Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Assessments and Activities

Course Learning Objectives serve as important guideposts for students. They also serve as the foundation for designing course assessments and Activities.

NOTE: The resources on this page are general approaches to assessment in any setting. Visit this list of links to read about Alternative Assessments in Online Environments:

Clear and appropriate learning objectives help students*

  • differentiate and prioritize among types of knowledge required in a course.
  • practice the “right skills” in a course
  • build their understanding of how disciplines function
  • develop as self-directed learners.

 (Adapted from "The Educational Value of Course-level Learning Objectives/Outcomes" from the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University)

However, CLOs will only benefit students in these ways if they are actively practiced and assessed throughout the course. 

Features of Good Assessments & Assignments

The scholarship on designing effective assessments (assignments, tests, performances, etc.) and course activities (in-class discussion, off-campus service learning, etc.) is extensive. With the increase in online education and the emergence of flipped pedagogy, the opportunities to design active learning and innovative assessments has never been greater, or more overwhelming. The CTLT can assist instructors with assignment design and appropriate course activities through workshops and consultations. 

Much of the scholarship on traditional, online and hybrid teaching points to the benefits of assessments and course activities that exhibit the following features:

Relevance. A task is given meaning by its relevance to the learning objectives in the course. This relevance is conveyed through a clear purpose, audience and criteria. Students should know why and for whom they are doing an assignment or activity and what is at stake in doing it.         

Maximizes learning time. As Suskie argues, effectiveness is determined by the “learning payoff,” not by size of the assignment (159). Will students learn four times as much on an assignment that takes 20 hours outside of class than one that takes 5? Longer research-based assignments and elaborate class activities (mock conferences, debates, poster sessions, etc.) can greatly maximize learning, but there must be an appropriate level of learning time built into the task. Term papers are much more effective when students have time to draft and revise stages of the assignment, rather than turning in one final product at the end. Likewise, a one-minute quick-write and pair-share to launch a discussion or reflect on a lecture or performance can yield significant learning in a short time.              

Well Sequenced. If the task requires multiple components, then it is more likely to be an effective learning experience when students can complete the project in stages. Moreover, these stages should be scaffolded, so simpler tasks (e.g. summarizing or paraphrasing) precede more complex tasks (e.g. analysis or synthesis). For example, a well-sequenced 10-12 page essay assignment might involve segments where students: 1) generate a central inquiry question; 2) draft and workshop a thesis statement; 3) produce a first draft of the essay; 4) give and receive feedback on drafts; and 5) submit a revision.        

Clear criteria that points students toward learning outcomes. The literature on assignment design strongly encourages instructors to make the grading criteria explicit to students before the assignment is collected and assessed. A grading rubric that is handed out along with the assignment will provide students with a clear understanding of what to focus on in the assignment. When distributed in advance, the criteria becomes a teaching and a monitoring aid, not just a summative assessment tool.

Forward-thinking. Forward-thinking assessments and activities ask students to apply their learning rather than simply repeat it. Often, the orientation of exams and quizzes is backward-thinking, asking students to show they learned X, Y, and Z. While such assessments are sometimes necessary to monitor learning, they are less likely to promote long-term learning and retention. As L. Dee Fink points out in Creating Significant Learning Experiences, forward-thinking assessments and activities look ahead to what students will be able to do in the future having learned about X, Y and Z (86). Such assessments and activities often utilize real-world and scenario-based problems, requiring students to apply their learning to a new situation. For Grant Wiggins (Educative Assessment), questions, problems, tests, and assignments that are forward-thinking are often:

  • Realistic and authentic. The tasks replicate the ways in which a person’s knowledge and abilities are tested in real-world situations.
  • Require judgment and innovation. The student has to use knowledge and skills to solve unstructured problems, not just plug in a routine.
  • Ask the student to do the subject. Beyond recitation and replication, these tasks require students to carry out explorations, inquiry and work within specific disciplines.
  • Replicate workplace and civic contexts. These tasks provide specific constraints, purposes and audiences that students will face in work and societal contexts.
  • Involve a repertoire of skills and abilities rather than the isolation of individual skills. 

The Importance of Alignment 

Well-designed and purposeful assessments and activities can greatly enhance student learning. However, their effectiveness is largely determined by their alignment with course learning objectives. An annotated bibliography assignment in a course with a specific learning objective that targets a student’s ability to identify and synthesize relevant research on a particular topic will be more meaningful than in a course where the learning objective is to explain the impact of the Korean War on U.S.-East-Asian relations.

As depicted in the Course Design Triangle, the alignment of assessments and activities with learning objectives runs both ways. While we suggest designing objectives before assessments and activities, in some cases this process may be reversed. If you have a very effective assignment that maximizes learning, then it can be used to articulate a specific learning objective for the course. Again, the key point is to make sure the assessments and activities align with the objectives. When this alignment is not clear, students will often perceive tasks as “busy work” or “filler.” For example, when students complain about having to write in courses other than English, there is often a view that such assignments do not fit with the perceived core objectives of the course, or that such assignments are not sufficiently supported by the course structure. 

Examples of CLOs aligned with Assessments
Course Learning Objective Write in a logical manner with minimal grammatical errors
Assessment Method 4-5 page persuasive essay arguing for the establishment of digital “cold spots” on campus
COURSE LEARNING OBJECTIVE Design a research proposal for Natural Resource Ecology and Habitat Management
ASSESSMENT METHOD A research proposal that identifies an ecological system to study, formulates a hypothesis, and lists the sampling methods to be used in the research  
COURSE LEARNING OBJECTIVE Compare how structure and function are related for key structures of the human nervous system 
ASSESSMENT METHOD Diagram, label and explain the structures and functions of the Schwann cell found in the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS)

To ensure the connection between CLOs and various course activities and assessments, you might construct a table* that highlights the relationship. For example:

*Adapted from Boston University’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching
Learning Objective Assessments Instructional Activities
Differentiate between qualitative and quantitative assessment  Assessment Portfolio #1, Mastery Questions  Lecture, group activity 
Design a community service project Presentation to panel of community members

Group Planning Activities, Community Guest Lectures

Write a sonnet that uses imagery and structure typical of Elizabethan poets A poem graded with a rubric specifying features of the sonnet (rhyme scheme, volta, etc.) Read and discuss Elizabethan poets (Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney), writing workshop

Your turn

Use the Course Alignment Worksheet to integrate learning objectives, course activities and course assessments


Fink, L Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Suskie, Linda. Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Wiggins, Grant. Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.


Related Content

Teaching Resources

Teaching Resources

CTLT Workshops

Want to learn more?




Cal Poly Canvas...

Learn More


Diversity & Inclusion in the Classroom.

More about inclusion


​Writing across the curriculum.

Writing Matters