School Leader Insights: The Interplay Between Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

The School Leader Insights blog series provides school leaders with practical guidance and advice on how to develop and support digital learning programs within their schools and districts. Based on research and on-the-ground experiences working with school leaders, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute aims to identify and share effective practices with these school leaders to support their work and encourage their success. In this blog post, we discuss the importance of understanding the relationship between curriculum, instruction, and assessment in designing digital learning experiences that align with the underlying purposes for why a digital learning initiative is pursued in the first place.

Relationship between curriculum, instruction, and assessment

To enact a particular digital learning initiative or program, school leaders must think carefully about the relationship between curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

As was mentioned in the first blog post in this series on the importance of identifying and articulating the “why” that drives a digital learning initiative, care must be taken to understand the many digital learning options available to a school community. All digital learning modalities and technologies are not suited for every initiative’s underlying purpose, so understanding the various possibilities and working with key community stakeholders to make crucial decisions will put school leaders on a more likely path to success. 

Curriculum, instruction, and assessment are related and should be thought about carefully when pursuing digital learning innovations. That will help ensure the learning experiences match the underlying purpose of a digital learning initiative. 

Curriculum refers to a set of learning experiences assembled and sequenced together to reach particular learning outcomes. 

Instruction involves the type of learning experiences educators facilitate and students engage in, whether it be small-group instruction that is student-driven, inquiry-based instruction centered on critical thinking through dialogues, or project-based learning focused on hands-on work. 

Assessment can take two forms. A summative assessment involves end-of-unit exams, midterms, and final exams for a set and structured lesson plan. Formative assessments involve teachers using ongoing, periodic assessments of various formats to inform or determine how future learning experiences (lessons or activities) will be shaped or adjusted to meet the needs of students.

To design digital learning experiences, school leaders must take stock of what the curriculum, instruction, and forms of assessment will look like and need to be to meet an initiative’s driving goals. The game can change significantly when digital resources are brought into the learning environment, so careful reflection is needed about curriculum, instruction, and design.

By being deliberate in thinking through these concerns, the many needs and wants among a school community’s stakeholders are taken into account in enacting a digital learning initiative.

Designing digital learning experiences

School leaders should consider many different ways to design digital learning experiences once the desired curriculum, instructional modes, and forms of assessment are thought through carefully. These different approaches do not fit all curricula, ways of instructing, and desirable assessment approaches.

Meaningful conversations are needed among the many community stakeholders about the various options before any decisions are made about the technology and training necessary within a school community to enact a digital learning initiative. Technology and professional development will be the topics of forthcoming blogs in this series.

Buying or building content

Many digital learning service providers across the country may offer ready-made content to buy that can run full classes or supplement what is taught in the face-to-face classroom. Some providers also have opportunities for schools to build their own content or tailor pre-designed content within their digital curriculum based on their specific needs. Not all providers offer customization, and not all providers provide the resources necessary to help teachers design their own digital learning content. 

Deciding to buy or build content should not be made abruptly. School leaders need to continue to work with teachers and staff to determine which options work best for their program. A plug-and-play option may be best if teachers are not trained or do not have time to create (or learn how to create) their own digital learning content. However, such options may be rigid and not allow customization if teachers want to only offer some pre-packaged content as a supplement or add locally important topics not covered by a provider. 

A school community needs to decide between buying or building content based on the underlying vision for a digital learning initiative. 

All options need to be on the table. The reflections about curriculum, instruction, and assessment always need to be top of mind in deciding what are the best-suited options for the school community.

Instructional approaches

When reflecting on what digital learning opportunities best suit a school community, one must remember different experiences and expectations around asynchronous versus synchronous learning. In the former, students are expected to learn at their own pace in a time-shifted manner. In the latter, a teacher works with students in the moment to go through the content being taught in a digital learning environment. Teachers, students, and parents need to be carefully consulted about what works best for students and in what context. 

As hinted earlier, one of the biggest concerns in designing curricula is the ability to customize the content of the materials being taught. Although there are national, state, and local standards to teach specific content for various subjects, teachers often have some wiggle room to provide tailored lessons based on current events and local customs and interests.

In looking at digital learning options, will there be flexibility if such flexibility is needed and valued in a school community? If a completely pre-packaged asynchronous digital learning environment is pursued in such a community, there is significant potential for disappointment among teachers, students, and parents. There is also a higher chance of a digital initiative failing because it does not align with the school community’s values, needs, and interests.

Digital learning initiatives need to consider engagement carefully. All options do not offer the same energy and participation among teachers, students, and parents. Do students and parents want to work closely with others in a digital learning environment to forge unique paths to reaching various learning objectives? Do students and parents want a more self-guided learning experience where students learn independently with minimal interaction? 

The degree to which students, parents, and teachers want to be engaged with each other interpersonally needs to be taken into serious consideration when choosing a digital learning provider and platform.

Assessment approaches

Digital learning platforms and programs offer different possibilities for assessment, too. Careful attention is needed about what assessments are possible and what the school community wants and needs to achieve specific curriculum goals. In a self-paced model, students are given more freedom to choose their own educational adventure. They can move through lessons at a tempo that fits their needs through digital tools that are often automated. This model is often advantageous for students who might master lessons quickly and move on to more advanced materials. However, this model may not be the best approach if students need more guidance, as seen in a paced model where assessments are timed in particular sequences and often closely overseen by teachers facilitating the educational journey.

Some curricular goals focus on students’ ability to express themselves and present their skills and knowledge in person. Having a purely asynchronous form of digital learning would not work well with such objectives. Therefore, if synchronous or face-to-face assessments are needed, a digital learning platform and program need to be developed with that goal in mind.

In the last 30 years, there has been significant discussion about the power of data. There are many different data dashboards and other data collection tools in currently available digital learning platforms to monitor student engagement, performance, and progress through a curriculum. School leaders need to work with teachers, students, and parents to understand better what digital learning data are most valuable to drive instruction and gauge whether curricular goals are being met. In the end, school leaders, and the broader school community, need to keep the underlying purpose of a digital learning initiative in mind to drive all decisions that impact curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Looking ahead

The next blog in this School Leader Insights series will focus on understanding the specific technologies required to implement a digital learning initiative. School leaders need to understand the many technology needs of teachers, staff, students, and parents to implement effective and innovative digital learning programs.

Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!


The authors would like to thank Tracy Gieseking from the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute for her contributions and advice in writing this blog post.

About the authors

Christopher Harrington

Dr. Christopher Harrington, director of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Ed Timke

Dr. Ed Timke is a research specialist for Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Although he specializes in qualitative research — such as interviews, focus groups, ethnographies, and textual and visual analyses — he was trained in mixed methods research while in his doctoral program in communication and media at the University of Michigan. Ed has taught online and face-to-face courses on writing, research methods, global media and communication, the role of advertising in society, and intercultural communication at American University, Duke University, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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