Multimodal assignments – you are probably doing this already

This semester has been an exciting one with the launch of some new teaching and learning tools, new curriculum designs and new courses. This seems to have brought a real buzz about, especially to the fancy new cafe where we’ve had many, many a chat about digital multimodal tools to support the students learning.

This has all been great experience and immersion for me to use as fodder in my studies (yes it’s true, I am constantly watching everyone of you and wondering what style of teaching you are using, what your favourite frameworks are etc, I can’t help it). This week things have come to a stupendous crescendo as I submitted an assignment on multimodal assignments smug in the knowledge that I am seeing this going on in every department I visit, but I also know a couple of you will be asking, “what the heck is multimodal?”

Excuse the over use of academic references… but I did warn you I just did an assignment on this…

Why should we use multimodal assignments?

Well you could argue, to keep up with the times… over the past decade it feels like there has been more and more pressure to use technology in education to keep up with the changes in society, the fact that we are using technology as part of our everyday lives now (McKnight, et al., 2016), it has even been argued that the current and coming student population were raised in a world of accessible, digital technology but they come to Uni and the technology they know and use is a far cry from their experience at University (Chattie and Jarke, 2007). Allowing students the choice to use digital multimodal methods in their assignments creates “opportunities for learning that are imaginative, critical, and in-tune with our increasingly digitally-mediated society” (Lamb, 2018 pp.15).

So what is digital multimodal?

Simply put, multimodal is the use of different or combined modes of communication to convey meaning (Kress 2005). Digital multimodal is where the modes used are tech, think blogs, video, sound, haptic feedback etc but all help to enrich or create depth and to convey meaning (Lea and Jones, 2011).

Sound good so far?

OK but why? We’ve used essays for years and years, they work so why change it?

Students in Classroom in Keene New Hampshire –  Creator unknowm – Copyright public domain

Well firstly essays can be multimodal too, text can be used in different way, like caps, bold italic, colurs, headers etc. But generally, it’s about creating opportunities… digital multimodal assignments create an opportunity for the student to learn about basic and complicated literacies, critical thought and conveying a message (Lea and Jones, 2011) beyond the traditional essay writing format. Think about the many different ways we are expected to communicate every day, and how often do we do that with an essay? Multimodal assignments can nurture digital communication skills which link learning to employability (Boud, 2010).

Multimodality itself provides the opportunity for students to learn about how various mediums can support, enhance or create an argument and how best to communicating to a specific audience (Kress, 2005).  At the moment, I am consciously writing in an informal and friendly manner because I am speaking to my colleagues. I’m also deliberate about where I used headings, bold, “…”, etc.  You can guarantee though, I wouldn’t use this style of communication for an essay.

I do absolutely acknowledged though that the students’ ability to choose digital technologies to support their communication isn’t without it’s risks and be honest, technology itself isn’t exactly a neutral tool (Hamilton and Friesen, 2013).  In fact DePalma and Alexander (2015) recorded their experiences of using digital multimodal assignments and found that students struggled to use the appropriate communication style for their audience when they used digital multimodal methods. The choice of technology the students chose influenced their audience, in this case an academic audience but instead they continually thougth of it as an audience of “the general public” because they were making their work available online. The technology influenced their perceptions and then the outcome.

There are so many positives though, digital multimodal approaches and pedagogies can offer students with a wide range of disabilities (or non-native speakers) means and methods to express themselves and their work in a way that’s more natural to them (Walters, 2010). Viewed from an impairment-specific perspective, multimodality can be encompassing of the needs of a wide array of students and audiences. *Arms wide open!*

So as a teacher what part do you play in making a multimodal assignment a success?

Firstly, ignore Prensky (2001) and his theory that our students are “digital natives” who are at ease with all technology. Designing your digital multimodal assessment means you need to acknowledge that there is no uniformity in the ability of students (or staff) using technologies (Bennett et al., 2008). For some of us technology may be disconcerting (read terrifying) but knowing that gives us a chance to consider assignment design in a way that support this (Lea and Jones, 2011) and an opportunity for us to collaborate with colleagues and/or shout your learning tech team to reduce the learning curve.

Designing in the structured support is a must but doesn’t need to be overly complicated or different to how you probably work already, and can be a bit of excitment for tutors learning to incorporate new methods or tech. Following existing assessment good practice and making use of the class as a community of practice can help in creating the right environment.

Setting the scene

Start off by addressing worries early with your students by asking them to be a part of co-defining the expectations of the assignment tasks and the reasons for using multimodal in an assignment. Consider how a multimodal assignment would compare to a 4000 word essay, how do you judge that one is equal to the other? What are the benefits or either choice? Students and tutors would be co-creators of knowledge defining expectation and clarifying assumptions (O’Shea and Fawns, 2014).

Alignment of the course

To encourage understanding and enthusiasm for the multimodal choice, the assessment should be aligned to the learning outcomes of the course, it will help the students make sense of the why’s and whatfors of wht they are doing and make it feel like it has a purpose beyond a “grade” (Biggs and Tang, 2012).


I say “scaffolding” as the metaphor for the structural support where you and classmates lead problem solving in increments of difficulty until the students are self sufficient (see Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976), which is influenced by Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” (1962, cited in Black, 2000; Sanders and Welk, 2005)).  One of the great frameworks I read on supporting multimodal assignments (Carless, 2009, pp. 82) talks about this “assessments should engage students with work over time”. Build confidence and skills by engaging students throughout the course with formative or low stakes opportunities to work multimodally using tasks which are linked to the whole assignment process. This way, as you are working towards the summative assessment, creating an opportunity for learning where students don’t feel pressured by the high stakes of summative assessment.

Feedback and feedforward

Feedback is vital to students learning any new skill, however explanatory feedback (feedforward) provides students with the opportunity to learn and improve on the road to their summative assignment (Moreno and Mayer, 2007) rather than corrective feedback after an assignment which can’t be acted upon.  Using a long term scaffolded approach to the course gives repeated opportunities to give and receive feedback and then action the feedback prior to the next cycle thereby closing the feedback loop (Carless 2009).

Peer review and feedforward

But lets be honest, your first thought after that last paragraph was, where do I find the time? Wasn’t it? Well how about involving the students? Encourage the students to become co-contributors in the feedback cycle by sharing work prior to submission and offering comments and guidance on each other’s work. This allows students and tutors to become partners, equally responsible in their learning and assessment (Boud, 2010) and provides the opportunity for students to develop their abilities in self-critique, critical thinking and communication.

I’ll shut up now, but if you are interested, I read a few great frameworks about assessment design that I wanted to share:

  • Carless, D., 2009. Learning-oriented Assessment: Principles, Practice and a Project. In L. H. Meyer, S. Davidson, H. Anderson, R. Fletcher, P.M. Johnston, & M. Rees, ed. Tertiary Assessment & Higher Education Student Outcomes: Policy, Practice & Research. Ako Aotearoa, pp.79–90.
  • Boud, D., 2010. Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education, Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.  And for an interesting read on things in action…
  • DePalma, M.-J. & Alexander, K.P., 2015. A Bag Full of Snakes: Negotiating the Challenges of Multimodal Composition. Computers and Composition, 37, pp.182–200.
  • Carless, D. ed., 2015. Learning-oriented assessment in Law. In Excellence in University Assessment Learning from award-winning practice. London: Routledge, pp. 88–106.

Text referenced in this post (and for your personal reading list if you’d like)

Bennett, S. J., Maton, K. A. & Kervin, L. K., 2008. The “digital natives” debate: a critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), pp.775–786.

Biggs, J. & Tang, C., 2012. Aligning the Curriculum to Promote Learning. In N. M. Seel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer US, pp.198–199.

Boud, D., 2010. Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education, Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Black, P., 2000. Research and the Development of Educational Assessment. Oxford Review of Education, 26(3-4), pp.407–419.

Brown, J. S. & Adler, R. P., January/February 2008. Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE REVIEW, 43(1), pp.16–32.

Carless, D., 2009. Learning-oriented Assessment: Principles, Practice and a Project. In L. H. Meyer, S. Davidson, H. Anderson, R. Fletcher, P.M. Johnston, & M. Rees, ed. Tertiary Assessment & Higher Education Student Outcomes: Policy, Practice & Research. Ako Aotearoa, pp.79–90.

Chatti, M.A., Jarke, M. & Frosch-Wilke, D. 2007. The future of e-learning: a shift to knowledge networking and social software. International Journal of Knowledge and Learning, 3(4-5), pp.404–420.

DePalma, M.-J. & Alexander, K.P., 2015. A Bag Full of Snakes: Negotiating the Challenges of Multimodal Composition. Computers and Composition, 37, pp.182–200.

Hamilton, E. & Friesen, N., 2013. Online Education: A Science and Technology Studies Perspective/Éducation en ligne: Perspective des études en science et technologie. of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de …, 39(2).

Knight, P.T., 2002. Summative Assessment in Higher Education: Practices in disarray. Studies in Higher Education, 27(3), pp.275–286.

Kress, G., 2005. Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition, 22(1), pp.5–22.

Lamb, J., 2018. To Boldly Go: Feedback as Digital, Multimodal Dialogue. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction, 2(3), pp.49.

McKnight, K. et al., 2016. Teaching in a Digital Age: How Educators Use Technology to Improve Student Learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 48(3), pp.194–211.

Moreno, R. & Mayer, R., 2007. Interactive Multimodal Learning Environments. Educational psychology review, 19(3), pp.309–326.

O’Shea, C. & Fawns, T., 2014. Disruptions and dialogues: Supporting collaborative connoisseurship in digital environments. In Kreber, C., Anderson, C., McArthur, J., and Entwistle, N, ed. Advances and Innovations in University Assessment and Feedback. Edinburgh University Press, pp.225–245.

Sanders D & Welk, 2005. Strategies to Scaffold Student Learning Applying Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Nurse Educator, 30(5), pp.203–207.

Vygotsky, L., 1978. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes M. Cole, ed., Harvard University Press.

Walters, S., 2010. Toward an Accessible Pedagogy: Dis/ability, Multimodality, and Universal Design in the Technical Communication Classroom. Technical Communication Quarterly, 19(4), pp.427–454.

Wood, D., Bruner, J.S. & Ross, G., 1976. The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 17(2), pp.89–100.

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I'm Eli and I blog about the inane things which interest me namely gardening, cooking and cycling and occasionally geeky educational technology things. I live in sunny Musselburgh with my lovely wife Kate and our cats.