Getting Started with Assignment Design

When following the course development process of backwards design, you first identify the student learning goals for the course and then determine how you will measure student learning. Backwards design aims for  alignment between what you want students to learn and how you are assessing their learning. In theory, you would finalize your course-level learning goals and goals for each major assignment before moving forward with assignment design. In practice, however, many instructors find assignment design to be an iterative process of drafting assignment-level goals, creating an assignment, and then adjusting both the goals and the assignment until they are in alignment with one another and with the course-level learning goals. 

Assignment Goals & Assignment Type

Spending time on assignment-level goals can help you determine the kinds of assignments you want students to complete. For example, if you want students to determine which formula to use to solve a word problem, a well-designed multiple choice question might be a more efficient way to assess their learning than a short answer question. In addition, writing assignment-level goals can help you articulate where you want students to focus their time and energy, which can also impact the form the assessment takes. For example, when considering the learning goals for a research essay, you might decide that being able to choose a topic and develop a research question are crucial learning goals. Therefore, rather than having students draft and write an essay, they can submit a project proposal.


Here are some questions to help you determine learning goals and consider your assignment type:

  • What do you want students to know or be able to do by the end of the assignment? What should they be able to demonstrate? (Consider using Bloom’s Taxonomy to help you define goals.)
    • How do these goals align with your course-level goals?
    • How do they align with the assignment type?
  • Where do you want students to focus their time and energy?
    • Does your assignment type oblige students to focus their time and energy on what’s most important?

Depending on how you answer these questions, you may need to revise your assignment goals or assignment type. (See Harvard University’s types of assignments or the University of Waterloo’s type of assignments and tests if you want some inspiration.)

Course Rhythm

While this resource is about assignment design, not course design, it can be helpful to take a step back and see how a particular assignment fits into the larger rhythm of a course. In the book, Effective Grading, Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson suggest creating a course skeleton that just includes the course-level learning goals and the major assessments. This allows you to check alignment and ask yourself, “Is the workload I am planning for myself and my students feasible, reasonable, strategically placed, and sustainable?” (18). If the answer to any part of this question is “no,” you may need to revise or change the timing of the assignment, or make changes to other major assessments. For example, having two major assignments due in the same week may not give students enough time to successfully complete both, or give you enough time to provide feedback on the first assignment that may help them as they finalize the second one. You might also strategically plan the rhythm of the semester around your own workload and other commitments, so that you are more able to keep up with the pace of providing feedback and grades to students. This sample course outline shows the benefit of moving from a topic-drive to a goal-driven approach to mapping out a course’s rhythm.

Once you have articulated your assignment-level goals, aligned them with your course-level goals and the assignment type, and considered the rhythm of your course, you can think about how you will clarify expectations for your students.