Equitable Assignment Design
Why is equity important in assignment design?
Many instructors have taken a renewed interest in the equity and fairness of their courses. Although all aspects of teaching and learning merit such a focus, it is particularly important in the area of assignment design. Assignments designed with equity in mind ensure that all students have optimal conditions in which to demonstrate their learning; this in turn helps faculty evaluate students’ knowledge and skills fairly and accurately.
What makes an assignment equitable?
Among the features of assignment that can make assignments more equitable are flexibility and variety, an emphasis on the process of learning, application of principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), transparency, and equitable grading. Below we define each of these terms and provide some specific examples.
Flexibility and Variety
Constructing assignments with flexibility and variety in mind can allow students to show what they have learned regardless of their academic strengths or familiarity with particular assignment types. These features require that faculty think through how each assignment (in all its variations) aligns with the learning outcomes for the course, to ensure that all students have an opportunity to achieve those outcomes.
- Within an assignment, allow students to choose from several different formats for their response that all meet the assignment goals
- Across a course, provide a variety of types of assignments
- If a major project includes several different components (a written paper and an oral presentation, for example), allow students to determine the weight of each component
- If you must use multiple-choice exams to assess students’ learning, consider offering an alternative assignment for students who don’t test well, or who have slow internet connections
An Emphasis on the Process of Learning
With careful assignment construction, instructors can hep students engage in and prioritize the process of learning. This will not only improve students’ performance; it can also increase their time on task, which can benefit all students.
- Adopt a growth mindset in your teaching by emphasizing that students can succeed in your course with hard work and effort
- Give students frequent opportunities to demonstrate their learning, including low-stakes chances to practice skills and assess their own progress toward course goals
- Scaffold students’ work to facilitate building skills, and offer frequent feedback on students’ progress
- Allow students to revise their work to respond to your feedback
- Help students reflect on the processes they used to respond to major assignments or to study for exams
Application of Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
UDL is a set of principles to guide the creation of inclusive and accessible courses and learning experiences. When these principles are applied to assignment design, they can benefit all students, not only those with disabilities.
- Provide assignment instructions in writing and verbally
- Simplify the navigation in your course Canvas site so students can find assignments easily
- Give students some choice in how they can show their learning
- Consider alternatives to traditional multiple-choice exams
- Provide ample time for exams and online assignments to be completed
This is the concept of making clear to students the purpose of assignments and activities and how to succeed on them. Being transparent with students ensures that all students can succeed, not only those with privileged educational backgrounds.
- For assignments that include a rubric, share it with students when they start to work on the assignment; you can even involve students in rubric creation
- Be transparent in your assignment design by specifying in each assignment its purpose, the process or task students should engage it, and the criteria that will be used to evaluate it
- The concept of transparency in teaching includes other pedagogical strategies in addition to transparent assignment design. For more information, see the page on Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT).
Along with equitable assignment design, faculty can grade students equitably on the basis of their learning and performance, and without allowing factors such as race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, abilities, rural/urban location, or internet access to influence grades. In this way grades can be used not to sort and rank students, but instead to guide all students to achieve course learning outcomes.
- If you will use a rubric or grading standards to evaluate students’ work, share it when making an assignment so that all students understand how their work will be evaluated
- Provide feedback along with grades to help students understand the strengths and weaknesses of their work and how to improve it
- Avoid “magical grading”: grading on the basis of factors or traits that are not articulated, or that are assumed to be “implicit”
- Consider whether it is more equitable to weight assignments done early in the semester more lightly and those done later more heavily, after students have had a chance to learn about your standards and expectations
For more help with applying any of these concepts to your teaching, contact the CITL.