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Developing engaging assignments

We typically think about assessments as a mechanism for gauging student learning but you can also use them to engage your students! Assessments are a major determinant of how students spend their time on a course. As mentioned here, assessments that take the form of assignments typically produce more robust learning than timed exams. They are also a valuable avenue for generating student excitement and understanding of "what all the learning is for."  Design assignments that leverage the online medium and/or enable your students to connect the material in your class to the world around them, right now. 

Here are some ways you can use assignment design to engage your students

1. Try Authentic Assignments, or Social Pedagogy or Open pedagogy

Embrace and leverage the online medium through authentic assignments, social pedagogy open pedagogy. Giving students authentic reasons for their work in a course can increase motivation and deepen learning. These types of assignments place students in real or realistic situations where they use knowledge and skills learned in their course to solve messy problems or to help someone who is not the instructor. They foster experiential learning and a sense of ownership in students by engaging them as knowledge creators rather than consumers. Their products live on, or are renewable, rather than being disposed of at the end of the semester. 

Consider using these types of assignments early in the learning sequence instead of only at the conclusion of a course or curriculum, as is more typical. Authentic assignments as a powerful way to help students understand why the information and skills they are learning are important, which fosters motivation and provides a foundation for more robust learning that can affect the broader class experience. They can be used in all sorts of disciplines and course types, even those without a traditional focus on real-world application. ​ Examples of authentic or open, "renewable" assignments include: 

For more ideas about how to develop and implement these approaches, listen to this Podcast on Authentic Assignments, and see this page on Embracing the Messiness of Authentic Assignments. Here are some additional issues to consider with authentic assignments and open pedagogy:

  • Privacy and safety concerns. Instructors educate themselves on student privacy needs, make sure that the tools they use do not compromise their privacy, and help students find ways to protect themselves. 
  • Quality concerns. Sometimes instructors are concerned that the quality of student work is not good enough for going public. In their chapter on Open Pedagogy, Robin DeRosa and Scott Robinson encourage us to think about open assignments less as perfectly polished work and more as a portal through which we communicate with other people. Emphasize that writing and creative is an interative process that the web can actually facilitate, and encouage students to keep working on their piece (just like the flexteaching website!). Another strategy is to be selective about the audience for teh work and how you position it. If multiple groups or students are working on the same topic, have the class select a couple that they particularly like, and then crowdsource the revisions. 

​2. Leverage other online tools

  • Assignments that use social media or instant messaging platforms. The vast array of social media and instant messaging platforms makes it possible for us to create opportunities for students to tie what they are learning to the world around them, as it is happening (e.g., Twitter or other social media platforms, instant messaging).  For example, consider this assignment (showcased in a podcast by Derek Bruff of Vanderbilt University) in which a professor asked students in her ornithology course to use Twitter to post about birds they saw in everyday life: http://leadinglinespod.com/episodes/episode-40margaret-rubega/
  • Timeline assignments. An engaging platform called Tiki Toki enables students to create creative timeline assignments that could be relevant in many disciplines. This example is for a course on the History of Love and Marriage: https://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/227613/Love-and-Marriage/

3. Use assignments to connect students to KU’s distinctive intellectual and cultural resources.

For example:

  • Course-embedded research assignments.  Incorporating research into your classes is an excellent way to give a larger number of students some hands-on experience in utilizing the tools and perspectives of your discipline to create new knowledge and understanding. connect with the Center for UG Research.
  • Community engagement. Deepen your students’ understanding of how what they are learning addresses community-identified needs through service learning, community-based participatory research, and other community-engaged initiatives. Connect with the Center for Service Learning for ideas and support.  
  • Connect your assignments to KU’s cultural resources such as the Spencer Museum of Art,  through guided class visits tailored to specific curricula or more in-depth collaborative projects that span semesters. Go here for more information.  
  • Develop assignments that help your students become critical thinkers and engaged citizens by building skills in information literacy and research. Connect with the KU Libraries instruction team to learn how to integrate these goals into your course and assignments
  • "Bring in" distinguished alumni, professionals in your field, or faculty colleagues from elsewhere. Our increased reliance on the online modality has created new opportunities to connect our students to other experts or role models through a live or recorded Zoom session.  With travel restricted by the pandemic, KU faculty are finding that many distinguished alumni or other professionals in their field are more readily available for virtal class visits now than in previous years. 

4. Consider making connections between your assignments and those in a related class.

This can create a more integrated and engaging experience for students while lightening the design load for any one faculty member or instructor.  For example:

  • Connected assignments in which students in one course serve as the audience or “beneficiaries” for student work produced in another course. For example, Andrea Follmer Greenhoot (KU Department of Psychology) had students in her 400-level Cognitive Development course write advice columns that provided evidence-backed, practical recommendations to parents about pressing questions. She later used one of these columns as a reading in her 300-level Child Development course.  
  • Common problems or grand challenges that are addressed from different angles in different courses.
  • Shared modules that help students build skills or knowledge that are relevant to multiple courses.

More on Engaging Assignments

Where to go for more ideas and inspiration:

The CTE portfolio and poster gallery (a rich repository of creative ideas, searchable by topic and discipline). 

NILOAs Assignment Library is a similar national resource. 

Online book on open educational resources and open pedagogy.

Derek Bruff’s Blog on teaching and technology and Leading Lines podcast series..

Robin DeRosa’s Actual Blog.