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Assessing Learning in Online Courses

Alternative Assessment | Assessment Strategies | Assessment Plan | Assessing in the OC | More info

What is the purpose of Assessment?

The primary function of assessment is to measure student learning. There are two types of assessment, formative and summative.  Formative occurs while the instruction is in process, while summative is a final overall determination.

It is quite common in higher education to see a very heavy focus on summative assessment, with very little formative assessment opportunities. This is contrary to effectively designed instruction due to the lack of opportunities for the learner to practice and receive feedback. In an online course, this approach is especially problematic.

Formative assessment provides feedback to learners as they are learning content.  Opportunities for practice and feedback are CRUCIAL to the effectiveness of instruction, especially online instruction.

Most instructors incorporate some type of summative assessment, yet rely on assessment strategies that they are familiar and comfortable with, such as multiple choice exams.  Online learning is inherently more student-centered, and other forms of assessment can be much more appropriate and accurate in measuring to what degree the learners accomplished the instructional objectives.

The changing paradigm in educational assessment (return to top)

Traditional assessment, which often uses a 'drive-by' standardized, multiple-choice test or a short-answer test is under increasing scrutiny and criticism. It is believed that, although this approach can adequately assess factual knowledge and basic skills, it often fails to assess students' acquisition of higher-order thinking skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving. It is also believed that traditional assessment does not evaluate students' learning process (Pellegrino, Chudowsky, & Glaser, 2001). Moreover, this approach may not increase students' desire to learn because they know that what will probably be tested is their factual recall or simple analysis.

In recent years, alternative assessment, which uses strategies such as case studies, portfolios, and peer review, is considered to be a valuable addition to standardized assessment. The rationale of alternative assessment is to gather evidence from real-life or authentic tasks, use multiple assessment strategies to assess learning, and provide ongoing feedback to students (Pellegrino, Chudowsky, & Glaser, 2001). The Committee on the Foundations of Educational Assessment suggests that a constructive alignment between instruction, learning, and assessment is possible, as demonstrated in the following assessment triangle.

The Assessment Triangle     

focus on learning and competence development











reflective and active knowledge construction







contextualized, interpretive, and performance assessment

Source: Pellegrino, Chudowsky, & Glaser (2001).

Alternative assessment strategies for online courses (return to top)

There exist a variety of alternative assessment strategies to assess student assignments and activities:

  • essays (submitted by email or discussion posting)
  • reports
  • research projects
  • case studies
  • online threaded discussions (students answer assigned questions and comment on others' posts)
  • self-assessment (via instant feedback quizzes and tests)
  • presentations (student production of PowerPoint presentations or Web pages)
  • video projects
  • podcasts
  • writing (chapter summaries, literature reviews and other writing)
  • group projects
  • collaborative writing
  • Web logs (students record and reflect on their activities, questions, and outcomes online. Web logs are also called online/electronic journals. See examples: edublogs, Motime, Blogger, LiveJournal)
  • e-portfolios (assess students online deliverables)
  • student peer review (see procedures and design)

Source: Modified from University of Texas TeleCampus.

How to create and use an assessment plan (return to top)

  • define learning goals and learning outcomes for students
  • identify performance criteria
  • identify appropriate assessment methods
  • evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of chosen methods
  • develop a plan and timeline for collecting information
  • implement assessment plan
  • use course feedback to improve future instruction

Click here to see an assessment plan sample.

Source: Modified from Concordia College, Minnesota.

img Online resource to create ready-to-use rubrics

Assessing work in the Online Classroom (D2L) (return to top)

The Online Classroom (D2L) provides many tools to facilitate assessment in your online course. Opportunities for assessment can occur through:

  • Quizzes
  • Surveys
  • Dropbox
  • Discussion Board
  • LiveRoom transcripts



Tutorials (return to top)

oc pdfUsing Dropboxes
flash Interactive Tutorial

*Requires Flash Player (Download)

pdfQuizzes Overview

  pdfCreating Quizzes
flash Interactive Tutorial
*Requires Flash Player (Download)
  pdfCreating Self-Assessments (i.e. non-graded quizzes)
  pdfCreating Surveys
  pdfUsing the Gradebook


More Information: (return to top)

Achtemeier, S. D., Morris, L., V., & Finnegan, C. L. (2003) Considerations for developing evaluations of online courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1), 1 -13.

Lin, H., & Dwyer, F. M. (2006, in press). The fingertip effects of computer-based assessment in education. TechTrends.


Pellegrino, J. W., Chudowsky, N., & Glaser, R. (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and   design of educational assessment. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Segers, M., Dochy, F., & Cascallar, E. (2003). Optimizing new modes of assessment: In search of qualities and standards. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.


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