Tips for Designing Good Online Learning Assessments

The closure of schools and universities during this time of crisis has led to an increased interest in alternative ways of delivering formal education. Online learning is deemed as one of the solutions. During this pressing time, educators are forced to move from the question of “should I use technology?” to “how can I best integrate technology to enhance the learning experience?”.

However, as educators scramble to find the best online learning tool, we’re faced with another underlying question: 

How do I assess my students online?

Proof of learning not only lies in “what” students learn but “how”—and how much—they have learnt. This is already challenging to prove in conventional assessments, so it’s understandable why educators are skeptical of moving their assessments online. 

But, let’s see this as an opportunity to have deeper conversations on assessment: Everyone has had the experience of being assessed—how does it feel? Should assessments be viewed as informative rather than punitive? Can assessment be designed to give a positive impact on students’ learning experiences?

The answer to that final question is ‘Yes’. And even more so in an online environment.


What makes a good online assessment?

In a fully online environment, assessments are unproctored. Instead of invigilators, online assessments typically rely on facilitators. They are designed in a way that tracks the students’ learning process through formative assessments that consist of asking questions, stimulating thought and reflection, and continuously collecting evidence of learning. 

That’s why it’s best to move away from “secure”, automatically graded, live, and timed exams when designing online assessments. Not just because they are an unreliable replica of face-to-face assessments, but also because students are more likely to face technical difficulties and be unable to complete the test in the best manner.

Consistent with 21st-century learning, assessment should be viewed as a decision-making tool for both educators and students. It helps us to determine where the learner is, and what the next steps should be in their learning. Hence, a well-designed assessment personalises the learning experience for individual students.


How to design assessments for your online course


1. Begin with the end in mind.

Where do you want the students to be at the end of the lesson or activity? What sort of evidence does it make sense to accept as proof that students ‘get it’? Start here and move step-by-step backwards through the learning process.

2. Design plenty of activities in which students are creating evidence.

Design learning experiences (and opportunities for feedback) that collect evidence for your desired learning outcomes. Use varied assessment methods and learning activities, e.g. assessing portfolios, students’ creation of concept maps, online role plays, scenario-based activities, online discussions etc.

3. Align your course outcomes to the content and the learning activities you’d like to assess.

Break course outcomes into criteria and use those criteria to evaluate evidence of achieving the course outcomes. Criteria and rubrics are especially useful in large classes as they could be used for self-assessment and peer-review activities.

If you'd like to know how this can be done on OpenLearning, here are step-by-step instructions for connecting learning outcomes to assessments.

4. Keep in mind that feedback is not optional.

It is compulsory for educators to provide students with relevant information during the learning process, monitoring, guiding and giving continuous support—just as you would do in a face-to-face environment. The feedback can be personalised and provided by different roles: self, peers, course facilitators, industry practitioners etc. 

Feedback should be used to improve learning by informing students how and where to modify and complement their learning. Doing so encourages self-regulated learning and results in a more sustainable method of assessment, especially for a large number of students.

For more guidance on facilitation, my colleague Eikris has provided a useful article on how to be a better course facilitator.

5. Use technology that will help you collect evidence from authentic assessments

Ideally, the technology you select for your class should support alternative assessment strategies and allow evidence of higher-level learning to be collected.  Look for tools that can enable you to use data to shorten the feedback loop and inform teaching and learning.

Challenges of shifting to online assessments

As with all kinds of change management, implementing this type of online assessment comes with several challenges:

1. Changing mindsets (of both educators and students) is arguably the biggest challenge.

2. Time and dedication to re-design assessments from ‘assigning-a-final-grade’ to assessments that stimulate and guide students’ development.

3. Experience and skills needed by those who are ready to move to this type of assessment.

At the end of the day, just remember that our students’ learning is the goal. Personal growth or transformation of the human being is the ultimate desired effect. Therefore, there is an urgent need to change the conversation from "what is my grade?" to "what do I know?".

Let’s ponder upon Goodhart’s law below:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

I wish you all the best with designing online assessments for your class. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.

Marsyitah leads the Learning Services team at OpenLearning Malaysia. As a Learning Designer herself, she loves to shout about real issues faced by teaching/learning practitioners. Her latest obsession is her new-born babe and figuring out the 'work-life-balance' phenomena.

Don’t miss out on the chance to interact with online learning experts like Marsyitah—tune in to our latest webinar:

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OpenLearning is a social online learning platform with drag-and-drop tools for creating great learning experiences. If your school or university has closed during this time, we might be able to help:

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Topics: Course Design Tips

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