Module 2: Quality activities and assessments

2.3 Introduction: Creating quality interactions, activities, and assessments

Designing effective online assessments

Activities and assessments in online learning benefit from deliberate planning and close integration with your course material and learning outcomes. Fortunately, online platforms offer a variety of methods to deploy activities and assessments at scale, including peer evaluation, discussion forums, and automated marking for some formats, such as quizzes.

Effective assessment design in online courses is

  • learner-centred and linked to the course learning outcomes,
  • continuous and distributed throughout the course, and
  • offers a variety of ways to demonstrate knowledge.

Within this module, you will find strategies to engage with your learners in meaningful ways using a variety of interactive assessment ideas. This module also includes example assessment and grading criteria templates that you are welcome to adapt for your own courses.

It can be helpful to think about the design of activities and assessments, and providing effective feedback, as events within Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction framework. Gagné’s framework reminds us of the important role activities, assessments, and effective feedback play in creating the necessary conditions for learning.

Later in this module, we use Gagné’s framework to structure our approach through the following three events:

  • Event 6: Eliciting Performance
  • Event 7: Providing Feedback
  • Event 8: Assessing Performance

Designing learner-centred activities and assessments

As you begin to develop your online activities, assessments, and opportunities for learner feedback, consider the below following strategies:

Make clear connections

Be intentional about your teaching methods by providing explicit linkages between your assessments, course content, and course learning outcomes. Backward design principles, as described in Module 1.5 Using Backward Design (Event 2), are a helpful tool in developing assessments.
Learning outcomes lead to assessment, which leads to learning activities, which lead to content
Consider what you want learners to take away from your course (your course learning outcomes) and devise assessments to help them learn what they need to do to achieve those course outcomes. In addition, provide low-stakes assessments throughout the course that allow learners to assess their progress, and be sure to explain to them how completing the activities and assessments will help them achieve the outcomes.


Credit: University of Waterloo

Be open, explicit, and transparent with learners about why assignments, activities, and units are happening the way they are, so that learners are not left to make assumptions.

How-to tip: Include a purpose statement

Include a purpose statement in your assessment description. Remember, learners want to know why they are doing an activity. You could also explicitly identify how an activity or assessment will help build a skill or knowledge area that learners can use beyond the course. Below, we provide some purpose statement templates and worked examples, which you can adapt for your own assessments.

Quality Essential

Purpose statement templates

Template 1:

The purpose of this activity is for you to apply ___ [the topics] to produce ____ [the assessment] in the context of ___ [the theme/real-world scenario].

Template 2: 

In this assessment, you will build your skills in communicating concepts to different audiences: ___ [e.g., content experts], ____ [e.g., peers], and/or _____ [e.g., general public].

Template 3: 

Here’s what I want you to do: [Explain the activity/assessment.]

Here’s why I want you to do it: [Explain the reason the activity/assessment will contribute to learners’ success in the course and afterward.]

Here’s how to do it: [Provide detailed instructions, rubrics, and exemplars to help learners clearly understand expectations.]


Assessment Purpose Statement Worksheet (DOCX)

Worked examples

Example 1a: The purpose of this activity is for you to apply theories of personality to a written case analysis and interpretation within a psychotherapy clinic setting.

Example 1b: The purpose of this activity is for you to apply your knowledge of the US civil rights movement by presenting a group research project to a tour group visiting a US history museum travelling exhibit.

Example 2: In this assessment, you will build your skills in communicating concepts to different audiences: your instructor [content expert], a partner or group members [peers], and a nonspecialist audience [general public].

Example 3:
Here’s what I want you to do: A redesign project for a tech start-up company

Here’s why I want you to do it: This project will give you the opportunity to apply your knowledge of product design principles to a real-world problem, providing valuable experience that you will use and build on in your future career.

Limit new technologies

Online learning often involves new learning: learners have to familiarize themselves with new learning management systems, webinar platforms, and other educational tools or technologies that are part of the course. To decrease your learners’ cognitive load, try to limit the number of new tools and technologies, or create opportunities for learners to practice with these technologies in a low-stakes activity. For more information on cognitive load, see Module 3.5 Presenting the Content.

When you do introduce new tools, be sure that you select those that solve an instructional problem you’ve identified, and that align with your learning outcomes. The following rubric is a resource that you may find helpful to evaluate potential tools and ensure you’re making the right choice for your course learning outcomes: An interactive rubric for evaluating eLearning tools.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) perspective

Focus on tools that add to the learning experience, are easy to use, do not cost learners more money, and come with robust documentation support on how to use the technology. More information about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is found in Module 3.5 Presenting the Content.

Think ahead: Be mindful of learner workload

When considering your assessment strategy for your course, it is important to consider learner workload. Use the Wake Forest University Workload Estimator to calculate the time you expect learners to devote to weekly readings, content review and study, activities, and assessments. Is the workload in line with other courses at the same level in your discipline/at your institution?

Scaffold assessments

Scaffolding involves breaking up large assignments and/or content into smaller tasks. Scaffolding helps learners develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the course, and it can also help mitigate academic-integrity issues. As you have seen in other modules of the course, we share real examples of activities and assessments that instructors have used and tested in their own courses, and many of the assessment examples provided in this module use scaffolding to support learning.

Follow best practices for Universal Design for
Learning (UDL)

Create assessments and activities with accessibility in mind to ensure that learners have equitable access to course content.

  • A course website is an important tool not only for keeping course material organized, but for providing learners with access to important course communications, weekly readings, assessments, and more. To ensure learners can easily access all material, check that your assignment information has clear, concise, and informative headings, and is ordered in a logical fashion.
  • Remember that not all learners have access to a reliable internet connection, the same technology (they may be working with shared computers, or may not have microphones or webcams) or a quiet study space.
  • Remember that learners may be in different time zones, so if you are assigning quizzes or tests, the best practice is to allow a 12- or 24-hour completion window.
  • For synchronous classes, consider policies and practices around camera use; see the Camera use in Zoom resource for helpful information.

Be flexible: Provide options

All learners benefit from flexible engagement and assessment opportunities. Consider providing learners with different options for how they can engage with each other (e.g., voice recordings, discussion boards, synchronous discussions) and with course content (e.g., lectures recorded as podcasts, which allow learners to move away from their computer screens; have shorter recorded lectures or break up lectures into smaller chunks).

Designing assessments that encourage academic integrity

In this section, we will outline strategies and approaches that can help address academic integrity.

Many instructors, and indeed many learners, have valid concerns about academic integrity in online teaching and learning. There are a variety of strategies you can use to set your learners up for success in your course. Let’s first discuss the reasons why a breach in academic integrity may occur.

There is no single cause of academic misconduct. We know that pressures of high-stakes and high-stress situations can lead to cheating behaviours, but other contributing factors include a lack of confidence, poor academic skills, a genuine misunderstanding, or just a bad decision.

Rather than focus on punitive measures, there are strategies you can use when designing and delivering your course that can help to mitigate possible academic integrity offences. For example, when learners feel connected to a course, and supported by their instructors and institution, they are less likely to cheat. It is also important to build community with your learners and have open and honest conversations about academic integrity early on in your course.

The following video is a good example of how to broach the topic of academic integrity from an educational perspective with learners, with a view to reducing unintentional academic-integrity violations, which can often account for a large percentage of problems.


Strategies for designing activities and assessments that promote academic integrity

Strategies to promote academic integrity in online tests

When tests and exams represent the most appropriate assessment approach, there are ways to design them with academic integrity in mind. Many of the strategies and principles you can use to ensure activities promote academic integrity apply as well to tests and exams, including the following:

Question Type/Weighting Strategy to Promote Academic Integrity 
Information-recall/memorization questions Develop problems and questions that focus on mastery and critical thinking, rather than information recall/memorization. For example, ask learners how they would explain a concept to a learner at a lower level.
Multiple-choice and true/false questions Consider replacing multiple-choice or true-and-false questions with two short-answer questions (Harrison, 2020), or allow for study notes in open-book exams.
Concept-based questions Use application-based questions and assessments or smaller assessments like weekly quizzes (rather than a midterm or final exam) to lower the stakes for your learners.
Weighting Incorporate a “drop the lowest” grading policy to further reduce the stakes. One by-product of this is that the stakes are so low it’s not worth cheating (Rettinger, n.d.).

The technical elements of your online test can also help to prevent cheating behaviours. Consider the following:

Writing quality multiple-choice questions takes more consideration than one would think, and if done well, it can produce an effective and engaging method for assessment with reduced chance of academic misconduct. For tips on creating quality multiple-choice tests, see the University of Waterloo’s Resource on Designing Multiple-Choice Questions.

Activity: Academic-integrity checklist

Learning outcomes

This activity is directly aligned with Course Learning Outcome (CLO) 3: Create a varied assessment scheme that scaffolds and supports the learning outcomes of the course and promotes academic integrity.


For this activity, complete the academic integrity checklist to ensure your activities and assessments are designed with academic integrity in mind.

Option 1: Download the Academic Integrity Checklist Worksheet (DOCX) to complete offline.

Option 2: Complete the activity in-line below. If you wish to save your in-line results, be sure to download your work by clicking the Export tab at the bottom of the left-hand navigation bar in the activity before moving on.

Please note, this activity is intended for your own reflection and learning. Your responses are private and are deleted when you refresh or navigate away from this page.

Key take-away:
When designing activities and assessments for your online course, take a learner-centred approach:  Think about how you can keep your learners connected to each other and the content, and maximize strategies to increase academic integrity. Intentional teaching strategies and universal design, together with clear communication, are essential for any online course.

Key questions:

  • Do my assessments help learners develop core skills and competencies that align with my course learning outcomes?
  • Do my assessments follow the principles of universal design?
  • Do my assessments, activities, and interactions help to foster learner engagement and build community in the course?

The rest of this module will provide guidance in answering these questions.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

High Quality Online Courses Copyright © by University of Waterloo; Queen's University; University of Toronto; and Conestoga College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.