Structuring Assessment in Online Courses

When school closures were announced in mid-March of this year, it was nearing the end of the semester across the university. For many instructors, the issue of final assessments was a major topic of conversation. The good news is that there are a number of ways that assessments can be structured into online learning contexts.

Although this past semester we had the monumental challenge of having to re-structure assessments that were already in place, we now have the opportunity to re-think them with a different mindset; one that is looking ahead with a sense of new possibilities. Below, I have listed some ways that online instructors can consider structuring both formal and informal assessments, as well as types of assignments. 

Formal Assessment

Activity reports. Most learning management systems have data tracking functionality built into them that allow instructors to run administrative reports on various kinds of online activities happening in the course. For example, in Pepper instructors can use the “Impact Report”, which lets them see things like, how many hours the student has spent online, how many notes they’ve posted, how many notes they’ve read, total number of words written, etc. Although this kind of data can be used for student evaluation, I tend to use them to support qualitative feedback partway through the course (i.e., helping students get a sense of how they are doing in relation to the class expectations and class averages) and to look for signs that a student may be struggling in the course (e.g., if an extended period has gone by since a student has logged in).

Rubrics with a twist. In an online course, instructors can provide a digital copy of their rubric, which can be marked up using typed comments, or highlighting functionality. Rubrics can also be created as a digital form (e.g., Microsoft Forms) with rating scales, checklists, and open-ended comments. One of the advantages of this, is that assessment data is then able to be exported into an Excel sheet for the instructor’s records. If instructors are using online discussion in their courses, a digital copy of the rubric could also be copied/pasted into a note, with evidence of each criteria hyperlinked back to specific notes. 

Peer feedback. Digital forms can also be used to support peer feedback as a brief survey. Tools like Peer Scholar can also be used to upload student work and create anonymous pairings for peer feedback; there is even the option to provide feedback on the feedback!

Digital gradebooks. Similar to activity reports, many learning managements systems come equipped with a gradebook tool. For example, in Quercus instructors can manage various types of grades ranging from scores, percentages, letter grades, and pass/fail. Written comments can also accompany feedback. Students can then login using their UTORid to see their evaluations once they’ve been uploaded, and to keep track of their course performance over time.

Co-authoring tools. Co-authoring tools, like Google Docs and Slides, can be a great way to provide written feedback directly on an assignment. This is a particular advantage for formative feedback as the student can see the comments right away and make any necessary adjustments directly in the same document. Many co-authoring tools also keep track of changes (called version histories), so that it’s easy to go back and review the edits made.

Private replies. In threaded discussion environments, such as Pepper, instructors can provide private replies to students. This can be particularly handy as a way to give feedback directly in relation to the discussion posts. It’s also a way to keep assessment private, even if an assignment was submitted in the form of a public note. Furthermore, in Pepper, instructors have the option to post feedback as a voice note, which can help support rich, detailed feedback without the need to write (and the student to read through) lengthy text-based comments.

Dropbox. A digital dropbox can be used as a clearly identifiable space for students to submit their work to instructors. In Pepper, a Dropbox folder automatically generates a private sub-folder for each student. While the instructor sees the entire class of sub-folders, the content of the submissions, who has submitted and who has not, and the date/timestamp for when the assignment was submitted, students only see their own sub-folder.

Informal Assessment

Polling. Tools like Mentimeter, Polleverywhere, and Answer Garden can be a great way to ask students a variety of polling questions on the fly (such as, in a video conference), or as a student-paced set of questions if the class is working asynchronously. There are numerous benefits of polling tools, ranging from supporting interactivity, checks for understanding, and gathering information about students’ opinions and prior experiences in order to guide instruction. 

Hashtags. Course environments that support hashtags (e.g., Pepper, social media tools) can allow the class to get a quick sense of the ideas that are “trending” in the conversation. Hashtags also become hyperlinks back to the original posts that contained them, potentially encouraging students to re-read posts (in relation to other posts containing the same hashtag) or review content they hadn’t noticed previously.

Likes. “Liking” can be a simple way for instructors and students to acknowledge class contributions. I like to think of Likes as a form of non-verbal feedback, similar to a smile or nodding of a head as someone is speaking.

Mentions. Many social media tools have mentioning functionality build into them. Simply, a “mention” is a way of citing something that someone has posted, simultaneously acknowledging the contribution and who contributed it. While Pepper doesn’t have a mentioning function, author hashtags can accomplish something similar (i.e., having a unique hashtag for each student in the class). An added benefit of using author hashtags in Pepper is that students can access a hashtag list, which shows how many times their work has been mentioned and links back to the notes where they have been cited. 

Notifications. Some online course environments, such as Pepper, have notification systems that can be set up to email students when someone has replied to, or Liked, their note. Pepper also notifies students of these messages when they login to the community. Notifications can be a nice way for students to notice when their work is being recognized, but it also has the potential to encourage students to re-visit the discussion.

Types of Assignments

The following is a quick reference list of the types of assignments that can be supported through online tools:

  • Written assignments can be uploaded as attachments, or directly into a note.
  • Group presentations can be completed using co-authoring tools such as Google Docs, Google Slides, and Microsoft’s One Drive applications.
  • Online quizzes can be created using a variety of tools likeForms, Socrative, Quizizz and Quizlet. In some cases, quizzing tools can be accessed directly in a learning management system and supported by content provided through major publishers (e.g., test question banks based on a course textbook).
  • Video presentations can be created using tools like Adobe Spark, Educreations, Zoom recordings, and screencasting software (e.g., Quicktime, Powerpoint). Recordings that can be exported (e.g., .mp4), can also be uploaded to UofTs media server called MyMedia, which can support various privacy settings such as needing to login with a UTORid in order to watch the video. Video presentations can be particularly handy for supporting performance-based assessments.
  • Simple web-authoring tools, such as Weebly, Wix, and Google Sites, can be a good way to create professional e-portfolios, websites, blogs, digital resources, and curated lists of online content.
  • Online discussion using tools like Pepper or Quercus, can be a good way to support things like reading seminars, research teams, and review of case studies, etc. 
  • Audio recordings, such as in Pepper notes or Flipgrid, can be a good way to support oral presentations, or podcasts.
  • Digital mindmaps, graphic organizers, posters, and concept maps can be done using tools like Inspiration, Venngage, Popplet, Padlet, and Canva.

There are many, many tools out there that can support different types of online assignments and assessments. But rather than starting with looking for specific applications, beginning with what you are trying to accomplish through your course objectives and assessments, can help set instructors on the right path to finding the tools that will best help them, and their students, to accomplish the learning goals.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

More Posts

Derek header image of phone apps

Micro-videos as an online assessment submission format

Videos are a great way to mimic classroom activities. You normally ask students to tell/show/demonstrate in your classroom, why not the same now that they are at home? A great thing about online digital submissions, is that they can be any format – pictures, sounds, video, let students be creative.

Read More »