Industry Insights
2020-09-28T21:08:52+00:00June 06, 2018|

How to Put Meaning Into Learning Assessment for Online Courses

One of the statements most often repeated to faculty moving into online instruction is that they cannot expect to deliver their online content and lectures in the same manner that they do in their classrooms. Online instruction calls for a complete rethinking of delivery and a redesign of formal approach. Thankfully, modern learning management systems (LMS) – Canvas, Blackboard, BrightSpace, Moodle – help instructors traverse the gap and deliver learning to their students in impactful, interesting ways. Faculty have all the tools at their disposal, and with a little curiosity and ingenuity they can use those tools to make the content feel engaging.

What’s less apparent is how to create assessments that equal the level of ingenuity available in course resources. So far, approaches to online assessments have largely lagged behind those that have been applied to the content. While some enterprising faculty have created projects for their students that tie the assessment to real-world scenarios or allowed their students to leverage their own work experience, the reality is that assessment remains a primary challenge for institutions looking to move programs online.

While providing better summative assessment is certainly part of the solution, formative assessments – those assessments used to inform teaching practices and learning behaviors – have been completely ignored.

What’s even more apparent is that most of the progress made so far has been toward the development of stronger and more robust summative assessments. Both scenarios provided above refer to an advancement in that vein, and while providing better summative assessment is certainly part of the solution, formative assessments – those assessments used to inform teaching practices and learning behaviors – have been completely ignored.

Meaningful formative assessment

When it comes to formative assessment, the impetus for instructors should not necessarily lie in the volume of checks, but in finding ways to include meaningful and insightful evaluation.

The value of formative assessment, as Crisp & Ward (2008) rightly conclude, is to “foster student engagement, [improve] achievement, and enhance motivation to learn,” as we were reminded by Vonderwell & Boboc in 2013. In online education, the opportunities to create attractive content continue to proliferate, so why has formative assessment suffered in the transition from classroom to computer?

Part of the issue can be traced to poor instructional design. When formative assessment is reduced to intermittent quizzing, the work can often seem tedious for both the student and the instructor. When formative assessment comes in the form of ungraded or low-stakes assignments, students often ignore it on the premise that they have little time or motivation to complete tasks unrelated to their final grades.

Rather than thinking of formative assessments as something with the potential to slow the course down, instructors should think of them as a way to make sure the momentum continues building. Assessments, after all, should be fine-tuned in order to enhance the learning content. When checking in on students, it is important to think of it as a way to strengthen the feedback loop and to keep them oriented toward the ultimate goal.

It is with this in mind that research now suggests using alternative assessment strategies to tie formative assessment into the overarching goals of the course by connecting it to the summative assessment.

Unified assessment planning

A growing amount of research now suggests tethering formative and summative assessments. Why? When summative assessment espouses skills relative to the workforce, formative assessments are able to lean on that credibility and prove their own worth. Through this, students are shown a clear connection between the formative assessment and its value to them in the long term.

When designing assessments (in this case, summative) instructors and designers should think about how students will undertake the process of completing them. How will they get from concept to final draft? By highlighting the process, course creators are more likely to notice natural divisions in the work that make it easy to insert a round, or multiple rounds, of formative assessment and feedback. With some planning, formative assessments can be sprinkled in among the summative assessments, supporting the objectives of the major assessments, and by proxy, the course as a whole.

Making sure that students reap the benefits of well-planned assessments is incumbent on both the designer and faculty member (perhaps they are one in the same). Thankfully, there are strategies for doing so.

Making sure that students reap the benefits of well-planned assessments is incumbent on both the designer and faculty member (perhaps they are one in the same). Thankfully, there are strategies for doing so. Peer review is often – rightly – promoted as one such way because it gives students a chance to: 1) see models their peers are producing, 2) provide critique for one another, and 3) share valuable strategies for completing the assignment.

To neglect collaboration among students is to neglect a valuable mode of formative assessment. So too is neglecting regular feedback from the instructor. Each formative assessment is a chance to straighten the arrow, so to speak, and keep students on the pathway to success. While a quick poll in a live session will give the instructor some worthwhile data regarding student attitude, engaging in targeted and substantive feedback lends itself well to learning about student performance. At the same time, one of the big miscues made in formative assessment is collecting quantitative data rather than qualitative data.

Using qualitative data

When instructors get a clear picture of their students’ achievement, it is much easier to create a plan for growth. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to generate the formative assessments that do so. In the absence of a summative assessment that drives the creation of formative assessments, Vonderwell & Boboc (2013) recommend the following assessments, all of which can be leveraged using the LMS:

  • Online journaling: Frequent entries help instructors see growth over time. A downfall might be that students may fail to see the value in the journal, but if instructors make it a point to give feedback, students stand to benefit greatly.
  • Reflection papers: Reflections can “serve as an assessment and a learning component” for online students. Knowing how students choose to navigate through an assessment or through their learning can be valuable knowledge moving forward with future design and implementation. A side benefit is that reflections can act as informal assessments on the quality of instruction and course design.
  • The “Minute Paper”: Vonderwell & Boboc assert that: “The (One) Minute Paper in an online classroom can provide an essential way for the instructor to check student progress and understanding.” The emphasis on speed and brevity can help students focus on simple, direct questions such as “What stood out from the online content?” or “What part of the assignment was most difficult?”
  • Role play: Role play in online discussions is an excellent way to give students a sense of direction and purpose in course sections which can sometimes be nebulous. When students can focus on their jobs, and when they know the roles of the other students, it presents an excellent opportunity for them to engage in peer-led formative checks.
  • Hook questions: Hook questions ask that students create prompts following a reading. Whether to use them following a scholarly article or after online content is up to the instructor. Asking students to post and respond to them in the discussion forum is a fantastic way to see how they were able to comprehend the content.
  • Things to keep in mind: Vonderwell and Bobec suggest that: “These brief student messages are supposed to provide the instructor with a summary of a common prerequisite reading that relies on one or more topics that the students connect the most with.” They recommend using synchronous sessions to follow up with such topics and perhaps using them alongside hook questions.
  • Questions wall: It’s not hard to see how this can be beneficial in an online class – specifically in a discussion forum. Allowing students to post questions opens up the feedback process to their peers and shortens the turnaround time for the students who ask the questions. Pinning a discussion in the forum, or allowing students to create their own discussions, are both good options.

For a longer list of digital tools and strategies for formative assessment outside the LMS click here.

Putting more energy into formative assessment, whether it is tied to a summative assessment or not, goes a long way toward improving course quality. Students expect more from their online experience than to answer multiple-choice assessments, and it’s high time that such a need was met.



Dyer, Kathy (2018). The Ultimate List – 65 Digital Tools and Apps to Support Formative Assessment Practices [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Kim, K. J., & Bonk, C. J. (2006). The future of online teaching and learning in higher education. Educause quarterly29(4), 22-30.

Mao, J., & Peck, K. (2013). Assessment Strategies, Self-Regulated Learning Skills, and Perceptions of Assessment in Online Learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education14(2), 75-95.

Reeves, Thomas C. (2000). Alternative Assessment Approaches for Online Learning Environments in Higher Education. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 23(1), 101-111.

Vonderwell, S., & Boboc, M. (2013). Promoting Formative Assessment in Online Teaching and Learning. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning57(4), 22-27. doi:10.1007/s11528-013-0673-x