Designing Effective Online Assignments

Todd Gilman, Designing Effective Online Assignments,  The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 22, 2010,  available at http://chronicle.com/article/Designing-Effective-Online/64772/.

Have you thought about supplementing your course by adding online assignments but were puzzled by how best to design online content? Todd Gilman, librarian for literature in English at Yale University Library and  part-time instructor for the Schools of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University and Wayne State University offers some tips for effective teaching online.

First, your main goal should be to enable students to learn independently. If students feel they have enough direction to be successful on their own, they will eagerly absorb and master the course material. Make sure the work can be completed by each student on his or her own. Students should not be left to wonder whether they are proceeding correctly at any point along their path to completion of the work. That means that your instructions on how to do the assignments have to be as explicit as they are flawless.

Along with your detailed instructions, it’s also helpful to post models of selected assignments so students can see what you consider to be good work. I know that seems like spoon-feeding and, believe me, I would never consider doing that in a face-to-face graduate course. But somehow it hits the right note online because it cuts down on the confusion for students.

All of that said, you don’t want to stifle students’ creativity and freedom to be self-directed. So mixed in with your directives should be some components of assignments that allow students to set their own agendas—within limits, again, to avoid confusion. One assignment that works especially well for many graduate-level library-school courses I’ve taught is an article review.

Thinking carefully about how to make sure that students are actually learning something online is an important question. And your answer can mean the difference between a challenging course and one that feels like a perfunctory exercise.

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