Create Activities

by MU Instructional Designers
March 9, 2023
8-10 min read

Best Practices

Effective activities are relevant

Effective activities are relevant.

As discussed in the principles of backward design, all instructional activities/assessments need to be directly related to learning objectives. Highlighting this relevance can help students make connections between course activities and the skills/knowledge that they’re developing in the course.

Our second aspect of relevance is a defining principle of andragogy (the science of teaching adults): adult learners, online or face-to-face, want to see real-world applications for what they are learning. These authentic, real-world applications assignments are sometimes referred to as “non-disposable assignments (NDAs).” 1 Think about how your students might be using this knowledge in their future careers or general responsibilities as an informed citizen.

In addition to andragogy, this practice is aligned with Universal Design for Learning (UDL)‘s principle, provide multiple means of engagement. Within the guideline for providing option for recruiting interest, UDL specifically promotes optimizing relevance, value, and authenticity (checkpoint 7.2).

Making assessments relevant is also a culturally responsive practice (Culturally Responsive Teaching [CRT]). According to the motivational condition of developing attitude, heightening personal relevance for students will “create a favorable disposition to the learning experience”1. These inclusive practices ensure that all students can be successful in your course.

One way to make specific prompts/questions more authentic and meaningful is to consider the parameters of constrained choice activities, which require that a prompt include the following:

Activity Prompt's 3 parts: Situation – Description – concrete, real world situation or problem; Information – Something to analyze – stories, images, charts, data sets, test results, reports; Action – Decision to be made – forced to make singular decision (rank, score, best, worst, most efficient, first, last)
“Three Elements of Constrained Questions,” from Sibley, Roberson, & O’Dwyer’s 2023 article in the Educause Review

More focused questions help prepare students for similar discussions and projects in the professional world.

Effective activities are varied.

Effective activities are varied.

The variety required for assessments is really two-fold. Firstly, there must be a mix of formative and summative assessments.

Formative assessments are frequent, low-stakes activities that allow both the instructor and students to gauge learning progress. For some examples of formative assessments that you can use in the online environment, you can check out “Seven Strategies for Using Formative Assessments in Online Learning” (3 min video). Formative assessments are particularly important for fully online courses, where you don’t have the nonverbal cues or classroom experiences with students that you would have in a F2F course.

Summative assessments come at the end of lessons/units and are more formal, higher-stakes assessments that determine if a student has mastered the content. One way to understand (and remember) the roles of these two assessment types is to remember this analogy,

“When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative: When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative”
(Debra Dirksen, “Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction,” 2011)

In addition to a variety of formative and summative assessments, it’s important to have a variety in the types of activities that you use. This helps to address the diversity of your students’ needs, strengths, interests, etc. If students are only ever taking tests and quizzes, you’re not varying your assessment. Consider adding in graded discussions, writing assignments/journaling, audio/video projects, group activities, case studies, etc. Appeal to the strengths and interests of your students.

This practice is in alignment with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). According to the UDL principle of providing multiple means of action and expression, an important guideline is to provide options for students to express what they know – could they create an infographic instead of a persuasive essay or a podcast instead of a research paper? CRT’s motivational condition of developing attitude supports the practice of offering choices for students, which will encourage a more positive attitude toward learning.

Effective activities have clear expectations.

Effective activities have clear expectations.

This seems to often surprise instructors, but students need very detailed instructions especially for online assessments. They often don’t have the class-time to ask questions casually or chat with their peers about parts of the instructions that they don’t understand.

One great way to articulate expectations is to use analytic grading rubrics and/or samples (or partial samples) of student work. You can use past student submissions (with the student’s permission) or mock up your own samples. Students want to see what you’re looking for, and they want assurance that they aren’t completely missing the mark.

Providing clear expectations is supported by the following Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines:

  • Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence (multiple means of engagement)
  • Provide options for language, mathematical expressions and symbols (multiple means of representation)
  • Provide options for executive functions (multiple means of action and expression)

These UDL guidelines help ensure that your assessments are inclusive to diverse learners in your classroom.

Lastly, clear expectations are particularly important in the context of collaborative activities like peer review/critique and group work. Students often require scaffolding to ensure effective collaboration. Rubrics, samples, and demonstrations can help ensure students interact with others meaningfully and productively.

Effective activities lead to constructive feedback and reflection.

Effective activities lead to constructive feedback and reflection.

This is really what comes after the assessment, but it’s important to consider in the design stage. All assessments must provide opportunity for you as the instructor to provide constructive feedback. When formative activities pair student practice with meaningful feedback, active learning takes place. Writing for Edutopia, Marianne Stenger provides these five tips for providing meaningful feedback; be specific, timely, address the learner’s goals, present feedback constructively, and involve learner in the process.2

Personalized feedback takes time, but it is vital to keeping students engaged in the course. This mastery-oriented feedback helps give them concrete suggestions for improving future performance (aligned with the Universal Design for Learning [UDL] guideline for providing options for sustaining effort and persistence).

Feedback that you provide to students on their work is a significant part of student-to-teacher interaction, a key principle of student engagement. This can be particularly important for online/remote students, who can often feel isolated and disconnected from their instructors. Rubrics can help you save time when providing that feedback. In particular, analytic rubrics provide pre-written comments/feedback for students within specific criteria so that you have time to add more personalized comments rather than spending all your time adding the same general comments.

Consider designing reflection opportunities that encourage students to reflect on the process of completing an assignment, activating metacognitive skills. When they add this reflection to the feedback they receive from others, they have a clear picture of where they can improve for the next time. Providing students with guiding questions can help them develop a framework for self-evaluation in future projects. This could be a journal they keep during the project with prompts related to significant checkpoints. Students can complete the reflection in stages during the project, or at the end as a comprehensive reflection (UDL checkpoint 9.3).

Effective activities scaffold ethical behavior.

Effective activities scaffold ethical behavior.

“Our mission is to educate men and women toward maturity of intellect, character and Christian faith in preparation for lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in church and society.”
(Messiah University Mission Statement)

When designing activities/assessments, we must do so through the framework of our mission and values. The key ethical considerations at play relate to academic honesty/integrity and digital ethics/citizenship. 

Messiah has a robust academic integrity policy in our Academic Policies document, but policy alone doesn’t scaffold behavior, particularly for students who are not well-versed in academic norms and conventions. Effective assessments articulate expectations regarding academic integrity rather than presuming student understanding. Promoting resources like tutoring, the Writing Center (undergrad) / Heartful Editor (grad), and professor office hours are strategies that provide students with solutions outside of academic dishonesty in order to be successful. (Check out our annotated bibliography on academic integrity.)

Digital citizenship issues are also a part of ethical behavior for students. Our students may be tech savvy, but that doesn’t mean that they are well-versed in digital ethics. This means that you will want to provide resources for engaging with online tools in ways that respect copyright, promote accessibility, and protect privacy/data security. In addition to promoting digital ethics, it’s important to model these practices yourself. For example, external tools like Padlet, WordPress, Quizlet, and Kahoot, can make for engaging and effective online activities, but since these tools often require students to create an account to use them, you want to be sure that you and your students are comfortable with the Terms of Service (TOS) or Terms of Use (TOU). Reviewing these documents as a class models and supports ethical online behavior.

One final element of digital citizenship that we should discuss is information literacy/validation. Even digital natives don’t often possess the critical thinking skills required for evaluating sources online for credibility and authenticity, making them susceptible to be both victims and perpetrators of mis- or dis-information online. The Library is your greatest resource and ally here.

Some Types of Activities