Designing Exercises

Last updated on 2024-06-26 | Edit this page



  • How can you measure learners’ progress towards your lesson objectives?
  • Why are exercises so important in a lesson?
  • What are some different types of exercises, and when should they be used?
  • Why should we create assessments before we have written the explanatory content of our lesson?


After completing this episode, participants should be able to…

  • Describe the importance of regular exercises while a lesson is being taught.
  • Choose the format for an exercise based on the outcome it is intended to measure.
An overview of the iterative process of lesson design and development, adapted from Nicholl's five phases, with step 2, 'Design assessments for these outcomes' highlighted.
In the next two episodes, we will design assessments to measure learners’ attainment of the objectives we defined previously.

As we have seen previously, defining objectives for a lesson (or a teaching episode) can help to focus your content on the most important learning outcomes and outline the scope of your lesson project. The goal of the remaining steps of lesson development is to ensure that what learners learn from following your lesson matches its defined objectives as closely as possible. To do so, you need to develop assessments to monitor progression towards your learning outcomes.


In order to measure progress and evaluate if and what learning occurred, we have various types of assessment available to us:

  • summative assessments - used to verify whether learners achieved the stated learning objectives after instruction.
  • formative assessments - used to detect changes in learner understanding or performance during instruction, to provide feedback and insight (to both instructors and learners) into the learners’ developing mental models of the topic taught and to identify any old or developing misconceptions.

Summative assessments sum up what learning has been achieved after training (e.g. via exams). They give valuable data about learning attainment by individuals and entire cohorts but are not used to guide further progress of a lesson. They may not be as suitable for short courses, but may be necessary for those that give marks/grades or certificates of completion.

Formative assessments are applied throughout a course and with several different purposes: they provide a way to move new information from working memory to long-term memory; they can inform instructors’ decisions about how to modify instruction to better promote learning; they also inform learners about changes they may need to make to improve their learning. Ideally, they should be used often (e.g. after every 15-20 minutes of teaching), providing opportunities to instructors to change pace and refocus learners’ attention. For short courses, formative assessments are usually more valuable and easier to implement in practice than summative assessments - they need not be complex or time-consuming, just informative enough about learning for both instructors and learners.

The most effective way to test learner understanding and progress is to do such assessments in class - they engage all learners and allow instructors to check learners’ confidence with the content and its delivery, can help you deal with any potential misunderstandings as soon as they arise, and maximise the value of workshop for everyone. Such formative assessments also help with metacognition - the awareness a learner has that they are succeeding in learning something new.

Any instructional tool that generates feedback and is used in a formative way to check for learners’ understanding can be described as “formative assessment”. For example,

  • checking in - gauging learners’ satisfaction and understanding using agreed signals (e.g. raising different coloured post-it/sticky notes or Zoom reactions to indicate that the pace is too fast/slow, that they completed/have not completed an exercise).
  • group or collaborative discussions - raising questions for discussion among the group. For example, think, pair, share, where learners think individually about an answer to a question, pair up with a classmate to discuss their answer, and then share out the consensus they came to with the class.
  • problem-solving or diagnostic exercises - setting challenges for learners to tackle, testing comprehension of a subject and diagnosing any forming misconceptions.
  • reflections at the end of a session to help process what was learned, for example asking learners to write down, draw, or diagram (concept map) things they learned, noting how things relate to one another or connect with previous knowledge, things they want to know more about and any questions they still have.

Many other formative assessment tools can be found in Briggs’ list of “21 ways to check for student understanding” or Edutopia’s “56 Examples of Formative Assessment”.

Formative Assessments in this Training

Think back through the parts of this training you have followed so far. Identify two examples of formative assessment that the Trainers have employed so far. As an extra challenge, try to decide whether these assessments were used to assess progress towards a particular learning objective and, if so, what the relevant objective might have been.

Some examples of formative assessments used so far in this training:

  • Exercises such as the one asking trainees to describe the target audience of their lesson
    • this exercise aims to assess how well trainees are able to identify the aspects of a target audience that influence the design of a lesson. It also aims to expose any inconsistencies between the visions of the target audience held by different collaborators.
  • Your trainers have probably checked in with the group at various points in the training.
    • Although these check-ins are not specific to a particular objective, they help give us an impression of how well trainees are able to follow what we are teaching.
  • Tracking the progress of your lesson repository configuration on GitHub.
    • This helps us evaluate trainees’ progress towards the learning objectives we have set in relation to the lesson infrastructure.

Exercise Learners’ Memory

In a simplified model of memory individuals are equipped with two types of memory: working (also called short-term) and long-term. Long-term memory essentially has unlimited storage but is slow to access, whereas working memory is quicker to access but can only hold a limited number of items at a time. For teaching, the goal is to help learners move the new things they’ve learned from working memory into long-term memory. Exercises help with this by providing learners an opportunity to practice what was recently learned. Exercises should occur frequently throughout the lesson to free up working memory and make space for more new information.

Creating exercises builds upon the learning objectives you created earlier in the lesson design process. You can design exercises based on the actions/skills you described in your learning objectives (the learning outcomes you intend for the lesson). This will be easier if your wrote learning objectives with specific action verbs. Specific verbs can help you decide what action you want the learners to perform in the exercise. E.g. actions such as “explain” and “describe” may be better assessed by discussions and multiple choice questions, while “solve,” “construct,” “test” and other higher-level cognitive skills may be better assessed by debugging tasks, code-and-run, or use-in-a-different-context exercises.

Exercise: Exercise Types and When to Use Them (15 minutes)

The Trainers will assign you to pairs or small groups, and give each group an exercise type to work on. Each group should assign a notetaker, to summarise your discussion at the end of the exercise.

The Trainers will assign your group a type of exercise to focus on. Read about your given exercise type in the Exercise Types chapter of Teaching Tech Together by following the relevant link below.

(A Spanish version of Teaching Tech Together is also available.)

Then, considering the exercise type in general, as opposed to the specific example given in the text, discuss the following questions together:

  • What kind of skills would an exercise of this type assess? Try to identify some action verbs like those we used to write lesson objectives earlier in the workshop.
  • Would this type of exercise be suited to a novice audience? Or is it a better fit for intermediate or advanced learners?
  • Would this kind of exercise work well in an in-person workshop setting? Would it be better suited to self-directed learning and/or a virtual workshop?

The Trainers will assign your group a type of exercise to focus on. Read about your given exercise type on the indicated pages of Is This a Trick Question?:

  • multiple choice (page 13)
  • true-false (pages 20 & 21)
  • fill-in-the-blank (page 34)
  • authentic assessment (pages 46 & 47)

Then, discuss the following questions together:

  • Could exercises of this type be used in your lesson?
  • If so, can you identify any of your written objectives that could be assessed with an exercise of this type?
  • Have your Trainers set you any exercises of this type in this training so far?
  • Would this type of exercise be suited to a novice audience? Or is it a better fit for intermediate or advanced learners?
  • Would this kind of exercise work well in an in-person workshop setting? Would it be better suited to self-directed learning and/or a virtual workshop?

Exercise: Exercise Types and When to Use Them (15 minutes) (continued)

Share the major points of your discussion in the collaborative notes document.

Both of the resources linked from the exercise above, the Exercise Types chapter of Teaching Tech Together and Is This a Trick Question? are worth reading in full. They collect a lot of insightful discussion and illustrative examples together, which can prove very useful when designing exercises for your lesson.

As you discussed with your group in the last exercise, different types of learning objectives work better for novices, while others are a better fit for competent practitioners or experts.

This can be understood in terms of the types of exercises that suit the objective: exercise types that help manage cognitive load for the learner, such as fill-in-the-blanks, faded examples or Parsons problems (which all provide a lot of the guiding process/scaffolding code and allow the learner to focus on a specific concept or skill) are a good fit for a novice, to whom all elements of the topic are new. However, these kinds of exercise do not provide an opportunity for learners to develop higher-level skills, such as the ability to create whole new functions or scripts, or to extrapolate from the examples they have seen to solve a different kind of problem. Indeed, example and exercise types that are helpful to novices may even be counter-productive for learners with a greater level of expertise1.

Thus you want to choose your objectives to fit your intended audience and your exercise formats to fit your objectives.

An Expert’s View on Objectives and Audience Expertise

“Different types of lesson objectives (LOs) are better fit for novices, while others are better fit for competent practitioners, etc. and if exercises (formative assessments) are well aligned to LOs, [they] will automatically serve the corresponding audience. Thinking in terms of LOs (What should a learner do in order to achieve this specific LO? Is this LO exactly what learners are expected to achieve by the end of this piece of instruction? etc.) is easier than thinking in terms of LOs + audience + content. LOs should be tailored to the audience, and, if this is well done, you may stop worrying about the audience. Create LOs for the specific audience and create assessments for specific LOs.”

- Dr. Allegra Via, Carpentries Instructor Trainer

Detecting and correcting misconceptions and fixing learners’ incorrect/broken mental models is as important as presenting your learners with new knowledge and correct information. When mental models are broken, learning can occur slower than you might expect2. The longer a prior incorrect model is in use, and the more extensively it has to be “unlearned”, the more it can actively interfere with the incorporation of the new correct knowledge (since it will contradict the misconceptions already present in the mental model).

When designed well, multiple choice questions can diagnose misconceptions you predict that learners might have, and help you correct them quickly.

We recommend that you read the sections of the Instructor Training curriculum and Teaching Tech Together linked above. You may also find it interesting and helpful to review our supplementary page digging into misconceptions and multiple choice questions in more detail.

Exercise: Assessing Progress Towards an Objective (30 minutes)

Using one of the exercise formats you have learned about so far, design an exercise that will require learners to perform one of the actions described in the objectives you wrote earlier, and that assesses their ability to do so.

These should be assessments of the lower-level objectives defined for individual episodes in the lesson, as opposed to the lesson-level objectives you wrote first.

Trainees working as a team can choose whether to work together on discussing and designing a single exercise to assess a single objective, or to divide their efforts and each focus on an exercise for their own episode. If you choose to take the latter approach and finish with time to spare, spend the remainder reviewing and providing feedback on one another’s assessments.

The same approach to designing exercises within a lesson can also be used to create a short “pre-assessment” questionnaire for potential learners to complete when they register for a workshop teaching the lesson (or for self-evaluation before following the lesson on their own). You can use the list of prerequisite knowledge that you defined earlier to help with this.

If you collect the results of this questionnaire, use it to follow up with people who have registered for the workshop but do not fit the intended target audience, to manage their expectations about how useful the workshop will be for them.

You should aim to create all your assessments before you have written the explanatory content of your lesson (recall Nicholl’s backward design). These assessments will guide your lesson design process by knowing exactly which knowledge you’d expect from your learners at any point in the lesson.

Key Points

  • Assessments are a way to determine whether the objectives you defined for the lesson have been reached.
  • Exercises help learners commit what they’ve learned to long-term memory.
  • Some types of exercises are better for particular audiences and to address certain objectives.
  • Formative assessment happens during teaching and provides feedback both to an instructor and a learner - about progress and whether learning of new concepts occurred but also about any misunderstandings and misconceptions which can hinder further learning.

  1. See chapter 1, How Does Students’ Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?, of Ambrose et al. 2010.↩︎

  2. See chapter 1, How Does Students’ Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?, of Ambrose et al. 2010.↩︎