February 3rd, 2014

10 Assessment Design Tips for Increasing Online Student Retention, Satisfaction and Learning


How much time do we put into the design of the assessment plans in our online courses? Is most of that time focused upon summative graded assignments that factor into the course grade? Or, do they also include opportunity for practice and informal feedback?

I’ve taken, taught, or designed more than a hundred online courses over the years, and I can appreciate many online course designs and approaches. With that said, I confess that I have an increasingly difficult time with online courses that limit assessment plans to a few papers, projects, quizzes, and tests. In an age of educational innovation and online learning, perhaps it is time to further explore enhancements to traditional notions of grading. With that in mind, here is part one of an article on my ten suggestions for enhancing or improving the assessment design in your online courses. There is no expectation that you use or even agree with all of the suggestions. Rather, consider them ideas to help jump-start your thinking about designing or re-imagining the assessment plan in your online courses.

1. Focus on Formative Assessment – Formative feedback is the annual checkup at the doctor. Summative feedback is the autopsy. The former gives one feedback that can be used to improve the patient’s well-being or the learner’s progress toward meeting the course goals. The latter doesn’t do much for the person being assessed. With that in mind, why not put most of our energy into designing high-quality formative feedback plans in our online courses? This is the feedback that helps learners discover how they are progressing toward one or more goals. It need not be high-stakes, graded, or made to influence the overall grade in the course (which would make it part of the summative assessment plan). Formative feedback can include self-assessments, peer-assessments, informal instructor feedback, computer-generated feedback, or feedback from mentors and people outside of the course. It allows students to use the feedback to improve and refine their work, rather than simply accumulate points that count toward an overall grade or certificate.

2. Make the Assessments Authentic – Learners thrive on experiences that relate to real world needs and contexts. Powerful learning occurs when participants see themselves as taking the course to connect with others and to learn something of value. “Of value” usually means something that they can use in work, avocations, or some other part of life beyond school. With this in mind, design assessments where learners actually build, create, or design something that they can use in other aspects of their lives. If they can’t use it, make it authentic enough that they can easily transfer the tasks completed in the assessment to a similar task outside of the classroom. This usually means setting aside or minimizing the use of things like true and false or multiple choice quizzes and tests. Performance on such assessments does not transfer to post-course life nearly as well as authentic assessments.

3. Beware of Using a Grading System to Punish – If you are going to use a grading system, make it a measure of what students have or have not learned. This is lost if you start removing points for late work and penalizing for behaviors that you want to discourage. It may work to do these things, but it turns your grading system into something other than a measure of student learning. If you want a system to track or encourage certain behaviors, then build a second and separate system for that, maybe a special badging system that publicly recognizes certain contributions.

4. Consider Using an Alternative to the Traditional Letter Grade System – Those of us in a traditional school system often need to use letter grades (unless there is adequate support for alternatives). However, we might be able to use a second and parallel system as well. Why not consider a digital badging system with clear criteria, a series of rubrics related to specific concepts that are important, or even a mini standards-based report card that gives more granular and helpful feedback than a single letter grade for the class? Or, depending upon the size of the class, what about trying out a narrative assessment plan where instructors and peers provide rich feedback in paragraph form, using a checklist? In the case of peer feedback, remember that this requires guidance from the instructor. Students will likely need help learning to give good narrative feedback to one another.

5. Design for a Pick-and-Choose Mindset – Many students treat courses as more of a buffet than a pre-served meal. They do not complete every single thing that is suggested or required. They figure out what they need to do to accomplish their goals, whether it is the goal to learn certain things or the goal of earning a specific grade. What if we designed the course with more of the buffet mindset? People will pick and choose what they want to do and what they want to avoid. Of course, there will still be certain required elements, but leaving room for choice allows students to self-direct more of their learning, which can help enhance student motivation. This buffet approach can work for assessment as well. If your goal is to measure what students have learned, why not give them different options from which to choose? If they could demonstrate their learning in any number of ways, why not leave room for that?

Editor’s Note: Part two of this article explores five additional suggestions for enhancing the assessment plan for your online courses. Continue reading »

Dr. Bernard Bull is the Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of Education, and Director of the M.S. in Educational Design & Technology at Concordia University Wisconsin.