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The Skills Agenda

Syllabus design boot camp, day 3: from learning outcomes to assignments

How to design assignments that meet your learning outcomes needs while paying attention to student workloads as well as your own.


A lot of faculty and instructors – this may include you – count grading as one of their least favourite parts of the job. Grading itself can bring up a lot of emotions (joy, despair, boredom, amusement) and insecurities (“Am I a bad teacher?” “Was my exam too hard?” “Were my instructions unclear?”). Managing issues around assignments beyond grading, such as meeting with students who are unhappy with their grades, can be stressful and time consuming.

Today’s syllabus design boot camp activities focus on the evaluation components (assignments) of your class – that is, those parts that the student must complete to receive a grade for the course. My goal is to help you select assignments that ensure the course objectives are met while inspiring your own and your students’ interests. Ideally, with some creativity and forethought, you will be able to create assignments that your students look forward to completing and that you look forward to grading.

Review Day 1 and Day 2 of this boot camp

Start with the course level learning outcomes, and then think broadly

Like it or not, your students will focus their attention on assignments (as any instructor who has heard the refrain, “Is this going to be on the exam?” can attest). For this reason, aligning your course learning outcomes with your assignments is critical. It can also help you ensure that your assignments are purposeful, and not simply reflective of how you, instructors before you and instructors before them have always done things.

To prompt your own thinking, pretend the dominant assignment model in your discipline (e.g., lab reports, a midterm, and a final followed by a midterm, term paper and another final) is not an option. As you brainstorm possible assignments, start with the course learning outcomes that you identified on Day 1 of this boot camp. For each individual learning outcome, ask yourself:

  • What types of assignments would provide students with an experience through which to achieve the learning outcome?
  • What types of assignments would provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate their progress toward meeting the learning outcome?

Keep in mind both that a single assignment can speak to multiple learning outcomes and that a single learning outcome – and in particular your career skill/competency learning outcome – can be incorporated into multiple assignments in the course.

Brainstorm ideas, and review lists of ideas online to spark your creativity. (One of my favourite creative ideas: a University of Saskatchewan colleague incorporated board game development into his history seminar.) If you tend to rely on written assignments (e.g., essay, exam, brief, laboratory report, worksheet, proposal), ask yourself if there are options for verbal (e.g., presentation, oral defence, podcast), engagement-based (e.g., participation, attendance, peer review, debate), visual (e.g., poster, mind-map, video, slide deck) or in some other creative format assignments (e.g., performance). You can also leave the format open for the student to decide, as I did with a pay-it-forward assignment.

As you consider ideas, imagine what your students will find to be a motivating challenge. What will spark their interest in the assignment and, by extension, the subject matter? What will spark your interest to grade the assignments?

Consider what needs to be graded, and at what level of detail

Not every assignment deserves the same grading attention. I find it useful to think of grading in two categories:

  1. Complete/incomplete: milestones that help students stay on track with the course and build to future assignments, but do not require (or receive) in-depth review or numeric grade.
  2. Full evaluation: key assignments that build and/or evaluate course learning outcomes and receive in-depth assessment and a numeric grade.

Using and distinguishing between the two categories is valuable to instructors and students alike. For instructors, it reduces grading workload. For students, it allows them to identify which assignments require more careful attention.

It is possible to combine the two grading categories. For example, in an online class, I had weekly applied learning activities. Twice in the semester, students submitted the previous six week’s learning activities, identifying one for full grading and the remainder to be graded as complete/incomplete.

As you consider the full assignment load, be sure to consider the total course workload for your students. As noted yesterday, you can use an online workload calculator to assess this and then adjust accordingly.

Allocate assignment weights

Deciding how to allocate the full class grade across the various assignments can be tricky. Here are some suggestions:

  • Plan a lower weight assignment early in the semester to allow students to get a sense of your grading style and expectations – and to provide them with feedback of some sort before the class drop date. In my experience, this is best done as a 10-25 per cent weight.
  • Put the largest weight on the assignment that you feel carries the greatest significance or value for your learning outcomes. I tend to favour a 40-50 per cent weighting for this focal assignment.
  • If you have an engagement-based component, be careful with the weighting. If you do not believe that simply showing up in class with a pulse or making content-less comments on online discussion boards (“I agree”/“Good point”) constitutes the difference between a B and C, don’t allow the weighting to create that outcome.
  • Some programs require a final exam of a particular weight. Be sure to check your program’s requirements.

Make assignment purposes transparent

I am a strong believer in explicit instruction, and this extends to assignments. Clearly explain to students not only what the assignment is but also why you are including it in the course. A few sentences that explicitly tie the assignments to the learning outcomes in your syllabus will achieve this. (E.g., “The purpose of this assignment is to provide you with the opportunity to strengthen your critical analysis skills (course learning outcome 4) while demonstrating your understanding of the factors contributing to climate change (course learning outcome 2).”) See the Transparency in Learning and Teaching project for further ideas to increase transparency in your assignments, including its helpful assignment description template.

Your syllabus design boot camp homework

Here is your homework for today, all of which should take you less than an hour to complete:

  • Revisit your learning outcomes and brainstorm assignment ideas that tie to these outcomes (estimated time: 15-20 minutes).
  • Decide which assignments require numeric grades and assign weightings (estimated time: 10 minutes).
  • Write brief statements that explicitly explain the purpose of each assignment, linking back to the learning outcomes (estimated time: 10 minutes).

Tomorrow I will cover the spacing of these assignments, as well as the rest of your course, when I review how to set your course calendar.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

How do you build career skills into your evaluation components? Please let me know by commenting below or by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl and using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda.

I look forward to hearing from you. Stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is a 3M National Teaching Fellow, an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her most recent book is For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities (with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young, University of Alberta Press 2024).
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