Assignment Design

There’s a fine line between assignment design and assessment strategies. In short, designing good assignments is one means of assessing your students’ learning on a larger scale.

Assignments help measure student learning in your course. Effective assignment design in your course involves aligning your assignments with learning outcomes. When assignments and outcomes are aligned, good grades and good learning go hand in hand (

Assessments fall into one of two categories, formative or summative.

Formative assessments are typically low-stakes and help students identify their strengths and weaknesses so that they can improve their learning. Routine formative assessments also help instructors identify the areas where students are struggling and adapt their teaching accordingly.

Summative assessments evaluate student learning (such as at the end of a unit of instruction). Summative assessments are generally higher stakes (like midterm exams and final projects).

Assignments are what students actually ‘do’ as part of those assessments.

Incorporating a mix of assignment activities in your course can help students practice and demonstrate their mastery of outcomes in multiple ways. Consider ways you can design your assignments so that they better mirror the application of knowledge in real-world scenarios. Assignments designed in this way are often referred to as Authentic Assessments (Authentic-assessment.pdf ( One type of highly authentic assessment is the long-term project which challenges students to solve a problem or complete a challenge requiring the application of course concepts (Project_Based_Learning.pdf (

More details and examples can be found in the tabbed content box below. Please also consider signing up for a CATL consultation with one of our instructional designers for some personalized assistance in developing your ideas for assignments and ensuring that they align with your course outcomes.

Why assessments matter
Summative vs. Formative

(Adapted from Carnegie Mellon's: Design and Teach a Course)

Assessments should provide instructors and students with evidence of how well students have mastered the course outcomes.

There are two major reasons for aligning assessments with learning outcomes.

  • Alignment increases the probability that we will provide students with the opportunities to learn and practice knowledge and skills that instructors will require students know in the objectives and in the assessments. (Teaching to the assessment is a good thing.)
  • When instructors align assessments with outcomes, students are more likely to translate "good grades" into "good learning." Conversely, when instructors misalign assessments with objectives, students will focus on getting good grades on the assessments, rather than focusing on mastering the material that the instructor finds important.

Instructors may use different types of assessments to measure student proficiency in a learning objective. Moreover, instructors may use the same activity to measure different objectives. To ensure a more accurate assessment of student proficiency, many instructional designers recommend that you use different kinds of activities so that students have multiple ways to practice and demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Formative assessment

The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

  • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
  • submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
  • turn in a research proposal for early feedback

Summative assessment

The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.

Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a high point value. Examples of summative assessments include:

  • a midterm exam
  • a final project
  • a paper
  • a senior recital

Information from summative assessments can be used formatively when students or faculty use it to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.

Formative Assessments:

  • Reading quizzes
  • Concept map
  • Muddiest point
  • Pro/con grid
  • Focused paraphrasing
  • Reflective journal
  • Virtual lab/game
  • Webconference
  • Case study
  • Debate (synchronous or asynchronous)
  • Lab
  • Participant research
  • Peer review

Summative Assessments:

  • Case study
  • Presentation
  • Essay
  • Podcast
  • Exam
  • Portfolio project
  • Participant research


Carnegie Mellon University on Aligning Assessments with Objectives with examples.

Items to consider when weighing your assessment options:

If you are thinking about using discussions, be sure to think about the following:

  • What kind of questions/situations do you want the students to discuss? Is it complex enough to allow students to build knowledge beyond the textbook? Will the discussion help students meet your objectives (and develop an answer for your essential questions)?
  • What are your expectations for discussions? Should students participate (post) a certain number of times, with a certain number of words, and reply to a certain number of people?
  • What is your role in the discussion (traffic cop, the person who clarifies issues, will you respond to every post)?

If you are thinking about using quizzes, be sure to think about the following:

  • What type of questions will help your students meet the objectives of the course? Are you going to grade essay questions or just let the computer grade multiple choice questions?
  • What is the place for academic integrity? Are you going to randomize questions, randomize answers, restrict time, restrict the answers that students can see after completing the exam?
  • How are you going to populate your quiz? Are you going to write the questions or use questions that come from a textbook publisher?

If you are thinking of using essays, be sure to think about the following:

  • Will these essays/papers help students to meet the course objectives, which ones? Is the length of the essay appropriate?
  • What do you think about plagiarism checkers such as TurnItIn?
  • To what extent will you allow students to submit drafts, and will you provide feedback on drafts, or will you use a peer review system?

Other items to consider:

  • Are you thinking about using an alternative assignment? If so, you may want to talk with an instructional technologist or designer.
  • Consider the type of feedback you will provide for each assignment. What should students expect from you; how will you communicate those expectations; and how soon will you provide feedback (realistically)?

Further resources

Small Teaching Online

This book (requires UWGB login) contains many tips that are easy to integrate into your distance education class. The chapter on “surfacing backward design” contains many tips for assessment for online classes, many of which are adaptable to all distance modalities.

CATL Resources

Tip sheets from UW-System

UW-System put together some tip sheets for common sticking points in assessment for distance education.