Re-thinking Assessment for Online Learning

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By Dr. Narimane Hadj-Hamou, Founder & CEO, CLICKS

Assessment has always been one of the most challenging aspects of teaching regardless of the delivery mode we are using. In many cases; and despite all of us engaging in alignment exercises as part of our internal and external QA practices when designing or revising courses; there are often issues around the appropriateness of the assessment.

A well-designed course, is one which has clear alignment between course learning outcomes, student assessment and the sort of content and learning activities we plan to prepare students for assessment and hence help them attain their learning outcomes. Assessment should be an integral part of the learning and teaching process and should be designed to promote learning and build a sense of community among students and instructors. This is no different in an online learning environment.

Whether teaching online or face to face, student assessment has often been criticized for its lack of creativity, focus on lower order skills as oppose as more complex skills (i.e. critical thinking), its subjectivity and the lack of timely constructive feedback provided to students that will aid them act upon and improve their performance as for assessment to become a driver for learning.

Another major issue which is always debated among academics is balancing summative and formative assessments; or what is known as the assessment for learning (formative) versus the assessment of learning (summative). Since summative assessment often involves the largest portion of the student grade, students tend to focus their attention and efforts on the summative part, and this is often seen as a challenge when instructors are trying to encourage students to engage more with activities and work done throughout the semester.

When the online dimension is added where you are physically apart from your students and have little control over what happens at their end, it can make everything a bit more difficult.

Assessing student learning is an essential component to consider when teaching online which is perceived as one of the most significant concerns to academics all over the world. Issues around plagiarism, authenticity of student work, student engagement with assessment and provision of feedback are issues which I frequently hear concerns about.

When designing student assessment strategies in an online context we need to re-consider few things including relooking into our assessment and grading policy.

Obviously, the starting point will remain to answer the fundamental questions around assessment: 1) “What do we want our students at the end of the course to know, be able to do and appreciate?” 2) “How will they demonstrate their skills, attitudes, and abilities”? and 3) “What best evidences can students provide to show that learning has taken place?”

Once these are answered, the nature of online learning raises a whol range of other questions to consider; these include:
• What technological tools and resources are available that offer new alternatives for online student assessment?
• Which of these tools are most suited to design my assessment activity?
• How comfortable am I with these technologies and how familiar are my students with them?
• How can I minimize plagiarism and authentify student work when I will not be able to meet my students face-to- face?
• How can I manage to provide timely constructive feedback to students, specially if I had a large class?
• What are the implications of undertaking assessment online on my workload?
For many institutions and instructors, a major error is trying to replicate our traditional face to face student assessment strategy into an online format; this frequently does not work. Although, we can still do many similar things, a number of considerations must be taken into account. The nature of online learning forces us to re-think about the purpose and the role of assessment.

Moving away from high stakes exams towards more episodical ongoing assessments; where student reflect on their learning and share their own experiences is much more appropriate. Group assessment and peer assessment can also provide good alternatives to the conventional assessment process. After all, if we ask students to work together, we minimize the chances of them copying from each other and contribute to building learning communities.

Moreover, technology is providing us with many opportunities to create more interactive, authentic assessments that engage students in their learning- moving them from a passive to a more active mode.

Principles of Good Online Assessment

Before looking at practical examples of what can be done in online learning for assessment which we I will address in my next post, let’s revisit some important principles around what constitutes good assessment in general and more specifically what represents good pedagogical design strategies for assessment in an online environment.

Here are few key principles to keep remembering:
1) Assessment works best when it directly linked to course learning outcomes and is appropriate to the level and scope of the course content. Assessment should engage and motivate students to learn and must be challenging enough to stimulate their thinking.
2) Assessment works best when students are clear about the link between their course learning outcomes and their assessment.
3) Assessment works best when students are clear about what is expected from them and what it will take from them to succeed. Rubrics and guidelines are useful for this purpose. In an online environment clearly communicating expectations is critical to student success.
4) Assessment works best when it builds on students’ existing knowledge and skills. knowing student pre-existing knowledge and skills- will help you identify any gaps and adapt your teaching and assessment practices in accordance. Test out what your students already know by quickly administering an online quiz (diagnostic assessment) at the beginning of your course to know students’ level.
5) Assessment works best when it is ongoing and not episodic. In an online course this is crucial and assessment activities should be integrated into several parts of the course, providing ongoing feedback to students that allows them to act upon – formative assessment such as ‘low stake’ online quizzes are useful although many might be skeptical about them. Quizzes offer an excellent way to engage student and immediately check their understanding and learning.
You just need to be careful about how to design your quiz (see next section).
6) Assessment works best when it authentic and promotes deep learning. It also helps reduce cheating. Make sure you bring the “real world” into online learning. Authentic activities demonstrate not only acquisition of knowledge but the ability of students to apply that knowledge in a real-world context. Authentic assessment also helps students to reflect on what they have learnt. Moreover, assessment that rely on deep learning would rarely have its answers written down in a textbook or found online.
7) Assessment works best when it some elements promote collaboration and group work among students. This helps build a sense of community which can be challenging in an online environment.
8) Assessment works best when it is student-centric. Self-assessment and peer-assessment are strategies employed to encourage students to take more responsibility for the learning process, build confidence and actively engage them with their learning process – something needed in online environment. Blackboard and Moodle LMS both have functions to support peer and self-assessment.
9) Assessment works best when it is diversified and include different methods and techniques to accommodate different learning styles but also to reduce the chances of cheating. If you are using a research paper or project as an assessment make sure this is accompanied with a journal, log, online presentation or other measures to authentify the student work.
10) Assessment works best when it is clear, transparent, consistent, valid and reliable (specifically for summative assessment).
11) Assessment works best when it is complemented with high quality timely feedback that will help students act upon. Technology tools today allow you to provide timely feedback to students using text, audio and even video. Check what options are available through your LMS.
12) Assessment works best when students are familiar with the sort of technology you will be using. Make sure your students are trained and well aware about how to use various tools you will be integrating.

Stay tuned for the next post on ideas for assessing students online !