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Assignment Centered Course Planning

The following suggestions for course planning have been adapted from chapter 3 of the book Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment by Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson. When you've completed your planning, visit the syllabus tutorial for help in communicating your course plan to your students.

An Introduction

In assignment-centered course planning, the teacher begins by asking, "What should my students learn to do?" rather than "What should I cover in this course?" Coverage does not disappear under the assignment-centered model: basic facts, concepts, and procedures are still important; lectures may be used as a pedagogical device; textbooks may be assigned and read. However, the course planning process begins by focusing on the assignments, tests, and exams that will both teach and test what the teacher most wants students to know. The rest of the course is then structured to help students learn what they need to know if they are to do well on the tests and assignments. Research suggests that the assignment centered course enhances students' higher order reasoning and critical thinking more effectively than courses centered around text, lecture, and coverage (Kurfiss, 1988).

Step 1: Consider What You Want Your Students to Learn

Effective course planning begins when the teacher says to herself, "By the end of the course, I want my students to be able to..."

Concrete verbs such as define, argue, solve, and create are more helpful for course planning than vague verbs such as know or understand or passive verbs such as be exposed to. If you write, "I want students to think like economists," elaborate on what that means. How does an economist think? Which aspects of that thinking do you want to cultivate in students?

Here are some examples:

At the end of Western Civilization 101, I want my students to be able to:

  • Describe basic historical events and people.
  • Argue as a historian does:
    • Take a position on a debatable historical issue.
    • Use historical data as evidence for the position.
    • Raise and answer counter arguments.

At the end of Math 101, I want my students to be able to:

  • Solve [certain kinds] of math problems.
  • Explain what they're doing as they solve a problem and why they're doing it.

At the end of this course (in dental hygiene), I want my students to:

  • Pass the state and federal board questions which deal with my area.
  • Demonstrate habits of critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Establish trust and cooperation with their patients.

Step 2: Select Assignments and Tests That Measure What You Value Most

List the major assignments and tests and describe their salient characteristics. For example, you might start by listing "An argumentative essay on the French Revolution" or "A mid-term exam with multiple-choice questions and problem-solving." Describe the relationship of each assignment or test to your objectives ("Students will be evaluated on their ability to use historical data as evidence and their ability to raise and counter arguments.", "Multiple-choice questions will test their basic knowledge of…." "Problem-solving questions will provide evidence that students can solve problems of type A, B. can C").

Try to ensure that any assignments, tests, and exams that you give and grade will teach and test the knowledge and skills you most want students to learn. Some research indicates that many faculty do not achieve a good fit between the learning they say they want and the tests and assignments they actually give:

"Faculty often state that they are seeking to develop students' abilities to analyze, synthesize, and think critically. However, research indicates that faculty do not follow their good intentions when they develop their courses. A formal review and analysis of course syllabi and exams revealed that college faculty do not in reality focus on these advanced skills but instead are far more concerned with students' abilities to acquire knowledge, comprehend basic concepts or ideas and terms, and apply this basic knowledge [National Center for Education Statistics, 1995, p. 167]."

A combination of careful forethought, knowledge of your students, and analysis of your students' work are the keys here. For example, the mathematician who wanted his students to solve problems and explain the process realized that his existing testing and grading were putting too much emphasis on merely getting the right answers. So he added a requirement to some of his assignments and exams: students had to draw a vertical line down the center of a page, dividing it into two columns. In one column they solved the problem. In the opposite column they wrote sentences for each step describing what they did and why they did it.

Step 3: Construct a "Skeleton" Outline

Combine all your tests and assignments into a bare-bones course outline so that you can see a broad profile of the course and can ask some important questions. For an example, see Breihan's Western Civilization course skeleton below.

Skeleton for 100-Level Western Civilization Course.

  • I want my students to define and describe historical events.
  • Most of all, I want my students to use historical data to develop the elements of an argument:
    • Taking a position
    • Backing the position with evidence
    • Answering counterarguments
      6. Argumentative essay on Age 14.
      10. Same, but on Industrial Revolution.
      15. Same, but on World War I, World II, and the Cold War

First, notice that there is no term paper. Instead, Breihan concentrated on three argumentative essays. He gave students the essay questions ahead of time so they could prepare, rather than write hastily to answer a question they had not seen before. He fashioned questions that would require them to synthesize what they had studied.

To keep them from merely copying sources, he asked them to draft an essay in class without notes. Then he responded to the drafts, and students revised their essays out of class and resubmitted them. For the first essay, revision was mandatory. For the second, it was optional. For the third (the final exam), it was not possible.

In his assignment-centered course skeleton, Breihan focused on a type of assignment that he believed had the best chance of eliciting from his students the careful arguments he most valued. He kept the paper load manageable. He structured the writing experiences so that student had the time and conditions necessary to produce coherent arguments. (The skeleton does not include minor assignments such as response to reading, map quizzes, and the like.)

We suggest that you begin your course planning in this same way. Your discipline may be quite different from history you may have labs or clinics in addition to class. But the same principle applies: state what you want your students to learn, then list the major assignments and tests that will both teach and test that learning.

Step 4: Check Tests and Assignments for Fit and Feasibility

Fit: Do my tests and assignments fit the kind of learning I most want?

Feasibility: Is the workload I am planning for myself and my students reasonable, strategically placed, and sustainable?

Example of a Problematic Skeleton for an Introductory Sociology Course:

Students: Primarily non-majors fulfilling general education requirements.

I want my students to be able to apply sociological analysis to what they see around them.

  10. Term Paper
  11. Final Exam: essay and objective

Laying out his course in this skeletal way helped this sociology professor realize that his tests and exams did not fit the learning he most wanted. Students were likely to study all night before the exams, using their texts and class notes - a procedure not likely to elicit thoughtful application of sociological perspectives to what they saw around them. The term paper he assigned was likely to appear to them as a library exercise, also unrelated.

The professor decided to change his assignments to fit more closely with what he wanted students to learn. He abandoned the term paper and exams and instead asked his students every other week to write a "sociological analysis" where they analyzed some event or situation they observed in light of the sociological viewpoints they had been studying.

Step 5: Complete the Course Outline with In-class and Out-of-class Topics and Activities.

Before fleshing out your outline, ask yourself:

  • What do students need to learn in order to complete my assignments and tests successfully? What information/knowledge to they need to obtain? What skills do they need to learn and practice?
  • What can students effectively do outside of class during their study time? What information and skills students can most effectively gain in class when they have the guidance and help of their instructor and peers?

The classes we've experienced as students were usually structured like this: the topic is introduced during an in-class lecture. Students are given basic information on the topic, and concepts and terms are introduced and exemplified. Then students are asked to go home and apply the concepts, solve problems, and analyze and synthesize the information. In other words, we have them do the relatively “easy work” of comprehension in class and then ask them to do the difficult work on their own.

Consider shifting this balance so that students get much of the introductory information outside of class and spend time in class doing tasks where they can benefit from the feedback of the instructor and peers like using historical data as evidence for a position on a debatable historical issue. Research strongly indicates that student involvement is the key to learning and that for higher-order learning such as analysis, argument, and problem-solving, the most effective teaching methods involve having students actually practice the activities of the discipline, interact frequently with one another and with the teacher, and receive frequent feedback.

As you consider the question of what students should do “outside” of the class hour versus during the class, also keep in mind that technology is changing the definition of "class hour." Resources such as Web, e-mail, chat, and simulation make students' study time more like the class or lab, as students, from their desks at home, interact with teachers, classmates, and interactive software that, for example, teaches and tests them on basic information. Thus today a teacher has a richer but also more complex array of times, spaces, and technologies to arrange into a sequence of activities that will lead to maximum learning.

When you've completed your planning, visit the syllabus tutorial for help in communicating your course plan to your students.