Learning Activities and Assignments: How to Maximize Their Effectiveness

Clearly communicate to students your goals for any assignment or learning activity. Don't assume that students will know what the pedagogical purpose of the assignment is. Have a discussion about your goals and desired learning outcomes, and help students understand how specific aspects of the assignment fit these goals. Be open to making some changes if students have ideas to offer. After the discussion has taken place, summarize it and post it in the learning management system for students to revisit as they work on their assignments. 

Inform your students of assignments as early as possible in a semester, and help them schedule and plan for them.
 
Give your students examples of "typical" exemplary assignments from past students, but also of submissions that were both exemplary and unique, so that students can see what you are looking for, but also so that they realize a range of possibilities.
 
Scaffold smaller activities and assignments towards large assignments so that students understand the trajectory of their work. This helps students build on their growing knowledge, but also helps them move forward: it's easier for them to continue a learning process than to start a new one. It also combats procrastination and plagiarism, and encourages time on task.
 
Consider creating flexible intermediate deadlines. That is, provide deadlines for when particular stages or parts of the assignment should be completed, so that students can understand the ideal pace of their work flow.
 
If possible, allow students to share draft work with you and with their peers. They can then use your feedback, and their peer's feedback, to revise and improve their work. 
 
Offer students performative options. In other words, allow students to demonstrate their understanding or skill acquisition in alternative or diverse ways. For example, rather than a traditional essay, could a student create a podcast or screencast? Instead of submitting a written assignment, could a student do an in-class poster presentation? 
 
Meet with students one-on-one as much as possible to assist with every step in the process, from clarifying the assignment, to brainstorming, to polishing.
 
Help your students appreciate the importance of formative feedbackMany students are interested only in the grade that an assignment receives (the summative assessment), and will spend little time on the formative feedback that you also provide on their assignments. Help them understand that carefully reviewing the formative feedback will improve their performance in the future. 
 
Discuss your own working process: the ideal scene for your work, the personal supports you have or try to create, your own blocks and difficulties. Students can benefit from seeing how their instructors work. At the same time, recognize that there are many different learning styles, and that most students won't work the same way that their teachers do, and that this is a good thing.
 
Use the learning management system to support students as they work on their assignments. For example, create on online discussion forum where students can ask questions about their assignments, or where they can post drafts of their work in order to receive feedback from peers. 
 
Be sensitive to cultural differences that might impact student learning processes and the "products" they create.
 
Ask students to help you revise assignment prompts for the next time you teach the class, and/or to write down some advice they would give to future students for succeeding at an assignment.
 
Consider having your program, department, or faculty implement an ePortfolio program for students. Students can use the ePortfolio to archive drafts of their assignments, to reflect on specific assignments or their overall progress, to showcase their best assignments, and more. 
 
Consider providing verbal feedback on student assignments using new technologies. For example, the latest (free) version of Adobe Acrobat makes it easy to add audio comments to specific parts of a document. Narrating your comments might be easier than typing them, and you can also be more nuanced with verbal comments than with written comments. 
 
Make large-print copies of all materials available. These are beneficial not only for visually impaired students who are registered with AccessAibility Services, but for any student who is experiencing some degree of vision impairment. 
 
teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Learning Activities and Assignments: How to Maximize Their Effectiveness. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.