Does there need to be a graded assignment in every module?

grading papers

By Kenneth Nehrbass

You’ve heard “Every objective needs to be assessed.” But sometimes professors have many objectives throughout a course– yet they don’t want to assign busy work (and don’t want to grade a zillion assignments!) Imagine if you had three objectives per module, for 14 modules– would you really need to have 42 assignments (to assess every objective in every module)?

The goal isn’t that you’d assign something every week; the goal is that you’d assess all of your objectives.

Assessing all your objectives does not mean you need to have dozens of small assignments throughout the course. Remember the goal isn’t that you’d assign something every week; the goal is that you will assess all of your objectives. You have a few very good options for assessing all your module objectives without creating a zillion assignments:

  • Reduce the number of module objectives: True, you may have students engage in several learning activities in this module (watch a video on operant conditioning, participate in a seminar on behaviorism, read chapters in their textbook on behaviorism) – but why did you assign those activities? Did you want students to be able to describe the theory of operant conditioning; or to summarize research on behaviorism; or to organize theories of behavior change? You may have one over-arching objective that was reached by engaging students in all of those learning activities. Start with your over-arching objective, and can create the best assignment to assess that objective, and then re-evaluate whether you have chosen the best learning activities for students to be successful with that assignment.1
  • Assess several objectives in a single assignment: Suppose you do have several objectives in a module. You can have a single assessment that covers several objectives.2 For example, if you want students to “evaluate Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts” they must first describe a paradigm shift (this would be objective 1); then summarize research that has been done since Kuhn’s time, on paradigm shifts (this would be objective 2); and then evaluate the theory (that would be objective 3). An evaluative essay would allow you to assess students’ abilities to do all three of these objectives in one assignment.
  • Spread your module out over several weeks: Suppose you have students spend four weeks doing learning activities so they are able to write a literature review. The learning objective over these four weeks would be “Students will create a review of literature.” But suppose you envisioned that the first week students would read from their textbook and watch a lecture on lit reviews. The next week they would have a learning activity about database searches, and would use the library to gather sources. In week 3, they would attend a seminar on organizing and evaluating literature, and would write an outline and organize their thoughts; and by week four they would have a draft. In this scenario, you only have one assessment: the literature review. So this is actually one module that is four weeks long. Note that you may have several objectives (students will organize literature; students will evaluate claims)- but all the objectives are assessed in the single paper. So it’s one module that lasts several weeks, with several learning activities, and one assessment.
    • Pro tip: Consider breaking your large assignment into smaller “steps”3, so you can keep track of student learning and make adjustments in your teaching. For example, you can assess your students’ list of resources in one module, then assess their outline, and finally assess the complete assignment.

1 Experts in course design have discovered that it would be much better for you to start with your objectives, not your learning activities. Once you know your objectives, choose the right learning activities. See Wiggins and McThige (2005). Understanding by Design. ASCD.

2 The Center for Instructional Technology at the University of Florida explains that an assessment can align to three to five module objectives.

3 The CTL at Brown University suggests “Design frequent tasks rather than one end of course assessment (or build in steps)”; and consider having the earlier parts to be formative assessments.

Questions: We’d love to hear from you: How do you feel about breaking up assignments- to spread out the points across the semester, and to assess progress in various module objectives? How do you feel about assessing several objectives in one assignment?

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