In brief:

Many factors make an assessment effective.

  • Scaffolding assignments promote deeper learning by distributing learning and providing regular feedback.
  • Designing assessments using authentic tasks that are framed around students’ interests, experiences and backgrounds increases motivation and engagement.

Once you have determined the type of assessment to use, you should plan the scope and sequence details of the assessment task. The scope refers to the depth and breadth of content and skills it will cover, while the sequence refers to the order that the students will follow as they undertake the work. In a multiple-choice exam, this will relate to the content you include and the way you group it together, while in a broader assessment task (e.g: a research paper that requires students to construct a response to an open-ended question), it may also include the parameters students should work within and the different elements they will need to include to complete the project.

Below are some important considerations for developing graded assignments.

Scaffold Assessments to Promote Deep Learning

Scaffolding assessments involves breaking down a large, complicated task into smaller, manageable parts or designing a sequence of tasks that gradually increases in complexity.

1The research on learning tells us that students acquire new knowledge by building on existing knowledge. Therefore, when assessments are scaffolded to build on one another, it provides the opportunity for students to progressively practice old skills while learning new skills and content. Central to the concept of scaffolding is the support provided to students from the instructor and/or peers as they work through the assignment sequence. Providing feedback on their work at regular intervals throughout the learning process will help students master each step before proceeding further.

There are a few ways you can scaffold assignments in your course.

1. Use a Process Approach

Tracking the student’s process for a large assignment promotes deeper learning because it provides multiple opportunities for feedback on different aspects of their work. As a result, the quality of student work is sure to improve. This type of scaffolding also helps students get started on complex assignments early and ensures they are on track throughout. As a result, they will be less likely to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the task and less tempted to cut corners.

There are a variety of ways to build a process approach in your assessment. You can ask students to submit evidence of their information gathering and planning, or have staged assessments wherein students submit partially completed work prior to final submission.

Below are two examples of breaking down a writing assessment into several stages:

Click on the image below to expand it

You can decide whether to simply collect evidence of student work throughout the process, provide formative, non-graded feedback to students at each collection stage, or to attribute grades to student work as collected. The milestones you choose can be evidence of progress (i.e. research question, list of sources) used to develop metacognition (i.e. one page reflection), or can be parts of the whole (i.e. bibliography) assignment.

2. Increase the difficulty of material for similar assignments

Another means to is to build success with smaller tasks, or scaffold assignments, and continually raise the bar. For example, if you require regular reading summaries or responses, you can scaffold these by assigning progressively more complex and/or abstract readings. Similarly, if assignments focus on problems or different kinds of tasks, you can increase the task difficulty and complexity with each assignment. For example, you could increase the level of thinking required in successive assignments from summarizing a reading to analyzing it to finally evaluating it. (Source: Collegiate Teaching )

Make assessment tasks specific to the course

Generic assessments tend to invite plagiarism. Offering students concrete and specific questions situated in your course content and learning activities can discourage students from simply copying from web resources. Here are some strategies to make your assessments more specific:

  • Ask students to discuss a course topic in relation to a specific resource or reading. For example, instead of asking your students to write an essay on the effects of obesity on public health (uncontextualized, generic topic), you can ask them to find three obesity information websites and create the criteria to judge which will best improve public health. Alternately, you can ask them to identify a recent piece of publicity on obesity and use it as a basis for drafting recommendations to the government. (example source: Designing out plagiarism: A brief guide for busy academics, University of Surrey)
  • Ask for papers that are contextualized from a specific standpoint: write from the perspective of a specific character, scholar or theorist; discuss a point of contention from class discussion; explain an actual result in a lab experiment; discuss a passage in a course reading; analyze a local issue or current event.
  • Ask students to demonstrate a particular technique learned in the course: construct a model or hand-drawn diagram of a key concept in the discipline, or apply a specific theoretical analysis.

Frame assignments around students’ experience, backgrounds and interests

When possible, design assignments that require students to relate the work to their personal experience, context, or interest as a powerful way to engage and include all students. Research shows that we link new information to what we already know, so the more we can ground new information in existing knowledge and personal experience, the easier it is for us to learn2. Here a few suggestions to guide you:

  • Ask students to select a course topic and investigate it through the lens of their own lived experience, community context, belief system, etc.
  • Ask students to explain how a specific course topic (i.e. how a certain kind of mathematical equation) can be used in their own lives.
  • Give students a choice in the tie of artifact they submit for grading (i.e. paper, webpage, oral presentation, podcast, video, etc).

The next section will:

  • help you determine the weighting and timings of your assessments in order to complete the assessment plan for your course.

Further Resources

Scaffolding and Sequencing Writing Assignments (The Writing Center, University of Colorado Denver )

Effective Assignment Sequencing for ScaffoldingLearning (Sweetland Center for Writing, LSA, University of Michigan)

Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Authentic assessment: Testing in reality. New directions for Teaching and learning, 2004(100), 23-29.

Authentic Assessment toolbox (Created by Jon Mueller, North Centreal College)



1Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

2Bean, John. (2011). “Designing Tasks to Promote Active Thinking and Learning” in Engaging Ideas, 2nd Ed.