Dirt Simple Mini-Course

A Simple Word Document-Based Assignment

We’re going to show the simplest possible assignment in Blackboard (or Canvas, or whatever, but the specific steps will be Blackboard). The process is simple — this document is only long because we have gone through every single step of both a faculty member and student.

Create the Assignment Document

Open Microsoft Word (or Google Docs).

Opening Word

Give your assignment a title.

Titling our document Market Effects and Disinformation for a course we’re teaching.

Write down what students should do before doing the assignment. Do they need to read a chapter of the textbook? Watch a video? Tell them what the assignment is about, and connect it to the reading or viewing they just did. Here’s an example:

By now you should have read chapter nine and watched the Misinfo Nation video. Both the video and the chapter show how market effects and microtargeting created new capabilities and incentives for the production and dissemination of online disinformation.

Put some questions in the Word doc with some space under them. Ask them to put their answers in there, and then submit it via Blackboard into whatever the assignment name is. Write at least a sentence on how you plan to grade the submission.

Snapshot of the document

Add In Grading Criteria

There’s a long-raging debate about how one should grade student work. We’re not going to get into that here. But we will say this — you have to tell the students how you plan to grade their work. In this case, we’re just going to put that in the document too, inserting it between the description and the questions:

We’ve chose a simple grading scheme for weekly assignments here. We could get fancy and use a rubric, but we’re keeping it dirt simple. To get full points students have to:

  1. Answer all questions in one to two paragraph answers.
  2. Reference the assigned reading and videos where appropriate.
  3. Demonstrate understanding of the assigned readings and video by correctly applying concepts from the readings to the examples below.

Even though I don’t have a formal rubric here, in my head I’ve got a rough idea of how this translates into points. A student that completes one and two but fails at criterion three would normally get a D (6.5 out of 10), but given the current emergency situation I’m more inclined to make that a C (7.5 out of ten). That’s for just doing the work.

A student who completes one and two and shows some understanding gets a B (8.5 out of 10) and a student that shows a reasonable understanding gets a full A (10).

Students who do the work but misunderstand elements get to resubmit.

There are many other grading approaches you can take; we’ve presented one here that we think many teachers could adopt. But there are other methods too: competency-based grading, student self-assessments, ungrading. If this wasn’t emergency online we could talk more about all of these. But we’ll save it for later.

One grading decision I’d encourage you to think about: adopting a non-zero policy for missed work. Generally faculty score missed work as zero, where completed work, even where shoddy, gets a higher score. This results in some absurdities. If I get an “A” on two tests but miss a third test I end up with a “D”, which is about the same grade as if I had done little work the entire semester.

Setting a higher number grade for uncompleted or missed work makes it easier for students to recover from the occasional emergency or bad week while still providing incentives for completing work. Some teachers set this grade at 50%, some as low as 30%. In the current situation, I would advocate setting it towards the higher side.

Make the Assignment in Blackboard

If you haven’t made an assignments folder, go ahead and make it. Normally we encourage faculty to organize content into folders by week, not type, but this is emergency online, and still a solid way of doing it.

To do that, click into Content (left menu), then create a content folder. Name it “Assignments” then submit.

Now click into your new assignments folder, and go to the “Assessments” dropdown to create an assignment.

We’ll show the rest in the YouTube file below. Give it the same title you gave your document. Copy the top description of the assignment into the form. Upload the document, set a due date, and submit.

What It Looks Like From the Student Side

Here’s what it looks like on the student side. If you want to share this with students to show them how to do this sort of assignment, go ahead.

There are a couple things students have to watch out for. They have to pay attention to where they saved it, they have to make sure they upload the right document. They have to enable editing on the document. But these are things that any college student should be learning more generally, basic technical skills one needs in the world of work and scholarship.

Students at WSU all have free access to Office 365, but some students may not have it installed on their computer. Again, it’s free, and I would encourage them to install it. But if they want to do it using the online Office 365, there’s just an additional step right after the download, like so:

After that, the process looks the same.


OK, so now the student has submitted. How do you grade it?

This video shows the steps. Some parts are a bit off-screen, but the steps are pretty clear. (Sorry, not every video goes exactly as planned!)

Word Document Assignments Are Flexible and Portable

OK, so Blackboard has a whole variety of assessments available. Why did we show you this one first? A couple reasons.

The first thing is it allows you to use the skills you have. I don’t know if you saw that Blackboard text editor when we were adding the assignment. It’s downright frightening:

How do you link something in there? Make a blockquote? A footnote? Link something? Paste in a photo or a graph? Worse yet, it the formatting goes haywire, how do you fix it?

There’s answers to all these questions, but the thing is you probably know all things you need to do already in Word. So why not just use Word? The same goes for your students: what if they want to paste an image into a question answer? A graph? A math equation? How do they do that? Again, if they are answering the question in a Word document they have the flexibility to do that, and it’s pretty straightforward.

Second, it’s what we call “worldware”. Word, Google Docs, or other document editors are something that students are going to have to master for the world they graduate into. So would you rather they learn how to insert an image in an LMS they’ll never use after graduation or that they learn to insert it in a document, an actual useful skill?

Third, it’s accessible. There’s even a little accessibility checking tool in Word that will let you know if you didn’t include an image description, or created a document that screen readers can’t read.

Finally, it’s flexible. You can add online video, charts, data tables — whatever you need. And honestly, you’re probably doing it the same way you would have made a paper test in the past, with the same tool.

There are some limitations. In particular, the potential for automatic grading is diminished, and in subjects where you are primarily testing recall or computation the lack of automatic grading may push you towards using a more rigid tool like Blackboard’s test/quiz object. And if you have time to create a more sequenced self-graded course, the automatic feedback provided to students can be a real help to them. But those sorts of courses take a lot of time to perfect. If you’re just starting out, you may find the flexibility of this model is what you need.

All Lessons

Lesson 1
What Is Dirt Simple Online? Why Use It?

Current Lesson
A Simple Word Document-Based Assignment

Lesson 3
Creating a Simple Discussion Forum

Lesson 4
Creating a Weekly Announcement In Blackboard

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