Providing clear, student-facing instructions for your assessments (assignments or other learning activities) is critical for learners’ success in any instructional modality. The need for effective instructions is heightened in online courses, as opportunities to ask questions to the instructor in real-time can be more limited.
Missouri Online Recommends
Missouri Online recommends online courses provide clear instructions on all assessments, including expectations and evaluation criteria (see item #26 and #30 in the Quality Course Review 5 Pillars Rubric.)
One framework for ensuring clarity for in assessment instructions is developed by the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (or “TiLT”) project. The TiLT project aims to provide “an educational framework for engaging teachers and students in communicating together about how students are learning, how they can apply their learning in real-world situations in their lives after college, and why instructors manipulate the students’ learning experiences in the specific ways they choose” (Winkelmes, 2023). On the TiLT model, instructions are organized into a three-part structure: purpose, tasks, criteria.
Understanding the purpose and/or value of an assessment is critical to helping adult learners find and maintain motivation to complete that work. In a study of 203 university students, “[m]ore than 90% of the students interviewed emphasized the need for relevance of what they are taught to real life situations and their exposure to various applications of the materials learned” (Sogunro, 2015).
You can establish that understanding by communicating how your assignment or activity connects to your course’s learning outcomes, topics previously explored, or your learners’ personal or professional interests.
Once you have described why you’re asking your learners to engage in your assessment, you need to make clear exactly what you’re asking them to do. Think through the parts that make up the assignment or activity:
- What, if any, preparatory work is needed?
- What specific steps should they take to complete the assignment or activity, and what order should they take them in?
- What do they need to do to finish? That is, how do they know they are done, and how do they submit, share, or otherwise formally conclude the assessment?
The answers to some of these questions may seem obvious at first, but, as an instructor in your field, it can sometimes be difficult to realize how much academic, professional, or discipline-specific knowledge you have already internalized. Non-native speakers of English, neurodivergent students, or students whose cultural or personal backgrounds favor direct communication may also benefit from the added clarity.
With that in mind, be cognizant of your specific expectations for the assessment when describing its steps. If possible, break the assessment down into particular sub-tasks, and provide recommendations about the order to complete those sub-tasks, as well as any other relevant advice (e.g., rather than just stating “complete problem set 10,” explain “to complete problem set 10, first review the unit 1 lecture video and apply that information to complete the first 5 questions of the set, etc.”). If appropriate, use numbered lists to structure your instructions. If you have noticed any common points of confusion when running the assessment in the past, warn learners about these points in the instructions and offer clarification.
Finally, don’t forget to explain logistical expectations and requirements:
- Materials: Do learners need additional materials to complete the assessment? If so, how do they access these? Are there any limits students should be aware of (e.g., “only refer to the readings we have covered in class”)?
- Timelines: Does the assessment have any due dates or time limitations learners must follow? Are there any time commitments, warnings or recommendations learners should be aware of (e.g., “you shouldn’t spend longer than 15 minutes on this section,” “begin your research for this project at least 5 weeks before the due date,” etc.)?
- Format: Are there any particular format requirements or recommendations learners should be aware of (e.g., “show your work,” page or word-count minimums/maximums, citation style guidelines)?
- Online Submission Information: How do students submit their work in your course? If students submit their work through Canvas, briefly describe the actions needed to submit the work (e.g., “Select START Assignment in the top right or, in mobile, at end of the page, upload your file, and click SUBMIT”).
Once learners know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, learners also need to know how to do it well. “Students need to have information about the quality of their work while they work on their assessment tasks and need to comprehend what constitutes good performance. They need to understand what excellent work is and what poor work is and be able to know what they can do to improve” (Ragupathi & Lee, 2020).
This information can be provided in a number of ways, including:
- Criteria List: Provide a straightforward list of evaluation criteria you will be using when reviewing student work. Explain these criteria in clear and concise, student-facing language.
- Examples: Provide examples of successful and/or unsuccessful work, and provide explanations of what is effective or ineffective about each example. Including a range of examples – from “developing,” to “meets expectations,” to “outstanding” – can provide useful data points for students and encourage self evaluation. Consider having students analyze examples as a class prior to the assignment. If you have permission, you can source these examples from previous students’ submissions (but remember to remove any identifying information). If appropriate for the assessment, you can also find real world examples of the kind of work you are asking learners to create. This has the added benefit of communicating the authentic, real-word significance of the assessment to learners.
- Rubrics: Rubrics allow you to provide qualitative feedback in a consistent and rigorous way. Moreover, they can be directly incorporated into assignments and other graded activities in Canvas. For more information about rubrics and how to implement them, see our Active and Alternative Assessments article.
Check out the following sprints to learn more about creating clear and meaningful assessments for students.
Ragupathi, K., Lee, A. (2020). Beyond Fairness and Consistency in Grading: The Role of Rubrics in Higher Education. In: Sanger, C., Gleason, N. (eds) Diversity and Inclusion in Global Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-1628-3_3
Sogunro, O. A. (2015). Motivating factors for adult learners in higher education. International Journal of Higher Education, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.5430/ijhe.v4n1p22
Winkelmes, M. (2023). Introduction to Transparency in Learning and Teaching. Perspectives In Learning, 20 (1). Retrieved from https://csuepress.columbusstate.edu/pil/vol20/iss1/2
Created on: November 10, 2023