Multimedia Assignments

In the previous post, we looked at a debate on the value of a certain type of student writing assignments. The upshot was that it might be in the best interests of students for instructors to model real-life research experiences and allow for presentation of research results in the range of media possibilities available to working professionals. Creating multimedia assignments for your students may have appeal, but for instructors taking the plunge for the first time, such assignments may seem daunting. You may be equating multimedia with video, and video with movie production, and imagining that students will somehow need to become budding Quentin Tarantinos in addition to learning all the course materials. And where is that video equipment going to come from?

Image showing icon-style examples of text, audio, still images, animation, video and interactivity.In truth, multimedia creation can output to a wide range of formats, including digital posters, audio-casts, timelines, visualizations, digital/online exhibitions, websites, blogs, presentation software productions, and video. Video can be produced using easy to learn and readily available applications. PowerPoint and Keynote offer low-tech solutions as there are options to save presentations as video files. Student don’t need a video camera for these – still images combined with timed transitions, animations, and music or voice-over recordings can make for very effective end products. For true video, many students have smartphones that are capable of shooting video clips for editing in iMovie, or Windows Movie Maker, or even on the phone itself.

Unless your goal is for students to learn advanced digital video skills, the slickness of the end product should not be the sole determinant of the grade. Rather, just as you would grade a text assignment, your assessment rubric should focus on the strength of the argument and supporting evidence. But, your first question should be whether a multimedia assignment is in alignment with your teaching objectives.

Mike Heller, Departmental Teaching Fellow (Music) at Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, has created a two minute video on the five key considerations for designing multimedia assignments. These are:

1. Why create a multimedia assignment? What is the value added?

2. Be aware of the myth of the digital native. Not all students are technical wizards. Their experience and expertise will vary. It’s a good idea to start with lower stakes assignments to get students familiar with multimedia technologies before introducing a major project.

3. Don’t just teach the tools, teach the critical thinking. Try folding a traditional assignment into the multimedia project, perhaps by having students write an essay before adapting it into a video presentation.

4. Set clear goals by creating a concrete rubric. Without this you may find it difficult to assign grades once you receive the work.  Having a clear vision of your primary learning objectives will make it much easier when it comes to grading and providing feedback.

5. Communicate your teaching goals to your students. Distributing your rubric when you make the assignment is a good way to achieve this. By offering specific guidelines about the skills you want them to learn you insure that students are clear about the assignment.

In regards to the third point on teaching critical thinking as well as the tools, you may not have the expertise to teach some of the multimedia tools and that may determine the path you take in deciding how to frame the assignment. Look for resources on your campus.

Here at Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, we have the Digital Media Center  providing student support. See the end of the post for suggestions and links to specific free online platforms to support multimedia assignments.

Another tip sheet for creating multimedia assignments can be found at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Office of Instructional Technology – 10 Tips for Successful Multimedia Assignments.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Technology to Enhance Learning Experience module – Five Steps to Creating Successful Multimedia Assignments – suggests that instructors “…[c]omplete the technology-based assignment yourself before assigning it to students. This will give you the most accurate idea of the amount of time and training involved, and the challenges that students may encounter. This will also enable you to develop a rubric for grading and communicating your expectations to students”

If the final products are going to be shared on public websites or otherwise publicly accessible, you will want to think about copyright issues. This can be a good opportunity to teach your students about copyright and fair use. Depending on your institution, there may be library staff able to provide assistance or other resources available, perhaps through the college or university office of legal counsel. We have a great LibGuide entitled Copyright and Fair Use: Trends and Resources for 21st Century Scholars here at JHU to get you started. 

Suggested Resources

Blogs – Blogger, Tumblr, WordPress
Timelines – Timeline JS, SIMILE  Timeline
Digital/Online Exhibitions – Padlet, Omeka, Google Sites, WordPress, Tumblr
Websites – Google Sites, WordPress

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC Kevin Jarret –

Rethinking Student Writing Assignments

On December 13, 2013, Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis and columnist for education at Slate and The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote a blog post at Slate entitled The End of the College Essay that created a firestorm of controversy in the humanities community. Schuman, who confesses to writing with “gallows humor” was clearly venting her frustrations in trying to teach a specific form of literary research-based writing to students with little motivation or reason to learn it.  Schuman was surprised by the virulent reactions to her rant, and maintains that the level of debate the post provoked is indicative of the need to reassess writing assignments.

Metal box containing pencils and pencil sharpener.Recently, Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English at Emory University and frequent contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education presented a more nuanced version of Schuman’s argument in a post entitled Keep the ‘Research,’ Ditch the ‘Paper’.  “To cultivate undergraduate research, we may have to prune back the surrounding kudzu called the research paper. Often wretched, usually pointless, tens of millions of these artifacts heap themselves on faculty desks and inboxes every year. But to what end? Does assigning this form of “researched writing” teach students much about either research or writing? In most cases, clearly not.”

Instead, Bousquet suggests that instructors create assignments that provide opportunities for students to engage in real research, as opposed to Googling for quotes, and for the publication or sharing of that research to reflect the range of options available to professionals inside and outside of the academy.  “Millions of pieces of research writing that aren’t essays usefully circulate in the profession through any number of sharing technologies, including presentations and posters; grant and experiment proposals; curated, arranged, translated, or visualized data; knowledgeable dialogue in online media with working professionals; independent journalism, arts reviews, and Wikipedia entries; documentary pitches, scripts and storyboards; and informative websites.”

By giving assignments that develop skills for 21st century careers instructors provide authentic experiences that are more likely to engage students. Ultimately, the work you assign to students will depend on your learning objectives for the course. If the goal is to teach students how to write an essay, then you will have essay writing assignments. Otherwise, in aligning student work outside the classroom with your course objectives, you have a chance to be imaginative when you give your students an assessable assignment.  As an example, see the January post Creative Student Assignments: Poster Projects, and stay tuned for an upcoming post on best practices for multimedia assignments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

The Characteristics of High-Quality Formative Assessments

As we explore different theories of learning, two points seem salient: that students’ understanding of intelligence affects their self-perception, their determination, their motivation, and their achievement (Dweck, 2002); and that a students’ ability to self-regulate learning, to be metacognitive, ensures more successful learning and achievement (Ormrod, 2012, p.352-3).  As instructors plan curriculum and assessments, they ought to consider how to use these points as guides to ensure student learning and success.

Word cloud created from the text of the blog post.Formative assessment, understood as both a tool for instructors to gauge student learning and a teaching method, works iteratively with student understanding of intelligence and learner-regulation.  That is, formative assessment is based on the idea that learners should learn to take control of their learning, and that intelligence is a malleable quality.  In turn, formative assessment improves self-reflection in students and reinforces the idea that intelligence can be increased as opposed to it being a fixed entity, reflecting Carol S. Dweck’s important work on growth mind set, discussed in a recent the Innovative Instructor post.

An understanding of just what formative assessment entails highlights the recursive relationships of formative assessment, self-reflection, and a malleable view of intelligence.  Lorrie Shephard describes formative assessment as a process through which an instructor and a student come to better understand both the learning goals and the student’s work towards those goals in order to “alter the course of instruction and thus support the development of greater competence” (2005, p. 67).  This definition identifies formative assessment as a process of feedback that improves student learning.

Using formative feedback as a teaching method means that a classroom becomes the locus of ongoing dialogue that helps students measure and improve as they work to meet goals, expectations, and objectives.  The instructor takes in information about student progress and understanding, which creates the opportunity for a feedback loop that the instructor can use to shape teaching.  It is the moment when student progress shapes instruction that formative feedback becomes formative assessment.

When practiced effectively, this iterative relationship between instruction, feedback, student adjustment, and instructional adjustment maps onto self-reflection and a view of malleable intelligence.  As instructors provide formative feedback to students, they give students the tools to assess their own progress toward learning goals. Over time, students learn self-reflecting strategies (Shepard, 2005, p. 69; Wiggins, 2004, pp. 2-3, 6), allowing for moments such as Black and Wiliam noted when “one class, subsequently taught by a teacher not emphasizing assessment for learning, surprised that teacher by complaining, ‘Look, we’ve told you we don’t understand this. Why are you going on to the next topic?” (2004, p. 36).  As students reveal their learning progress, either directly (as in the example above) or indirectly through tasks that foster formative feedback, instructors have the opportunity to adapt their instruction. As teaching becomes more closely aligned with student progress, students are given increasingly refined opportunities for comprehension or alignment with expectations. As students chart their own progress, they implicitly buy in to the idea that they can improve their performance by making changes in their approach (Black & Wiliam, 2004, p. 30; Shepard, 2000, p. 43; Wiggins, 2004, p. 5). They come to understand, either overtly or tacitly, that their achievement is based on effort, not an unchanging quantity of intelligence (Shepard, 2005, 68; Lipnevich & Smith, 2009b, 364). When formative assessment works, students become self-regulating learners who practice self-reflection and learn a malleable view of intelligence—and are more motivated and more likely to achieve (Dweck, 2002).

Given the value of formative assessment, how can instructors use the characteristics of exemplary formative assessment as they plan their courses?  As opposed to inserting a few well-crafted formative assessments into the curriculum, instructors should understand that the adoption of formative assessment is the implementation of a course-long instructional approach.  Specifically, instructors can use formative feedback in every class through effective questioning strategies that elicit information about student understanding and help students monitor and adjust their learning (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 25-7).  Instructors can assess students’ prior knowledge and use “knowledge-activation routines” such as the K-W-L strategy, to “develop students’ metacognitive abilities while providing relevant knowledge connections for specific units of study”(Shepard, 2005, p. 68). Comments on work, marking of papers (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 27-31; Lipnevich, 2009a; Lipnevich, 2009b), peer-assessment, self-critique exercises (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp 31-3), one-on-one tutorials, small group remediation, instructor and student modeling, analysis of exemplars (Wiggins, 2004), and revision exercises can be used throughout.

Although methods may be similar across disciplines, the precise use of formative feedback will naturally vary between disciplines (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 36-37; Shepard, 2000, 36). Nonetheless, Black & Wiliam and Shephard (2005) stress that adopting formative assessment as an instructional approach requires a cultural change within a learning community. Because students activate and practice self-reflective strategies in an effective formative feedback loop, they ought to be given a chance to develop and hone these skills in every classroom.  Since formative assessment relies on students understanding clearly what the expected outcomes of their learning and work are, they need exemplars. If instructors within a department, discipline or, ideally, school can agree upon the characteristics of exemplary work and learning, student self-regulation is more natural and more likely to be accurate.


Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2004). The Formative Purpose: Assessment Must First Promote Learning. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education103 (2), 20-50.

Dweck, C. (2002). Messages That Motivate: How Praise Molds Students’ Beliefs, Motivation, and Performance (in Surprising Ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving Academic Acheivement: Impacts of Psychological Factors on Education (pp. 37-60). San Diego: Academic Press.

Lipnevich, A. & Smith, J. (2009a). “I Really Need Feedback to Learn:” Students’ Perspectives on the Effectiveness of the Differential Feedback MessagesEducational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability , 21 (4), 347-67.

Lipnevich, A. &. (2009b). Effects of Differential Feedback on Students’ Examination Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied , 15 (4), 319-33.

Ormrod, J. (2012). Human Learning (6th Edition ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Shepard, L. (2000). The Role of Classroom Assessment in Teaching and Learning. CSE Technical Report, University of California, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, Los Angeles.

Shepard, L. (2005). Linking Formative Assessment to Scaffolding. Educational Leadership, 63, 66-70.

Shute, V. (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research , 78, 153-89.

Wiggins, G. (2004). Assessment as Feedback. New Horizons for Learning Online Journal, 1-8.

Sarah Wilson is the co-director of the Upper School at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She has a B.A. (English) from Kenyon College, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has taught middle and high school English for 13 years.

Image Source: Formative Assessment Wordle created by Macie Hall