Course Assignments & Feedback

Welcome to Week 2

Framing: Assignments and Feedback

How is assessment different in an online learning environment?

At first glance, designing assessments for an online learning environment is not all that different from what we might do in a physically face-to-face course:

  • Aligning the task to outcomes and objectives
  • Establishing criteria
  • Breaking an assignment into manageable components
  • Providing plenty of opportunities for feedback (Linder, 2017)

The flexible, but fragmented, nature of time in online learning creates both tensions and opportunities for assessment:

  • A learner has time to reflect and revisit ideas over the course of days but must visibly express thinking in bursts of activity.
  • Students can work together asynchronously to construct understanding and communicate their thinking publicly but must navigate differing schedules and technology access.
  • Learners and instructors can use multiple platforms for conversations and feedback but must schedule time for connection and processing among several in and out-of-class time demands.

What barriers or challenges do we need to think about when building online assignments?

As you design an accessible assessment plan for an online course, ask yourself three questions:

Does the ability to access and use technology impact a student’s work?

Be sensitive to barriers imposed by limited technology or Wi-Fi access when considering any kind of timed assignments or multiple assignments in one week.

Designate the same day and time each week for assignment submissions; due dates scattered throughout the week can be difficult if a student is sharing devices with others at home while also navigating several classes.

Does the assignment goal align with the means of assessment? Some courses require students to demonstrate learning in specific presentation formats (e.g. speaking and writing-intensive courses). To meet skill-specific assessment requirements:
  • Review your formative assessment plan to ensure the use of models and feedback to build fluency.
  • Determine student proficiency with any required tools or platforms.
When possible, offer students options for assignments to ensure equitable demonstration of knowledge and skills:
  • Limit options--2-3 choices are usually sufficient.
  • A ‘student-designed’ option may overwhelm some students—provide guidelines for strong ideas and offer individual feedback.
  • Provide clear criteria that is consistent across options—avoid providing 'false choices’ in the hope that students select something else.
Does this assignment support my students’ ability to organize and evaluate their work? A well-organized course supports student engagement. Extend that organization to assignments:
  • Write clear assignment directions and criteria
  • Embed reminders in the weekly module overview or task list
  • Offer checklists for self-assessing progress and quality of work
  • Provide instructor and peer feedback that is timely and specific

What can we do to build accessible online course assessment?

  • Strategy #1: Use varied assessments to support multiple means of student expression.

    Online courses offer space to extend learning beyond a specific classroom, day, or time. Develop assessments drawing links to students’ experiences and leverage your technology platforms for different submission options.

    • Brown University’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning offers several ideas for online assessment options.
    • Keep UDL Principles in mind for more accessible assessments. UDL and Assessment (UDL on Campus) offers guiding questions as you design your course assessments and examples of how to expand student expression.
  • Strategy #2: Write transparent and specific assignment descriptions.

    In online learning environments, students need clear information in order to plan their schedules, set strategies for successful learning, and monitor and reflect on their progress.

    TILT aims “to make learning processes explicit and equitably accessible for all students” (Winklemes, Boye, & Tapp, 2019, p. 1). The components of assignment and activity presentation in the TILT framework can be used to provide clear and thorough descriptions before students engage with work:

  • Purpose In language and terms that students understand, state the benefit of an assignment and its use beyond the course, including program and life beyond college:
    • What skills will be practiced in this assignment?
    • What knowledge will be gained in this assignment?
    Task Beyond a set of directions, this section informs students:
    • What do I do in this task?
    • How do I do this task? (What resources do I need? What pitfalls should I avoid?)
    Criteria for Success Students are provided checklists and models that show:
    • What is expected for success?
    • How do I know that I am meeting criteria for success?
    Adapted from The Unwritten Rules: Decode Your Assignments and Decipher What’s Expected of You by Mary-Ann Winkelmes, Principlal Investigator of TILT Higher Ed

    More information can be found at TILT Higher Ed Examples and Resources, including explanations of each assignment description component and before-and-after examples of assignment descriptions using the framework.

  • Strategy #3: Build in learner self-assessments and reaction checks

    Each week offer students ways to share how they feel the class is going and to reflect on their progress so far. Techniques can be simple or more detailed, but all are adaptable to an online platform. Great ways to integrate online self-assessments and reaction checks include:

    • Polling features (e.g. thumbs up, thumbs down)
    • Group and private chat messages during synchronous sessions
    • Individual or small group meeting activities
    • Reflection assignments at the end of the week
    • Discussion, blog, and video posts

    Check out these ideas for learner self-assessments and reaction checks:

    Muddiest Point

    Ask students to share what was most confusing that week.

    (Brookfield, 2011)

    Learning Audit

    Students share something they know now that they didn’t know before—a ’new to you’ idea, concept, or even realization about themselves.

    (Brookfield, 2011)

    Entry and Exit Tickets

    Provide a simple, single question at the beginning of a module or synchronous session. At the end of a session or module, ask students a similar question.

    Best Summary

    Individually, ask students to summarize a resource or unit. Put students into groups. Ask them to select the best summary from the group and their reasons for selection.

    (Barkley & Major, 2020)


    After completing a reading or watching a video, ask students to share:

    • 3 key points or facts
    • 2 questions (either clarifying or for further exploration)
    • 1 application of the information to their lives or in a different context

    What? So What? Now What?

    After completing a reading or participating in an activity, ask students to respond to three questions:

    • What? (What did you do or observe?)
    • So what? (What did you learn and why does it matter? How does it connect to something else you know?)
    • Now what? (How can you apply what you have learned in the future or to other contexts?)

  • Strategy #4: Creatively use quizzes to support student processing and planning

    Quizzes embedded in Canvas can be a quick way to gauge student understanding of basic concepts or key vocabulary. Quizzes on their own, however, are limited expressions of student learning—they are snapshots of student knowledge and may be more about a student’s test-taking skills. Consider some of these ‘updates’ to traditional quizzes:

    • Give your class a First Day Final (Barkley & Major, 2020)

      As part of your ‘Getting Started’ module, ask students to complete a First Day Final. This ‘exam’ (which does not count for a grade) is representative of the types of questions and content covered in your final exam. In addition, provide two questions asking students to identify the three easiest questions and the three most difficult ones. Share the results with the class as part of a first week discussion about the course outcomes and plans for the semester. Assist students with setting personal goals for the semester partly based on the discussion.

    • Use short ‘reading quizzes’ as ungraded or low-stakes formative assessments.

      Frequent practice with content over time supports higher recall and application. Make reading quizzes an ungraded weekly activity (part of participation) or make it a low percentage of the total grade. Quizzes can include questions on current and past content as form of retrieval practice (Weinstein, Sumeracki, & Caviglioli, 2019).

      At the end of the semester, give students the option to drop their lowest reading quiz score after submitting a short reflection on factors contributing to lower quiz scores and what they know or understand now that they didn’t then.

    • Ask students to ‘invent’ quizzes with answer sheets to prepare for larger exams (Barkley & Major, 2020)

      Students prepare a set number of quiz questions with answers based on what they think will be covered on a larger exam. After students submit their quizzes, evaluate the questions for accuracy and to note the trends in question difficulty and topics covered. As part of exam review, share with students your analysis. Use the review discussion to correct any errors and highlight topics that may not be adequately covered in the class quizzes but that will appear on the exam.

    • Reconsider timed tests—use the flexibility of online learning to assess deeper knowledge

      Most ‘timed’ tests happen because we only have access to a physical space on a specific day for a set time. In an online learning environment, we are not faced with the same restrictions. Alternatives to Traditional Exams and Papers (via Indiana University Bloomington) provides lists of creative suggestions based on the type of cognitive skills you want students to exhibit.

  • Strategy #5: Use online feedback tools to connect with students and personalize their learning

    Online tools offer faculty a variety of ways to talk with students about their work. Whether written, audio, or video comments on an assignment draft, response posts to a discussion thread or blog, or real time group quiz debrief via a webcam and whiteboard, the options are endless.

    How to Give Your Students Better Feedback with Technology Advice Guide (Fiock & Garcia, 2019) is a go-to resource for navigating all your online feedback tools and options. The guide covers:

    • Using online feedback tools to save time
    • Pros and cons for audio, video, and text-based feedback
    • Links to explore tools for online feedback (some are UMW-supported, others are not—all are worth exploring)

Faculty Models

Below are some examples faculty have shared with us to share with you:

Miriam Liss Course Model Elizabeth Johnson-Young Course Model Christy Irish Course Model Jennifer Walker Course Model

Now that You are Focused...Take a Shot!

You've read some background and seen some models so here are a few activities that you can try for yourself. If you haven't set up a Canvas course shell (a "sandbox") to practice you can follow these directions to set one up. If you need some help getting started on the activity you can click on the "Resource Guide" button below each activity. This will bring you to a page with a description of the steps as well as links to Canvas resources.

  • Activity: Create an assignment and a ‘home’ for it in Canvas
  • Activity: Create a rubric and attach it to an assignment in Canvas


June 22nd, 2:00 - 3:30pm


Watch the introduction of the June 22nd, Week 2 workshop

Note: The introduction goes until the 9:00 mark in the video

Breakout Sessions

You'll find session recordings here after the above dates.


Watch the wrap-up the June 22nd, Week 2 workshop

July 21st, 10:00 - 11:30am


Watch the introduction of the July 21st, Week 2 workshop

Note: The introduction goes until the 4:15 mark in the video

Breakout Sessions


Watch the wrap-up the July 21st, Week 2 workshop


  • Barkley, E.F., & Major, C. H. (2020). Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Brookfield, S. (2011). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning-Indiana University Bloomington. (n.d.). Alternatives to traditional exams and papers.
  • Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. (2020, March 18). Inclusive approaches to support student assignments during times of disruption. Brown University.
  • Linder, K.E. (2017). The blended course design workbook: A practical guide. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
  • Lubins, J. (2009). What? So what? Now what? Library Leadership and Management 23(3), 140-149.
  • Stein, D.S., & Wanstreet, C.E. (2017). Jump-start your online classroom: Mastering five challenges in five days. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
  • UDL on Campus: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. (n.d.). UDL and assessment. Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST).
  • Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., & Cavigliolo, O. (2019). Understanding how we learn: A visual guide. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Winklemes, M-A. (2014). Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project in Higher Ed.
  • Winklemes, M-A. (2014). TILT higher ed examples and resources.
  • Winklemes, M-A., Boye, A., & Tapp, S. (2019). Transparent design in higher education teaching and leadership. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.