Which Comes First, Activities or Assessments?

We have been told all our lives to put things in order. Keep your tax files in order. Keep your house in order. Alphabetize your index. Number your chapters. Write the introduction before the conclusion. Yet, sometimes actually doing things in the order in which they appear as a final product is not the most effective approach.

Take course design for example. When we see the finished product of an online course, we see the objectives followed by activities and resources, and finally the assessment. While this sequence may be the logical order for the published course, it is not necessarily the most effective approach for the design process, especially when alignment is a critical focus.

Quality Matters (QM) is an organization that has done extensive research on alignment, the direct correlation between course/lesson objectives and the activities and materials/resources that support success in demonstrating accomplishment of those objectives through the assessments. The QM rubric for assessing this alignment has helped many instructional designers focus their course content on what the students should learn as opposed to what the instructor wants to teach. With this focus in mind, the alignment between the objectives and assessments is imperative. Designing the activities and selecting the materials/resources become central to this alignment between objectives and assessments. Therefore, I propose a design sequence that is different from the sequence of the published course that students see.

instructional design sequence

Design the assessments first in direct alignment with the objectives. If an objective states that the learner will analyze data, craft the assessment so that the learner demonstrates data analysis. If the objective states that the learner will create a product, or research a concept, craft the assessment so that the learner demonstrates specifically what the objective says the learner will demonstrate. If the objectives are not measurable and you have the authority to revise the objectives, then tweak them as you design the assessments. Objectives will need to be measurable if you are to align the assessments to those objectives. When alignment is achieved, the objectives will look very much like a description of the assessments.

Once you have the assessment developed, then you can focus on developing activities that support the learners' success. With each activity, such as readings, exercises, gaming, viewing videos and listening to audio segments, question its inclusion using this criteria: does this activity support the learner's successful demonstration of the objective through the assessment? The same criteria holds true for the materials and resources that you include. Evaluate each one to determine if it moves the learner toward success in meeting the objective. Without that questioning, instructional designers may find themselves including interesting materials/resources that nonetheless are not directly in support of meeting the objectives.

For example, I was designing a lesson once on how to craft quality discussion forum questions. The objective was for the learners to craft a question in their content area using the criteria presented in the lesson. I included a wonderful article on effective forum facilitation. When I questioned whether the resource supported accomplishment of the objective, I realized it did not. It was an interesting article on discussion forums, but not on writing the forum questions. I did include the resource because of its value, but clearly identified it as optional. By doing so, the learners could look at the resource if they had the time and interest to do so, but they also were made aware that the resource was outside the scope of the lesson.

Try this approach the next time you design a lesson, a course, or a workshop. Design your assessments first to align directly with your objectives. Revise the objectives as needed so that they are measurable. Then design activities to support the learner in successfully meeting the objectives. Evaluate all materials and resources. Do they support the activities, the assessments? If not, consider eliminating them or identifying them as optional. Using this process can promote alignment so that learners can focus on meeting objectives successfully.

By LuAnne Holder and David Holder