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November 18 2006 - Refreshed September 27, 2012

Tip 28: Designing Assessments and Tasks that Matter to the Learners

Assessing our learners. This is a task critical to all teaching and learning experiences, but all too often it is a task that we avoid. Too often we equate assessing tasks as judging and tough decision-making choices with potentially difficult consequences if students don’t agree. Assessing learners’ progress can often mean reading lengthy papers, ranging from dreadful to inspiring, or reading hundreds of forum postings.

Is there a better way? We like to think there is. This tip provides two strategies for rethinking how we plan for assessing learners. One strategy distributes the assessing more continuously throughout the course and distributes it among the learners; the second strategy switches gears from the customary research paper to assessing via a course project that is more relevant to the learner, and results in products that are more interesting to you and the other learners as well.

A Three (3) Step Process to Guide the Assessment Plan

It is good to rethink your assessment plan on a regular basis. Learners change, technologies changes and teaching strategies change. Here is a three-step process for rethinking your assessment plan from McTighe & Wiggins (1999) authors of a popular book called The Understanding by Design Handbook. Using this three-step process you can generate a new or revise a current assessment plan. A sample of these three steps is provided below.

  1. First, return to your course goals and prioritize the results that you want for your learners. These desired results will probably include goals such as the following:
    • Developing enduring understandings or core concepts
    • Knowing the framework and vocabulary of a discipline domain
    • Developing knowledge of and use of the  “exemplars of a discipline.” The exemplars of a discipline might include the most famous representative articles, cases or theories.
    • Growing competencies in applying and using the core concepts and key understandings
  2. The second step is to determine the acceptable evidence by which the learners will demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and integration of each of the top goals and results.
  3. The third step is to design the series of course experiences, including assignments, to ensure learner accomplishment of these understandings and the processes for demonstrating their learning.

This process can help ensure that you develop an assessment plan that supports an integrated course design that links goals with experiences with assessments.

An Assessment Plan that is Distributed and Continuous

Learners find it helpful to see the assessment plan for a course in a summary table. This type of figure provides a birds-eye view of the course experiences that require them to provide evidence of their learning.  Assessment plans generally have at least four (4) types of experiences that count toward evaluation.  The sample assessment plan below lists a number of common types of experience.   

Assessment Plan


Assessment Plan Elements

% of Grade


Automated quizzes and tests

10 to 20


Discussion forums participation and contribution

10 to 20


Discussion wrap/summary/other leadership work

5 to 15


Blog, journal or wiki entries

5 to 15


Short concept papers, small team review

15 to 20


Project Phase 1 (Plan/proposal/concept)

5 to 10


Project Phase 2 (Resources, sections)

15 to 20


Project Phase 3 (Paper, media, presentation for sharing)

20 to 30


Project Phase 4 (Final submission)

20 to 30

The value of using a variety of experiences means that assessing is done over time and in some cases by automated robots - as in automated quizzes and tests - and in some cases, in collaboration with peers.

Take note of the assessment dealing with a course project.  A course project is best designed with a minimum of three or four milestones. The first is a proposal which can be vetted by a small group as well as by a faculty person.  A second milestone captures some progress point in the project, and a third milestone is a presentation, sharing or session with other learners. In the example above, a fourth assessment point is the submission of the final evidence. You will probably develop as assessment plan with only a subset of the items listed in the table.

A Variation on Research Papers: A Discipline Task Model Project

The second strategy for making assessing learning more relevant is to rethink how we approach a course project.  It is often easier just to do what we have always done, such as assign a research paper. You may want to consider a variation on a research paper. I like to call this variation a discipline task model approach. A task model engages learners in developing approaches for difficult problems.  In other words, rather than searching out and declaiming on a topic, a discipline task model project requires learners to act as a discipline practitioner might act, and develop ideas and strategies for difficult problems.

What is a discipline task model approach? A discipline task model approach describes the required features and characteristics of a project, a learner’s creative response, but leaves the processes, tools and strategies open.
This was the strategy used in an NSF-funded project called “The Global Challenge” (Gibson, 2006). In this project, originally designed for high-school students, learners are given the raw materials for the project, but work in a team of three, two fellow students and an advisor.  The process includes collaborating with international counterparts during a course term from October to May on a project to address global climate change.
This type of project design opens up the assessment project to support wide-ranging discovery, teamwork, and analysis. It can be a project in which learners are not solving a problem for which we have known answers and ready responses; but rather a project that is of social, economic and global significance for which we need innovative, creative thinking.
How is that different from many other course projects? I suspect that this difference cycles us back closer to the model of apprenticeship. With these types of more open course projects, faculty are responding, learning and guiding learners in their particular areas of interest within a particular discipline domain. This means that faculty are stretching as well.  By the time the learners reach the point at which they are sharing and submitting their projects, the assessment is almost complete as well.

So, in summary, three key features recommend themselves to our assessment practices: First, think in terms of a discipline task model, a way of discipline thinking; secondly, encourage learners to focus on problems that need innovative ideas and solutions, and thirdly, enable work on projects that students like and want to do, rather than projects that are interesting or important to faculty.


Gibson, D. (2006). The global challenge. Retrieved September 27 2012 from http://gca.obiki.org/index.html.  In the Global Challenge, teams of US high school students collaborate with international counterparts from October to May to address global challenges. Students strengthen skills in math, science, engineering, and critical thinking, while learning about global business practices.
Gibson, D. David Gibson's Page (2012) Retrieved September 27 2012 from http://www.globaleducationconference.com/profile/davidgibson
Gibson, D., & Swan, K. (2006). How to know what your students know! 12th Annual ALN International Conference on Asynchronous Learning, Orlando, FL.

McTighe, J.  & Wiggins, G. (1999) The Understanding by Design Handbook.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. More about this process with additional resources including an interview video was available as of September 27 2012 at http://pearsonubd.com/whatisubd.html

Swan, K. L. S. (2005). On the Nature and Development of Social Presence in Online Course Discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(3), 115 - 136. Retrieved September 27 2012 from http://sloanconsortium.org/jaln/v9n3/nature-and-development-social-presence-online-course-discussions

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.

Tip 28: Designing Assessments and Tasks that Matter to the Learners!



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013