October 3rd, 2014

Alternative Assessment Methods for the Online Classroom


Tests and quizzes are often the primary means of assessing online learner performance; however, as Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt, online instructors and coauthors of numerous online learning books, including Lessons from the Virtual Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching (2013), point out, there are more effective and less problematic alternatives.

They cite three significant drawbacks of test and quizzes:

1. Test and quizzes typically assess low-level learning. “They address only some of the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, often sticking to the knowledge level. [Tests and quizzes] measure how much information students have memorized and then can spit back out on an exam. Most test questions are not designed to allow students to engage in really critical thinking or analysis or synthesis of materials,” Palloff says.

2. Tests and quizzes often are not aligned with the learning objectives or pedagogies of the course. “When you’re having students do more authentic activities or application activities, you’re working at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy—synthesis or evaluation—but then you’re measuring the lowest level—the knowledge level—by using a test or quiz,” Palloff and Pratt say.

This misalignment issue arose in an online course Palloff and Pratt taught together. The course was primarily discussion based. They had students do things such as discuss news articles that illustrated concepts in the course. “The discussion activities were really robust, very practical, very applied, and authentic. And then they were given a final exam out of the blue that we did not write, and all the students failed. It was a picky final exam with true-false and multiple-choice questions. Every student failed because that was not the way the course was taught. They were taught to think at much higher levels, and they went into this final exam that was all about rote memorization of stuff from the textbook. … It wasn’t a good way to measure how they were actually doing in the course,” Palloff and Pratt say.

3. Overuse of test and quizzes can promote cheating. Several studies have shown that when tests and quizzes are the primary means of assessment, students cheat more than they would if they engaged in a more authentic activity, Palloff says.

Authentic, learner-centered, collaborative assessment alternatives

Alternative assessment methods such as writing assignments, collaborative assignments, case studies, and debates can avoid the problems often associated with tests and quizzes. “There are many ways to approach assessment. It depends on the context of the course. When we teach faculty how to teach online, we try to give them a taste of a majority of those methods. I don’t know that we can cover all of them in one course, but there are multiple ways to get at the issues and make this a real-life situation for the students so they can actually learn from the process,” Pratt says.

Palloff and Pratt recommend selecting assessment methods that are learner-centered and authentic.

Learner-centered assessment methods address whether the learner has met the learning outcomes of the course as well as how the learner got there. “A learner-centered assessment is an assessment that links what the student is learning in the course to the assessment process,” Palloff says.

Authentic assessment methods can reduce cheating. One way to make assignments more authentic and less susceptible to cheating is to have students embed their own experiences in their assignments. “For example, if they are writing about human development, you can have them write about their own development. They’re writing about themselves, and that is very difficult to buy through a paper mill or to plagiarize,” Palloff says.

Mobile technology is one way to incorporate authentic assessment into a course. For example, one of Pratt’s doctoral students uses mobile phones in a 12th-grade calculus course he teaches. Students record themselves working on problems. “This allows them to move around. They can get creative. It challenges them to do a multitude of things on different levels and they’re learning calculus in the process,” Pratt says.

Palloff also uses mobile technology for authentic assignments. As part of a final project in a community health care course, she has students prepare a brief proposal to their communities about the development of a particular health service. Students then go out and interview community members and record the interviews using cell phones. “There are lots of ways to use the technologies that are available to us to enhance those kinds of products. Students can then post those online so that other students can see them and give them feedback in addition to the instructor’s evaluation,” Palloff says.

When students do collaborative assignments, they should be assessed collaboratively, Palloff and Pratt say. Collaborative assessment is a combination of students assessing themselves and one another and the instructor taking that input and doing the final assessment. In addition to providing a basis for a grade, these collaborative assessments provide useful insights on what worked and what didn’t work on an assignment, which Palloff and Pratt debrief with students so that they can reflect on what they might do differently the next time.

Appropriate uses of tests and quizzes

When used sparingly and properly designed, tests and quizzes can be useful assessment methods, Palloff and Pratt say.

Rather than relying on anti-cheating technologies or proctors, they recommend using open-book tests and quizzes “because students are going to have their text material available, and if they are working online they can look things up on Google,” Palloff says. “There are all kinds of ways that they can gather information, and, the truth is, in the real world if the student comes up against a problem or an issue that they don’t have the answer to, they’re going to look it up or ask someone. So if you construct your tests and quizzes that way you’re actually teaching students some skills that they’re going to use when they get out of school.”

The questions in an open-book test or quiz need to be complex and require students to know the material and know where to look if they are uncertain about something. When open-book tests or quizzes are well designed, students who don’t do the work will not be able to do well on them even with an open book.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 13.7 (2013): 1,8. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.