Three Considerations for Online Assessment

As we think about implementing formative and summative assessments in the online and blended environments, there are three considerations to keep in mind.

Good assessment is good assessment.

Whether working online or in a face-to-face classroom, the basics of assessment are the same.  In their primer on online assessment strategies, Jeanne Sewell, Karen Frith, and Martha Colvin propose a set of eight characteristics of exemplary learning assessments:

  • Authentic – reflects real life experiences
  • Challenging – stimulates the learner to apply knowledge
  • Coherent – serves as a guide for the student to achieve the learning goal
  • Engaging – attracts the learner’s interest
  • Respectful – sensitive to the individual learner’s beliefs and values
  • Responsive – includes a feedback mechanism to assist the student in the learning process
  • Rigorous – requires applied understanding of learning to achieve a successful outcome
  • Valid – provides information that is useful to meet the intended learning outcomes

That’s quite a lot of things to think about every time you make a quick quiz or compose a discussion prompt.  However, if your bandwidth allows, W. James Popham also urges us to create assessments that are both informative and sensitive.  By informative, he means assessments that actually tell us something about what the student knows and does not know.  Such tests are truly diagnostic, not just posing as such.  By sensitive, he means sensitive to instruction.  In other words, if a teacher has done a good job teaching, students will do better on the test than if the teacher did a poor job.  That may seem like a truism, but don’t you remember having at least one rotten high school teacher who taught you nothing and yet you got A’s on the tests?

Know your technology.

Technology can automate much of the drudgery that used to be associated with creating, administering, and scoring tests, as well as recording and analyzing the results.  Technology also makes possible practices that were previously too impractical to be used, such as presenting test items in random order to each student.  Every learning management system affords you a host of options and opportunities for efficient assessment; take the time to learn how to use them.

You also have to be aware of the limitations of the technology you’re using.  For example, you may have a system with a large database of test items from which you purportedly can easily create parallel forms of tests or equivalent pre- and post-tests.  Beware!  Creating test items that are truly equivalent is not an easy task.  Also, just because the system says a test item measures a certain skill, that does not mean it does.  There can be “junk” even in a commercial item bank.  At the very least, eyeball the items and see if they have at least prima facie validity.

Cheaters sometimes prosper.

Cheating has always been an issue, but it appears to have increased over time.  One review of research on cheating at the collegiate level found a “dramatic” increase in some types of cheating over the previous 30 years.  In particular, the study found “disturbing” increases in collaborative cheating—i.e. unpermitted collaboration among students on written assignments.

One might predict that, given the lack of visual supervision by the teacher,  the incidence of cheating in online classes  would be even greater than in face-to-face instruction, but to the contrary, Sewell and her colleagues cite research that finds “Online cheating is no more prevalent than classroom cheating.”  Other research suggests  that teachers can reduce cheating by “clearly communicating expectations regarding cheating behavior, establishing policies regarding appropriate conduct, and encouraging students to abide by those policies.”

In the online environment, technology offers some specific ways to frustrate potential cheaters.  These include:

  • Using surf-lock type devices during online exams
  • Timing the release and closing of tests  and requiring special passwords to access them
  • Using parallel forms of tests (be sure they are parallel!)
  • Randomizing both order in which questions are presented and the order of answer choices
  • Checking IP address logs
  • Using application or higher level questions

All that said, the most powerful way to combat cheating, online or offline, is to promote a culture of honesty and ethical behavior in the first place.


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