10 Assessment Design Tips for Increasing Online Student Retention, Satisfaction and Learning, part 2

In the part one of this article, we started our exploration of assessment ideas for your online courses. We explored the value of designing ample opportunities for formative feedback. We examined the value of authentic assessments and the dangers of using assessment as a punishment. We also reflected upon alternatives or enhancements to the traditional letter grade system, as well as designing with the realization that most learners approach our courses as a buffet rather than a pre-served meal, and the implications for our assessment plans.

In this second article, we will explore five additional suggestions for enhancing the assessment plan for your online courses. Remember that there is no expectation for you to use or even agree with all of the suggestions. Rather, consider them as ideas to help jump-start your thinking about designing or re-imagining the assessment plan in your online courses.

6. Revisit Your Assessment Vocabulary – Instead of terms like quizzes, tests, and assignments; consider adding some fun and interest to the course by using a different vocabulary. It might be something that is more authentic to out-of-school life. It might be some action words or metaphor-driven concepts that draw interest and curiosity (challenges, missions, mind mirrors, action plans, etc.). You get the idea. You might want to choose a vocabulary that relates to the use of the course content in a real-world setting. If it is a marketing course, for example, use terms like contract, deadline, and pitch. Be creative and have some fun with it.

7. Don’t Let the System Design Your Course – Many online courses are in learning management systems that lead you toward first thinking about more traditional approaches to assessment. Don’t let the system drive your course assessment design. Instead, consider sketching your entire plan outside of the learning management system. Plan it in a word processor, your favorite mind mapping tool, or even sketch it out in your idea notebook. Whatever you do, do not design it in the system before you get a chance to create your ideal blueprint. This will be more challenging at first, but it will allow you to be more creative and to pursue your true vision for the course. You can always revise the design if you have to fit it in a certain learning management system. Or, you might be able to run parts of the course beyond the system so that you can bring your course vision to life. This approach will also give you a chance to create some wonderfully interesting, valuable, and outside-the-box approaches to assessment.

8. Reconsider the Teacher / Student Dichotomy – I continue to be grateful to Howard Rheingold for introducing me to the term “co-learner” as a way to refer to myself in a course. Again, we are in a new learning environment and this gives us a chance to play, experiment, and try out new roles. This will directly impact the way we think about and approach assessment in our courses, giving us a new and fresh perspectives on assessment as a tool for learning and not just a system to rate and grade people.

9. Strive for a Design That Promotes a Culture of Learning, not Earning – Are students studying and performing with the goal of earning a specific grade? This is a sure sign that your course has a culture of earning. On the other hand, do you see students choosing to go above and beyond the requirement of a given assignment simply because they are interested in the topic? That is a promising sign that a culture of learning exists.

How do you promote a culture of learning? Here is one way. As you design the course, aim for cultivating a community of purpose. This comes in part from how you write, talk about and represent the course. A community of purpose is a community of practice that is purpose-driven. It is driven by “why” questions. It recognizes that there is nothing more motivating than a deep, strong sense of purpose. Don’t be afraid to talk about that purpose of the course often and in varied ways. That will help learners think about the course as something more than a course, as a purpose-driven community. As a result, it doesn’t become about earning a certificate, grade, or other accolade. It becomes about pursuing that purpose. Make it your personal mission to help each learner discover, remember, and reflect upon why this course is meaningful and purposeful, and you will make huge strides toward a culture of learning.

10. Leave Room for Student-Initiated Feedback Loops and Assessment Plans – Invite, encourage, and create spaces for students to self-organize. This may include self-organized ways to get feedback on their progress like blogging and getting comments from others. Encourage learners to post their work, get peer feedback, refine it, and then submit it for a graded review from the instructor. These informal peer interactions also model the type of collaborative practice that we want to see them apply in life outside of school. After all, our end goal is that students will be able to self-assess their own progress as they continue to learn well beyond completion of a single course or degree. If that is the case, start encouraging them to take some ownership in the design and use of feedback right now.

Online learning is less than 30 years old. As a result, it still remains a new frontier in teaching and learning. Why not give yourself permission to experiment and be playful in your design. While much design attention goes toward choosing or creating content and lessons, the assessment part of the plan can be easily overlooked. Toward that end, I offer these ten suggestions to help jump-start your assessment design thinking.

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.