Assignments and Assessments

Chemistry 110. First day of classes.

Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communications

Assignments and assessments sometimes seem like neutral components of a course that are unrelated to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but they play a key role in making our teaching more inclusive. Thoughtfully designing assessments and using inclusive grading practices can substantially impact student success.

Designing equitable assessments

  • Provide low-stakes, formative assignments. Activities like exit tickets, learning quizzes, or muddiest point exercises allow students to get regular feedback on how well they are meeting learning objectives. These assignments also help the instructor identify where students need more clarity and support with the content. Consider including self-assessment and self-reflection elements to help students learn how to determine their own level of content understanding.
  • Avoid high-stakes summative assessments. When a small number of high-stakes assessments largely determine a course grade, students don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. This disadvantages students who are less familiar with the conventions of the discipline or who struggle with that specific type of assessment. Giving a wider variety of assessments that each have a smaller impact on the grade reduces anxiety and gives students the ability to succeed in the course, even if they struggle early on.
  • Scaffold assignments. Scaffold large assignments by dividing the components of the assignment up into smaller pieces due throughout the semester. This allows students to focus on one skill at a time and ensures that students less familiar with the type of project are able to get feedback early on to support their success. This can also reduce cognitive load, which is particularly helpful for neurodivergent students and those with other cognitive disabilities.
  • Provide detailed written expectations. Clear instructions are critical for helping students be successful on assignments. This is particularly important for students less familiar with the norms and culture of college, such as first-generation students. The instructions should include information such as the goals of the assignment, sequential steps or methods for organizing their work, deadlines, how students will be graded, and examples of work either from previous classes or generated by the instructor. Flower Darby (2019) recommends organizing assignments utilizing three categories: (1) "Here's what I want you do to", (2) "Here's why I want you to do it", and (3) "Here's how to do it".
  • Increase submission options. Consider giving students options for the format of assignments and focus instructions on how to demonstrate proficiency rather than follow specific formatting instructions. For example, you might allow students to complete an assignment as a written paper, presentation, podcast, graphic, or other artistic format. This helps ensure the grade is based on content proficiency rather than familiarity with a specific format. You might also allow students to choose their own topics or help determine other aspects of the assessment requirements. As much as possible, use authentic assessments related to students' careers or "real-life" situations.
  • Consider implementing ungrading. Ungrading is a philosophy and approach to teaching focused on giving feedback to students rather than assigning a grade for individual assignments. Ungrading can take a variety of different forms, depending on the needs of the course and the instructor's teaching philosophy. Susan Blum gives advice for starting to implement ungrading in your courses. Ungrading, when implemented correctly, teaches students metacognitive skills and helps focus their energy on learning rather than grades, which can make the classroom more inclusive, reduce student anxiety, and reduce performance gaps between groups of students (Blum, 2020).

Feedback & grading

  • Give assurance and communicate high standards. Try to use Wise Feedback— be supportive while reminding students you expect them to reach high standards. Telling individual students something like “I have very high standards, but I know you can reach them” while giving actionable suggestions sends the message that feedback is intended to help them improve rather than judge their ability. This technique is particularly effective for supporting the growth of students from marginalized backgrounds (Yeager et al, 2014). Try to provide feedback within a reasonable timeframe so that students get feedback on previous assignments before the next assignment is due.
  • Ensure grades reflect understanding of course objectives. Avoid grading on a bell curve (i.e., adjusting grades to ensure that a certain percentage of students get each grade). Bell curve grading creates a competitive environment and discourages students from helping one another. It also grades students based on how they do relative to one another instead of how well they have done at meeting the learning goals for the course. If attendance makes up part of your grade, consider having alternative assignments so that students who miss class can complete them to make up the points. This guide provides additional options for equitable attendance policies.
  • Consider using anonymous grading. Like all humans, instructors have biases which can unconsciously impact grading despite instructors' best efforts to be fair (Tenebaum & Ruck, 2007). Consider using a detailed grading rubric and turning on anonymous grading in Canvas to remain more objective.
  • Be flexible about deadlines when possible. Students can face a wide variety of life circumstances that can sometimes make completing work on time challenging or impossible. Consider using flexible due dates when possible or incorporate ‘oops tokens’ or ‘late passes.’ Incorporating some flexibility can help students more effectively meet the course objectives in many cases. This guide provides additional options for equitable late work policies.

Listen to students

Assessment instructions and grading structure can feel very clear to instructors while being confusing to students. Getting feedback from students early in the semester can help you design better assignment instructions and rubrics to ensure students know what it takes to be successful in your course. To get feedback from students, consider trying:

  • Mid-semester survey. Asking questions like '1) What should I keep doing, 2) What should I stop doing, 3) What should I start doing' shortly after the first major assessment can give students an anonymous space to voice their concerns and points of confusion. Be sure to follow this by talking with students either in class or in a video about the results and why you will or will not make the suggested changes to help build trust.
  • Asking about individual assignments. Adding questions to the end of an individual assignment like ‘1) How long did it take you to complete this? 2) What were the biggest challenges you ran into? Or 3) What would have helped you be more successful?’ can give you detailed information on changes you might make to future assignments.


Here are some examples from UNL faculty of assignments designed to foster skills related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging:


Blum, S. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. Wiley.

Tenenbaum, H., & Ruck, M. (2007). Are teachers' expectations different for racial minority than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 253-273.

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W. T., Williams, M. E., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804-824. DOI: 10.1037/a0033906

Was this page helpful?