Effective Teaching Practices

Online Assignments

Online Assignment Stages

Creating assignments in an online environment is very similar to creating assignments in an on-campus course. Outlined below are assignment design considerations for you as you start to develop meaningful online assignments.

Design Effective Assignments

Wiggins and McTighe (link to UW Libraries record) have developed a three-staged approach to course design that can also be used when creating assignments. Their Backward Course Design framework defies traditional methods of course design. Backward Course Design starts with the desired objectives that students should achieve, as well as measurable outcomes that students should be able to perform. This framework represents a crucial first step in understanding how to assess students in any course, including hybrid and online courses.

Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching outlines Backward Course Design here and provides links to other resources based on Wiggins and McTighe (2005).

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results

Assignments should always relate back to your course learning objectives. There are a few key questions you can ask yourself when developing your course assignments:

  1. What is the purpose of this assignment?
  2. What do I want my students to learn?
  3. How does this assignment help to meet one (or more) of my course objectives?

Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence

Once you have determined the purpose of the assignment, you can begin to ensure that you have given students the tools they need to demonstrate their understanding. Wiggins and McTighe outline a series of questions to consider in this stage:

  1. What enabling knowledge (facts, concepts, principles) and skills (processes, procedures, strategies) will students need in order to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
  2. What activities will equip students with the needed knowledge and skills?
  3. What materials and resources are best suited to accomplish these goals?

Stage 3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

Finally, you can begin to plan how students will demonstrate their understanding. Wiggins and McTighe use the acronym "WHERE TO" to guide the design of learning activities:

  • Where is the assignment going? (learning goals), why? (reasons for learning the content) and what? (is required of the student)
  • Hook them. Engage students through inquiry, research, problem-solving, experimentation, etc.
  • Explore and experience. Provide students with the opportunity to explore and experience the content and equip them with the needed tools to be successful.
  • Rethink. Rehearse. Revise. Refine. Give students the opportunity to do this - with timely feedback.
  • Evaluate the students' work and help them set future goals

Consider your assignment. Is it:

  • Tailored and flexible to address the different learning styles of your students?
  • Organized and sequenced so it is effective?

Assignment Considerations and Examples

Once you have determined your online assignments, you should also consider the following:

  1. Have you set clear expectations?
    • Do you have a specific paper/project format (single/double-spaced, APA/MLA format, minimum or maximum length, etc.)
  2. Have you given detailed instructions?
    • Consider how/where you want students to turn in the assignment (as a Canvas assignment, email attachment, discussion board, etc.)
    • How students should title the assignment?
  3. How will the assignment be evaluated?
    • Make sure students know how they will receive feedback (via Canvas, email, etc.)

For ideas on evaluating assignments, see the Evaluate Online Assignment section below for ideas.

Online Assignment Ideas

Almost any type of assignment can be adjusted to fit an online environment. The following are just a few ideas that work well online.

Online Discussion

Online discussions are one of the most popular assignments in an online course. Online discussions can take several forms and include several different types of prompts, including: icebreakers, current event discussions, scenario responses, and viewing and responding to a video, to name a few. For more information on online discussions, see the online discussions section.

Case Study

Case studies allow students to engage in-depth in course content. Students can be given a case and asked to analyze the case based on guiding questions and principles. Cases can be worked on individually or as a group and can extend from a few days to a quarter-long study.


Debates can be an effective way for students to present research on a controversial topic or current event. Students can choose their side or they can be asked to take a side. In the online course, students can be divided into small groups and each can present their research and engage in a discussion. It is always a good idea to have a culminating follow-up activity with this type of assignment, such as a reflection on what was learned or possibly record two 'experts' debating the topic so students can see what a debate can look like and record the points/counterpoints as presented by experts.

Quarter Long Projects

Students can be assigned to work on quarter-long projects with planned progress check-ins. Longer length projects are great for synthesizing, applying, and presenting culminating knowledge gained throughout the course. Projects can take a variety of forms, such as ePortfolios, blogs, marketing plan or ad campaign, etc.


Self-assessment assignments are a way students can gain personal understanding of how well they understand the course material. It also allows the faculty member to get an ideas for how students are grasping the ideas in the course.

Assignment Resources

The Chronicle of Higher Education: Designing Effective Online Assignments
This is a nice short article, written by an academic librarian at Yale University who also teaches online. He offers advice, from the trenches; about how to effectively design online assignments.

DePaul University: Matching Learning Goals to Assignment Types
This is a comprehensive chart that matches learning goals to assignment types. Lots of great ideas here!