Designing Assessments

Last updated on 2023-07-10 | Edit this page

Estimated time 95 minutes



  • Why are exercises so important in a lesson?
  • What are some different types of exercises, and when should they be used?
  • How should exercises be presented in a lesson website?


After completing this episode, participants should be able to…

  • Choose the format for an exercise based on the outcome it is intended to measure.
  • Display exercises and their solutions in a lesson site.

Exercise Your 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. One of the ways lesson developers can aid in this process is through exercises. In addition to providing formative assessments for instructors and check for misconceptions and broken mental models, exercises help move new skills and concepts into long-term memory by providing learners an opportunity to practice what was recently learned. Exercises should occur frequently throughout the lesson because they move items to long-term memory and free up learners’ working memory for new items.

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 focus on. Each group should assign a notetaker, to summarise your discussion at the end of the exercise.

Read about your given exercise type in the Exercise Types chapter of Teaching Tech Together by following the relevant link below.

Then, 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?

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

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 faded examples and Parsons problems (which both 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.


“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

Exercise: Assessing 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 for your lesson, and that assesses their ability to do so.

Demo of Writing an Exercise

Well-designed exercises are one of the most valuable resources for an instructor and any time spent on this is well invested.

To create an exercise in The Carpentries Workbench, you can use colon-delimited sections called ‘fenced divs’. In fact, there are many types of boxes in the lesson infrastucture that use fenced divs. In the Workbench, exercises are divided into two categories: discussions (where the main task is for participants to discuss a topic or prompt) and challenges (where the main task is a problem to be solved).

To start a challenge fenced div the line must contain at least 3 colons, then the challenge tag. Then the content of the challenge is included on the following lines. Finally, you can close the fenced div using another line with least 3 colons.


:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: challenge

### Challenge Title

Challenge text, code, and other information goes here


If you also want to include an expandable solution box for the challenge you can add a solution fenced div within the challenge box. The format is the same as for a challenge except the tag is solution instead. Note the solutions can all be expanded for more accessible reading using the “Expand All Solutions” option at the top of each episode.

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: challenge

### Challenge Title

Challenge text, code, and other information goes here

:::::::::::::: solution

### Solution Title

Solution text, code, and other information



For readability, you may want to have the length of the closing lines match the opening lines. See in the above how the challenge and the nested solution’s closing lines are similar lengths to the their corresponding opening lines. For more information about creating exercises see the Workbench Documentation for Exercises.

Exercise: Formatting Exercises in a Lesson Site (15 minutes)

Using the approach demonstrated above, format the MCQ you designed previously as an exercise in your lesson site.

Some other types of formative assessment include:

  • Think, pair, share - learners think 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.
  • Sticky/post-it notes and written feedback - learners each get two colors of sticky notes. If they fall behind or run into an issue, they can put up the color that signals they need help. If they have completed and exercise or think the instructor could speed up, they put their other sticky note up. Then at breaks these stickies can turn into written feedback minute cards, where the learner writes down one thing they were confused about or that could be improved and one thing that went well or they really liked learning.
  • Reflective assessment - learners spend time reflecting on what they have learned so far. Reflection aids in transferring newly learned concepts into long-term memory and can be really helpful for metacognition, where learners think about the process of learning, becoming aware of their progress towards acquiring new skills. Developing metacognition improves learners’ ability to guide their own learning on a topic after they have finished the lesson. Reflection exercises can include using what was taught to label a diagram, draw a concept map, free write, or fill in a guided worksheet.

Exercise: More Practice with Fenced Divs (10 minutes)

Return to the bulleted list of prerequisite knowledge or skills you added to the file of your lesson and use fenced divs to display it in a formatted box with the prereq class. Note that all lesson objectives in fenced divs will be combined into one box at the top of each episode.


  • Exercises are important for learners to move what they’ve learned to long-term memory.
  • Some types of exercises are better for particular audiences and to address certain objectives.
  • Exercises (and solutions) go in blocks using fenced divs in the lesson.