By Diane E. Schmidt, Ph.D., California State University, Chico, Political Science

Adjusting/Adapting Assignments for Flexibility and Engagement in Online Instruction

Online instruction, especially with students who are unfamiliar with online learning, requires balancing teaching across the familiar to the unfamiliar so that assignments are challenging but also support/reinforce what students already know.  Such linkage seems especially important for helping socialize and engage students in the learning process by scaffolding from what they know to how to understand and apply new material.  In addition to having engaging exercises, creating assignments that faculty can easily adapt from face-to-face delivery to online delivery reduces the disruptive impact of sudden shifts in course delivery due to unanticipated interruptions from traumatic events such as devastating fires or pandemics.  The expected learning outcome of this approach is three-fold.

First, and foremost, such assignments provide an opportunity for an informed, yet thoughtful discussion that engages students in using class concepts with applications to events in their community or environment.

Second, depending on the level of engagement expected, the assignments can create opportunities for students to engage in a shared experience to help them develop an interconnectedness with the material, as well as with each other.

Finally, by creating a safe space for interacting with the substantive course material, it can foster or help develop students’ confidence in working collaboratively with other students as well as developing a level of trust between students and faculty.

The following demonstrates the parameters for adapting class discussions to online discussion board interactions.

  • It is recommended, as part of the learning process, that faculty provide students with opportunities for face-to-face discussions with their classmates, but also provide, early in the semester, an opportunity for online discussions through the discussion board. In face-to-fact classes, this would be possibly a pair and share exercise; online it can be managed with breakout “rooms” through programs such as Zoom.
  • The online discussion question needs to incorporate an application of assigned reading concepts as well as a current events or field application.
    • Each question should be provided to students at least a week in advance of the discussion.
    • Student responses should be due on a specified date and time.
    • The student answers should be written and posted to a discussion board or to an assignment tab; students should not be able to see other students’ posts until they have posted an answer themselves.
    • This assignment should be a low point value assignment and graded on compliance with the assignment standards rather than on the quality of the analysis.
  • The questions should be anchored on commonly known information and lead students into relating concepts to hypothetical, field, or community applications.
    • Provide internet links in the question to assist students in connecting what they think they know with a context at the community level.
    • Alternatively, have students link what is known in their field of study with an application of a concept.
  • The question should be structured so that students know the expected context of the question, as well as the expectations for academic discourse. These include expectations for proofed, grammatically correct, full paragraphs, sourced/authoritative descriptive analysis, as well as number of paragraphs, lines, and/or word count.
    • The secondary outcome here is to train students to write based on sourced information and informed opinion.
    • This simplifies grading and keeps it focused on skill building and self-expression as a form of engagement.
  • For class engagement, all students post their answers and all other students must respond/comment on at least two other students answer stating that they either agree or disagree with them and give an authoritative reasoned opinion. The responses should also have parameters including number of words/sentences and expectations for a paragraph development.
    • In class, that could take the form of teams for collaborative work so that they identify where they agree and disagree, and reasons for similar and different perspectives, and write the results collaboratively.
    • Online, that should take place in a discussion board forum.

Here is an assignment example for a Personnel Class using current event applications, low point value:

  • Read the case below and share your response; refer to the identified reading at least once.  Reply to at least two other student posts.
  • Your response must be at least a full paragraph with a topic sentence, at least one reference, and at least 4 to 5 sentences long. This should be about at least between 100 and 150 words, minimum.
  • You will need to provide at least 2 replies to others that are thoughtful comments at least 3 sentences long.  If you agree or disagree, you must say the reason and support it with evidence.  This should be at least between 50 and 75 words, minimum.
  •  Your response must be submitted by 7:30pm, and your replies to others’ responses must be submitted no later than 9:50pm.

Question:  In response to California Governor Newsom’s mandate to citizens to stay-at-home and for all nonessential businesses and organizations to shut down, employers in public, private, and nonprofit sectors have shifted nonessential personnel to either telecommuting positions, staggered reduced hours, or furlough either with or without pay.  Even before the mandate, telecommuting presented public managers some wicked HR issues in adapting their performance management systems for measuring performance outcomes of remote work.

  • Explain the disadvantages of a performance management system that is not adapted for employees shifted from full time face-to-face office work to telecommuting or staggered reduced hours for a) employees, b) managers, and c) the organization.
  • Suggest which characteristics of performance management systems should be targeted for adapting existing performance management systems for improved measurement of employees who have been shifted to telecommuting or staggered, reduced hours.
  • Students will need at least three paragraphs or more to answer this question.  Please review the ancillary materials posted on the class website, and review the materials linked to the question in this box (in blue font-just click on the blue, underlined text).

Here is an assignment example based on a field application, with higher expectations and point value:

Instructions:  The following format is required for all answers to the questions for each chapter.

  • The answers to the chapter questions need to be in full paragraphs and have at one paragraph per part of the question. Most questions have at least two parts, and many have three or more.
  • Each paragraph must be at least 3 to 5 sentences long. Do not submit paragraphs that are shorter than 50 words or longer than 250 words.
  • Students must reference where they found information from both the textbook (with page numbers) and from outside the textbook sources IN EACH PARAGRAPH. That means each answer must have at least 2 references and a reference list in full bibliographic citation using a standard author-date format (APA, CMS, etc.).
  • Each assertion made must be fully explained, and backed up by evidence as is necessary to support the assertion.
  • No alternative facts allowed (i.e., undocumented opinion/evidence). All evidence must come from the textbook, academic, government sources, and/or reputable experts.  Please do not use blogs, tweets, Facebook, Snap Chat, or other social media.
  • All keywords provided must be used and underlined in bold so that I can see that students used the prompts. Some concepts and keywords have internet links to assist students.  These links are found in text indicated in blue font.
  • Do not quote directly from the textbook or other source; just summarize or paraphrase. Plagiarism will result in a failing grade for the assignment for the first offense, and a failing grade in the course for repeated problems with plagiarism.
  • You will need to provide at least 2 replies to others that are thoughtful comments at least 3 sentences long.  If you agree or disagree, you must say the reason and support it with evidence.  This should be at least between 50 and 75 words, minimum.
  • Your response must be submitted by 7:30pm, and your replies to others’ responses must be submitted no later than 9:50pm.

Question:  Define the term faith-based initiative.  Consider the faith-based initiatives that operate within your field.  Are they more or less effective than public or private services being delivered?  Should they be held to a different standard?  Do these initiatives violate the First Amendment establishment clause, which creates a wall of separation between church and state? (key words: faith based, First Amendment establishment clause, church, state).  Students will need at least four paragraphs to answer this question.


Diane E. SchmidtDiane E. Schmidt is a full professor, has a PhD in Political Science from Washington University, and has taught courses in American institutions, political behavior, public policy analysis/evaluation, public administration, collaborative management, planning, and comparative government for nearly 40 years.  Dr. Schmidt has been teaching online classes for over 10 years and is trained in best practices for online teaching and Universal Design for Learning.  She also works as a professional policy analyst and community consultant and has experience working on federal, state, local, and nonprofit grants and contracts.  Dr. Schmidt has published in peer reviewed journals and presented policy research for forums in policy history, public administration, community development, political science, and labor history.  Dr. Schmidt has recently published the 5th edition of her book, Writing in Political Science (2019).

This blog has been adapted from one originally created for a faculty development workshop on supporting First Generation students, at California State University, Chico, May 2020.