawbacks of sequencing assignments

  • Potentially requires more marking effort by instructors (i.e., more work submitted for feedback)
  • Not all students have the same level of skill development – earlier steps may be mundane for students with skill levels that exceed those required, whereas students who hit an early “road­block” in skills development will find later steps frustrating or unattainable
  • May be challenging to implement in a 12-week term, depending on the complexity and scope of each assignment

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