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Helpful Strategies and Tips: Assessments and Assignments

Submitted by on August 24, 2012 – 10:05 pmNo Comment

This post is part of the series Helpful Strategies and Tips: Designing an Online Course, which provides guidance through common challenges instructors face during online course development.

Course design aligned with competencies and outcomes are essential in an online classroom (Palloff and Pratt, 2009). As you design the content of the course, think about assessment methods that you want to incorporate so you don’t end up with activities that you’re unsure how to evaluate. The methods you choose will depend on the components you implement in your online course. Using a variety of assignments and assessments that are aligned with course outcomes leads to a higher level of student performance and satisfaction (Palloff and Pratt, 2009).

Characteristics of Effective Classroom Assessments

  • Learner-centered
  • Teacher-directed
  • Mutually beneficial
  • Formative
  • Context-specific
  • Ongoing and rooted firmly in good practice

When developing the assessments you plan on using in your course, try to keep the following principles in mind:

  • Design learner-centered assessments that include self-reflection. In the online environment, empowerment takes the form of student responsibility for learning activities, such as discussions, participating in collaborative activities, and self-reflection activities.
  • Design and include grading rubrics for the assessment of contributions to the discussion as well as for assignments, projects, and collaboration itself. Rubrics help to define the characteristics of the assignment, helps student understand the assignment and assessment expectations, and provides students with a concrete way of evaluating their own performance as well as the performance of team collaborative work.
  • Include collaborative assessments through public posting of papers along with comments from student to student. By collaborating on a common goal, students are forced to engage in meaningful dialogue and at a deeper level than they would if working independently.
  • Encourage students to develop skills in providing feedback by providing guidelines for good feedback that support them in developing this skill and by modeling what is expected.
  • Use assessment techniques that fit the context and align with learning objectives. Move beyond tests and quizzes by employing a variety of assessment techniques, like projects, papers, and artifacts to effectively assess student performance.
  • Design assessments that are clear, easy to understand, and likely to work in the online environment. Do not rely on the standards of face-to-face instruction in an online classroom. If giving an exam, expect that students will most likely use the textbook and notes. Build that expectation into the development and execution of the exam.
  • Ask for and incorporate student input into how assessment should be conducted. This will create a cycle of learning that supports growth as learners.

Citation: Palloff, R.M. & Pratt, K. (2009). Assessing the Online Learner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Regarding Quality Matters and Assessments

  • QM 3.1: The types of assessments selected measure the stated learning objectives and are consistent with course activities and resources.
  • QM 3.5: Students have multiple opportunities to measure their own learning progress.

Best Practices When Administering Online Assessments

Sstudents might have difficulty submitting an assessment for several reasons, like server issues, an internet connection failure, double clicking inside an assessment, hitting the delete key, using the browser’s back or forward buttons.

The following recommendations help minimize problems or issues that students might encounter with online assessments:

  1. Provide a practice test with similar characteristics. Give students a chance to check their computer and browser configurations and Internet connection by providing a practice test similar to the real test they will be taking.
  2. Provide ample notice to your students. Inform students how long they will have to complete the test, and include clear instructions for each test you administer.
  3. Make the assessment available for a longer period of time. In large classes, make the assessment available for a longer period of time to minimize server overload (i.e., students overwhelming the LMS because they are taking the test in a narrow window).
  4. Make any modifications to test questions, such as question wording, point values, and feedback, before the test is deployed in a content area. Actual test questions cannot be changed once the assessment has been deployed.
  5. Pay attention to system warnings, such as a warning given when you attempt to modify a test after it has been opened. Your LMS may warn instructors when attempting to make changes to questions, correct answers, and points after an assessment has been deployed. If you proceed with such changes, it will permanently delete all student data associated with those students that have already taken the assessment.
  6. Avoid creating lengthy assessments. Break down assessments into a series of smaller exams. Use the adaptive release option to allow students to take the next short exam in a series of assessments, sequentially, as they complete each assessment. Keep in mind that large assessments require more server resources when submitting, which can lead to failure in the application when several students attempt to submit their assessment at the same time.


Rubrics are a vital component of assessments: they ensure students clearly understand what you expect in an activity or assessment. And just like learning objectives, developing rubrics is a skill that takes practice.

As an instructor, you may be used to simply “knowing” what looks like a good paper, what’s an A paper versus a B paper. Students do not have that intuition. Rubrics take the questions and ambiguity out of grading. Developing and using rubrics will help train students to be critical and self-reflective with the work they submit. In turn, this helps you in your grading as the quality of student work increases, based on their application of your clear rubric. Both students and instructors benefit from rubrics, as instructions are clear for students, and grading is made easier for instructors. Your expectations of a high-quality submission are inherently obvious to the student;  however, choosing to follow those instructions is up to them. In grading their work, the grade the student receives is supported and documented by the application of the rubric scoring.

Additionally, rubrics allow students to self-reflect. When students reflect on their own assignments, using the rubrics you provide, they can compare their own performance against your expectations for that assignment. This process is very helpful in growing a student’s level of self-reflection and awareness of quality work.

Rubrics can also help your course meet QM 3.3: Specific and descriptive criteria are provided for the evaluation of students’ work and participation, for example grading rubrics.

Sample of an assignment rubric:

This rubric to assess student participation for an online discussion forum (from University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Center, Creating and Using Rubrics for Student Assignments).

Assignment Rubric Sample

Citation: University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Center. (2010). Creating and Using Rubrics for Student Assignments. Retrieved May 7, 2012 from web site

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