More than essays and quizzes: 6 ways to design online assignments

Enrich your online teaching and reach diverse learners with these creative online assignment strategies


Instructors evaluate learning through assignments. But often assignments are also the chief opportunity for learners to apply content and acquire competency skills. When converting face-to-face courses to online, the desire to give students excellent learning experiences remains. So does the ever-present time constraint for giving feedback. What might not be so obvious to those new to online course design are the fresh and exciting opportunities offered by e-learning create effective assignments that transform learners. Here, I outline six approaches for creating effective online assignments that value instructors’ time.

Authentic communication

Many assignments require learners to communicate their knowledge through written papers, which are often read by the one person who grades them. Similarly, in-class presentations are performed to a captive audience. E-learning, in contrast, immediately opens up publication to a broader, more authentic audience. Genuinely published work holds a strong incentive for learners to put forward their best effort, stretching their learning and communication skills in the process. It makes the job of grading much more enjoyable, too.

Authentic communication opportunities can even be done while keeping the learner anonymous, which can be useful for underage learners. Blog sites like Edublogs, Youth Voices, and Voices of Youth provide ways and means for teachers to orchestrate sharing safely. With student permission, some teachers might collect assignments and curate them on their own blog, without last names attached. In postsecondary and professional contexts however, individual WordPress blogs, LinkedIn, and YouTube offer ready publishing opportunities that allow learners to showcase their skills.

Publishing online instantly turns a display of knowledge into an act of service. Choosing an audience that can benefit from what students have learned motivates students to work harder. It also enhances their well-being and contributes to the planet. Such acts of service can be simple; one effective assignment in a professional online course I taught involved creating an online presentation to share knowledge at a staff meeting.

More than words can say

We live in a multimedia world. We understand that images, sounds, and movement influence us, and the internet is positively bursting with such source material for learners to use to communicate their thinking to others. Assignments can ask learners to find an image, GIF, or meme to describe their understanding of content. Along with written descriptions or annotations to explain how and why the image represents the material, learners can express themselves through multimedia while reflecting on their learning. I ask learners to find some element on the internet to represent their understanding at the beginning of a course topic, and then ask them to update their chosen representation to reflect their growth at the end of the course.

Metaphors, stories, and statistical infographics are all legitimate ways that today’s humans represent complex information. Why should education remain in the Dark Ages? (Although even Cro-Magnon and associates communicated through art and artifact.)

Presenting many options

Just as options for written assignments blossom with the internet, so do options for presentations. As any musician will tell you, performing live requires its own set of skills. The same is true for the myriad of performance options offered online. Try recording a Facebook Live, publishing a podcast, or creating your own Two Minute Physics video, and you’ll learn very quickly about a whole range of technological and performance-related skills required. Add voice-over to PowerPoint or Prezi, Powtoon, VideoScribe, and more, and you have a veritable menu of presentation options.

There’s often no need as an instructor to be up on all the latest ways and means to produce online video and audio content. My approach when designing learning activities is to give learners the capacity to find the tools that are right for them. I start by asking myself the most important objectives for any given assignment. Do I want my students to learn particular communication skills or am I more interested in the content they’re communicating? Whenever my aim emphasizes the knowledge learners are applying, I give choice in the communication format, knowing that the creative freedom will enhance motivation and enrich understanding. From my creativity research, I learned that giving this sort of freedom can not only lead to incredible student work, but can also affect learners’ confidence and creative behaviour for years to come.

Critique to think and learn

A massive body of content sits on the internet, readily accessible. Using critical thinking to assess and evaluate aspects of this content gives learners opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge as well as to develop their abilities to discern quality in any kind of communication. For example, you might ask learners to find clear sentences or sentences needing improvement in any topic in any discipline. By examining what makes a quality sentence or phrase, students close-read about a topic, and learn how to best communicate that topic.

Tools like allow groups to annotate web content, giving educators tons of flexibility in deciding what or how learners focus their critique.

Share the load

In my view, the power of the internet to collect and organize information can be put to use to involve learners in assessment and evaluation. I’ve been thinking recently about the value in having learners participate in developing evaluation questions, problems, scenarios, and case studies, and being tasked with writing ideal answers to them. This strikes me as a service-oriented assignment, genuinely useful to both instructors and future student cohorts who could be given the student-developed questions. Even more, coming up with good evaluative questions and answers requires applying knowledge — creating quality assessment of content requires an understanding of it.

Develop hands-on skills

An online nursing program that teaches advanced health assessment? Virtual simulations of performance reviews? Yes. Developing hands-on skills through e-learning is possible. It takes imagination and a willingness to explore and utilize what technology has to offer. You don’t need to rely on high-tech solutions, though. To begin, break down what you teach and focus on the desired kinesthetic skill. Maybe it’s streaking an agar plate. Then, consider how a person might practice this skill at home. What equipment and supplies might they have at hand, could they purchase on the internet, or might you purchase in bulk and mail to them?

Unlike many real-world situations, learners can videotape themselves performing the skill and get formative feedback to assist in its correction, one-on-one with an instructor coach, or with peers. Watching yourself on video is in itself an exercise in self-regulated learning and, oh boy, can it be eye-opening!

Give it time

Online teaching and learning can be challenging when you and your learners are accustomed to face-to-face pedagogy. Over and above getting used to new technology, give yourself time and space to acknowledge that this is a different medium that affects everything: interactions between learners, peers, and instructors, as well as pedagogy and the communication of knowledge.

Maintain your optimism! With deliberate effort, you will master these new teaching skills just as you have other teaching skills. Change is difficult, but it also brings opportunity. Change necessitates innovation, and innovation holds promise for educators to support learners everywhere to actualize their potential, whatever the circumstances.