Center for Teaching Excellence Tip-of-the-Month Archive

Course Assignments for Better Learning... and Living

Overcoming Obstacles

The greatest obstacles to consistent, high quality teaching and learning are frustration and fatigue.

On the part of an instructor,

Frustration and fatigue from:

  • trying to design and manage course assignments,
  • trying to get substantive and timely feedback to the students (grading).
  • students not doing the work necessary before class,
  • students unwilling to actively engage in the class.

On the part of the students,

Frustration and fatigue from:

  • class lectures and assigned readings that are not always in tandem,
  • course assignments that take a lot of time to do but don't add much to understanding,
  • perceived inconsistencies in grading, or grading that does not reflect their understanding.


In order to design assignments that are effective for teaching and learning, we have to get away from the notion that what was done to us is not necessarily the best thing to be done. This means really thinking hard about the value of massive research projects and papers. What is the point of your assignment? If it is not tied directly into your learning objective for that portion of the class, why do it?

Course Assignment Guidelines

Here are some general guidelines for beginning to re-think the course assignment:

1. Be clear about your learning objectives.
This is your guiding light; your job is first and foremost to teach the students what you know they need to learn in your discipline. Whatever you can do to achieve that is your goal.

2. Be reasonable about workload.

Both yours and theirs. If they spend 5-6 hours a week working for your class, then they have a 43 work week including class time for a 15 credit load. Many also work jobs, play sports, eat, sleep (sometimes) and socialize (naturally). Here's a great YouTube video from Kansas State about what students do.

And as for you, to what extent does the quality of your feedback and timeliness in getting it to the students suffer because you have too much grading to do?

3. Course assignments should be clearly linked to class lectures and learning objectives.
This is frustrating for all types of students and they will be less inclined to put effort into doing assignments if they don't see them as learning moments that are reinforced by classroom lectures and discussions. In fact, if they see that the course is organized well, and that the assignments are an extension and a complement to the classroom, they will want to be more fully engaged with both.

4. Really effective assignments are short and intense.
Shorter assignments relieve your workload in feedback and send a signal to the students that you respect their time and different learning styles - but this is only effective if the assignments require concentrated effort and are directly related to what is happening in your teaching.

5. In order to be effective, feedback has to be timely.
There really is no point in agonizing over feedback if the students get it three weeks from the assignment - by then you have passed the critical juncture for learning. Shorter assignments will enable you to get the feedback to them right away, especially if you limit that feedback to a few essential points.

6. Assignments should emphasize and encourage student responsibility for learning.
You the instructor are responsible for teaching, and they are responsible for learning. In service to that, create assignments that push learning activity back onto them. For instance, in courses that demand a great deal of writing, don't correct every grammar or sentence construction error. Use a highlighter to mark the text, ask the students to figure out what's wrong, and then grade them on their ability to be critical of their own work and find the right answer. This approach works for every discipline and helps them to develop the critical thinking skills we all have as an underlying learning objective.

Further Examples

For more detailed examples of the kind of assignments that follow these guidelines, contact Becky Kasper at the address below.

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Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100
E-mail: kasperrb@plattsburgh.edu