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Write Clear Online Assignments

Write Clear Online Assignments

Including clear directions and context in an online assignment improves students' success.
by LSA Learning & Teaching Technology Consultants

Clear and contextualized directions for course activities have a great impact on a student's success with those assignments. Activities are a major part of the overall online course design and they should help you measure whether students have learned what you want them to learn. You can help to improve the students' learning experience in your online course by making sure you include the context that helps students to learn independently and be successful in the task. [1]

Research in learning has shown that the more clear an assignment is in stating the objectives and directions that students need to follow, the better the student's responses to that assignment [2] and easier they are to grade, since more students adhere to the appropriate formatting and expected organization.

Before creating an assignment, it’s important to define what skills, knowledge, and abilities that you hope your students will gain from it and how you aim to measure those. Once you determine those, you can include them in the assignment prompt. Clearly stating these things ensures students understand the assignment objectives and expectations. Here are some components that you should consider when writing any type of assignment [3]: 


This entails providing an overview that situates the assignment within the context of the course. For example, “This paper will cover the authors from the first three weeks of the course.”

Purpose and Context

This component explains why students are doing this assigned work, what learning objectives the assignment should move them toward, and how this specific assignment will assess how well students have achieved those goals. For example, “This paper is a chance to demonstrate the analytical skills we have practiced in class discussion. You will be assessed on how clearly you present your argument, and how much evidence you provide to support it.” Providing a specific purpose can foster deeper understanding and appreciation of the assignment’s value and also motivate students to put in more effort completing it.


This explains what students are supposed to do and how to do it. The assignment task might include how to start, where to look for information, a list of resources needed for the assignment, how to ask for help, or things to avoid. Well written tasks have proven to help students complete the assignment successfully and discourage academic errors such as plagiarism. 

Submission format and success criteria

This outlines to students how to submit their work and in what stylistic format. For example, it might include the details about the required elements such as the length, format, file type (a pdf, word, video, or audio file),  where to submit it, and the deadlines or time limit. 

It’s also important to tell students what success looks like and how they will be graded. This can often be accomplished quite easily by providing examples of previous student work and the rubrics or grading criteria [4].  If you are providing samples of student work, make sure you have written permission to share it!

Here is an example [5] of an assignment prompt that illustrates these components. If you’d like assistance working through what such an assignment might look like for your particular classes, please feel free to contact the LSATSLearningTeachingConsultants@umich.edu and we’ll be glad to help!


[1] Fink, L. D. (2003). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning. University of Oklahoma, 27(11).

[2] Creating Effective Writing Assignment- MIT

[3] How to Write an Effective Assignment. Online Resources-by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Harvard University.

[4] Transparency in Learning and Teaching project (TILT)

[5] Transparent Assignment Template - TILT Higher Ed- by Winkelmes, M. A. (2013)


Release Date: 07/24/2020
Category: Learning & Teaching Consulting; Teaching Tips
Tags: Technology Services