Formative Assessments for Online Courses

Using effective assessment techniques can improve an instructor’s understanding of student needs and support learner-centered courses. According to Garrison (2011), the assessment strategies used to determine student learning send “a very strong signal as to what is important and how they should approach learning” (p. 14). 

For one, a grade is supposed to answer the question: “Did the student learn and achieve the learning targets or standards?” If this is the case, then the summative assessment primarily represents achievement. Formative assessment is practice. It is part of the journey.

Adding Formative Assessments to Your Course

Align Assessments

Assessment activities should be aligned to learning objectives, particularly if the activities are formally assessed and graded. Well-designed assessments should give an indication of the standards of students’ expected performance associated with each learning objective. (Allan, 1996) 

Balance Assessments

Formative assessments are ungraded or low-stakes activities that help students learn by doing and check their understanding of the content. Summative assessments are graded assignments that formally evaluate student learning at the end of a module or course. (Sewell et al., 2010)

Provide Immediate Feedback

The entire premise behind formative assessment in online learning is to give your learners the feedback they need to correct unfavorable learning behaviors, address misconceptions and strengthen desirable outcomes. To do this, your learners must get the feedback they need immediately after they make an error or carry out the negative behavior, so that they can link the constructive criticism to the eLearning event in question. If you notice that a learner is not fully grasping the concept or is unable to apply the knowledge they have learned, then you should pause, discuss, and offer them the required feedback and guidance as soon as possible.

Identify Measurable Strengths and Weaknesses

In order to get the most out of your formative assessment strategy, you will need to have quantifiable data that you can actually track. Skills may be difficult to put into numbers and percentages, but you can give your learners online assessments periodically that track their mastery of certain skill sets. Have them complete a specific online scenario at different points throughout the eLearning course and keep track of their progress, or give them a pop quiz that monitors how they are improving. Before you even begin the course, encourage them to identify their strengths and weaknesses so that you know their learning gaps. Then you can work with them to address their specific needs and pinpoints areas of improvement.

Remember to Keep it “Low Stakes”

The entire point of formative assessment in is that it is NOT about grades, but about progress. Your learners don’t need to show you that they’ve mastered a subject, but that they are improving as they move through the course. This is what is known as a “low stakes” assessment, as opposed to “high stakes” summative assessments that typically determine a learner’s proficiency at the end of the online course. A formative assessment in eLearning is designed to monitor a learner’s development and provide them with feedback they can use to achieve their goals. Keep this in mind when you’re creating your online formative assessments, and steer clear of elevated final grade percentage or high-point values that might discourage your learners. Instead, give them constructive criticism and praise that can empower them to become lifelong learners who are willing and ready to strive for success. Remember that formative assessment in online courses give your learners the opportunity to identify areas of improvement and broaden their comprehension while there’s still time to make a difference.


Examples of Formative Assessments

At an appropriate time during the week, ask students to answer a specific question pertaining to what they learned during the week. You can set an assignment to be completed after a reading as a separate document submission or as part of a discussion board. In many LMS, you may need to assign at least 1 point so the activity shows in the grade book. However, the focus is not on the grade; this is a way to gather information about the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

Think of this as a short, non-graded pop quiz. Pass out a prepared set of questions, or have students provide answers on their own paper to questions on a PowerPoint/Keynote slide. Focus on a few key concepts. Again, the idea is to assess whether students understand what is being taught.

Select one of the following items and near the end of week/module. Ask your students to write and upload:

  1. a question they have that didn’t get answered,
  2. a concept or problem that they didn’t understand,
  3. a bullet list of the major points covered in class, or
  4. a specific question to access their learning.

Students must hand in the paper to exit class. Consider allowing anonymous response so that students will answer honestly. If you do this regularly, you may want to put the exit ticket question on your final PowerPoint/Keynote
slide on each weekly presentation.

Learners are provided with a goal or objective at the beginning of the module lesson. Upon completion they are given an assessment to determine whether they achieved the goal and how far they’ve progressed. Additional “milestone” goals can also be set for the rest of the lesson or eLearning course.

The instructor meets virtually, through the reflective journal or asynchronously with a learner to discuss expectations and assess their current knowledge base and skill sets. Typically, the facilitator will ask each learner a  pre-determined set of questions to identify areas of improvement.

The instructor observes learners as they are completing online activities and assesses the proficiency and skill level of each individual. This usually involves using the course analytics tools, and possibly a follow-up online virtual meeting or Voicethread asynchronous session between the instructor and learner.

Learners are asked to create a personal online reflective journal or blog that details what they are learning, their thoughts and feelings about the topic, and the core ideas or concepts of the online lesson. The instructor can then use this log to track the learner’s progress.

Learners work together or independently to create an online presentation that must be presented to their peers. The learners are provided with criteria beforehand, which clarify expectations and specify which skills and information must be used throughout the eLearning project.

Learners are encouraged to reflect upon their own eLearning experience and determine their level of proficiency or knowledge mastery. They may also be evaluated by their peers, who give them feedback and insight into their work. This form of online assessment is usually paired with another eLearning activity, such as personal online learning logs.