Assessment and grading are different: the goal of assessment is to improve student learning, while the goal of grading is to evaluate it. Grades are typically more formal and more final than assessments.
Just like in a face-to-face class, online classes require frequent assessment to determine what students have understood. Instructors can use this information to adjust their approach. However, unlike in the face-to-face environment, some of your traditional cues for assessment disappear. For example, you can’t read a puzzled student’s face and ask if they need help.
Developing an assessment method for an online class generally requires some different strategies. You might begin with these questions:
What do you want students to learn?
This might sound obvious, but building assessment begins with articulating what you want students to learn. Whether students need to build a business plan, apply specialized knowledge to solve a problem, or become more rhetorically effective communicators, it can help to define the learning outcomes of your course. Are your current assessments giving you a sense of how students have made progress toward your learning goals? Do you leave room for them to try multiple times and learn from their mistakes?
What do you want your students to do? Why?
In a literal sense, what actions will students do to complete an assignment, and how do those actions move them closer to the overall learning goals of the class? Will they be solving problems? Answering closed or open-ended questions? Writing long-form essays? Taking a timed exam? How do these actions help to move them closer to accomplishing larger goals? Make sure that you aren’t accidentally assessing students on skills that you aren’t explicitly teaching and that are not part of your learning goals.
What is the purpose of your feedback? How will you use your time?
Sometimes it’s helpful to reflect on the purpose of giving feedback. Do you need to check that a student knows how to accurately apply a theory? Is it important for them to learn how to incorporate research into their writing? Is the priority for them to develop a piece that is polished enough to be published? Research suggests that giving students every conceivable piece of feedback can actually be counterproductive. Understanding what is important about your feedback to support student learning can help you strategize how to spend your energy and time.
What’s your method of assessment?
Tell the student how they are going to be assessed. You might give partial credit for approaching a correct answer—in a math class, for example—even if their answer is ultimately not quite complete or fully accurate. On writing assignments, consider creating new, individualized rubrics for each assignment (with categories for what’s important in that assignment) instead of a one-size-fits-all one (with categories more about what’s generally important in writing). For low-stakes assignments, or for participation, you might model for students what constitutes an effective response, or include an anonymized model submission which the student author has given you permission to share. Rather than grading each piece of writing individually, you might ask students to periodically write a reflection on what they have learned giving themselves a grade and then agree or disagree with it. Having a rubric that is well-suited to the purpose of your assessment actually can make grading clearer and more efficient.
How do students know what to do?
Tell students what work will be required of them to do the assignment well—and how their efforts will be recognized. In all cases across all disciplines, consider how your examples and assessments can also guide students through the process of doing the assignment. One way to do this is by having students assess anonymous, previous submissions themselves before they attempt a similar assignment. Discussing what makes a response effective can make your assessment guidelines clearer.
In the distance learning environment, students have fewer opportunities to confront their confusion and to ask spontaneous questions. You might consider setting aside some dedicated time in a synchronous session for students to think, partner up with someone in a Zoom breakout room, and then share questions that they have. You could put your rubric in a Google doc and ask students to collaboratively annotate it with questions. Or you could direct students to a Q&A message board on the LMS where they can get some clarification.
Finally, in the case of any assessment method, you should make an attempt to explain to your students why they received the grade they received on each assignment. “Holistic grades” that simplify feedback to single letters do not help our students understand the learning process or your own expectations for the course.
Try It Out
Try different discussion board prompts for different purposes
Incorporating discussion boards and other “low-stakes” check-in activities can allow you to check your students’ understanding before they attempt a more complex assignment. These presentation slides model different types of discussion board prompts that are designed for different purposes (i.e. creating community, checking comprehension, demonstrating more comprehensive analysis skills).
Try student-generated rubrics.
Consider allowing students to participate in the creation of rubrics or other assessment methods. Giving students agency in deciding what tasks and outcomes are essential to the assignment helps them ask meaningful questions to clarify expectations. Also, finding out what students prioritize about assignments and learning may tell you a few things: how the students are approaching the assignment, how they match it to learning objectives, and whether they understand it. Note to students that whatever they develop needs to be approved by you. You can share with them what your approach to assessment has been in the past.
Try “open-ended” assignments.
How could you offer students multiple routes for achieving the outcomes you seek? In a written assignment, could they choose the topic or sources used? In a math assignment, could they choose content from their own environments to consider mathematically? Could students generate their own questions in addition to providing their own answers—or could they learn from creating a good question instead of an answer?
Try “open-book” examinations.
“Open book” examinations may prove easier to grade, and could give students opportunities to think about how and why they learned something in addition to what they learned. If you do feel like you need to create a multiple-choice or short-answer timed, “closed-book” exam for your students, note that many platforms like Blackboard let you randomize your questions, or create a queue of questions that is greater than the examination number (and then students are given a randomly selected number of those questions). For more help with designing both open-cook and closed-book exams, check out our post on quizzes, tests, and alternative forms of assignments.
Consider how you might use writing as a way of encouraging learning.
Even if your course isn’t typically thought of as a “writing” course—could students write in it? Could writing help them express their thought processes and keep a record of learning? This may help you understand them better, and help them understand themselves.
Do keep in mind the earlier advice about not accidentally assessing learning goals that are not relevant to your class. For example, if the goal of the assignment is for students to express their understanding of a certain idea, it might not make sense to assess the grammar of the post. Consider how your feedback and expectations might shift if writing is a tool for externalizing learning rather than a tool for communicating with a specific public-facing audience.
Credits: Original post by Seth Graves; updated and remixed by Lindsey Albracht with additional feedback from Tamara Gubernat, Allison Lehr-Samuels, Hamad Sindhi, Pamela Thielman, and Katherine Tsan.
Adsanatham, Chanon. “Integrating Assessment and Instruction: Using Student-Generated Grading Criteria to Evaluate Multimodal Projects.” Computers and Composition, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2012). pp. 152-174.
Lehr-Samuels, Allison. “Discussion Board Brainstorming.” Baruch Center for Teaching and Learning, March 2020, Baruch College, New York City. Workshop.
Leki, Ilona. “The Preferences of ESL Students for Error-Correction in College-Level Writing Classes.” Foreign Language Annals, Vol. 24 (1991). pp. 203-218.
McBeth, Mark. “English 101.” Department of English, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City, Spring 2014.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, No. 2 (1982), pp. 148–56.
Tee Pei Ling, Kelly. “An Analysis of Written Feedback on ESL Students’ Writing.” Procedia — Social and Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 123 (2014). pp. 389-397