Create Activities

by MU Instructional Designers
October 22, 2020
5-8 min read

Best Practices

Effective activities are relevant to the 'real world' outside of class.

Effective activities are relevant to the “real world” outside of class.

This really 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. Think about how your students might be using this knowledge in their future careers or general responsibilities as an informed citizen.

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. Add in graded discussions, writing assignments/journaling, audio/video projects, group activities, case studies, etc. Appeal to the strengths and interests of your students. This is in alignment with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT), which you can learn more about on the Inclusion page. Provide options for students to show what they know – could they create an infographic instead of a shorter persuasive paper or a podcast instead of a research paper?

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. Another 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 it is you’re looking for, and they want assurance that they aren’t completely missing the mark. This is true for students both in F2F and online learning environments.

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. This can be particularly true for online/remote students, who can often feel isolated and disconnected from their instructors. Personalized feedback takes time, but it is vital to keeping students engaged in the course. It also helps give them concrete suggestions for improving future performance.

Rubrics can help you save time when providing students with feedback, in addition to helping set clear expectations. Analytic rubrics, in particular, provide automatic comments/feedback for students on their assignments.

Design 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 activities/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