Assessments in a Virtual Environment: You Won’t Need that Lockdown Browser!

Online exam displayed on tablets, books, digital timer and hourglass timer

Traditional methods of assessment in higher education, such as quizzes, tests, and examinations, still dominate in many courses, both virtually and face-to-face. However, faculty can move away from the testing culture where students are focused on letter grades and move towards a culture of deeper learning where students “learn to learn” (Spendlove & Best, 2018). This shift from these traditional means of assessment (quizzes, tests, exams) to authentic and alternative assessments is critical in virtual settings. If faculty try to assess their students the same way they did in a face-to-face setting, they will most likely find themselves frustrated, as well as frustrating their students (Eaton, 2020). When students are frustrated, stressed, and unsure of what they will be assessed on, this can increase the chance of academic dishonesty (DeWitt, 2020). We suggest the following recommendations to improve the use of assessments in virtual environments and decrease concerns regarding cheating:

  1. Allow choice in assessments: Let students decide how they will demonstrate their learning, what technology they will use, and even when they will submit (within guidelines):
  • Trailer video (iMovie)
  • Role play/vignette/story (Powtoon, Doodly)
  • Infographic (Canva)
  • Interactive presentation (VoiceThread)
  • Tic-tac-toe boards
  • Project-based learning and service learning

For project-based learning and service learning, choose the focus of their project or service. Allow them to choose what technology they will use to demonstrate their learning and integrate flexible due dates.

2. Authentic and stackable assessments: Students should be told why they are assigned a particular assessment, and why it is relevant to their learning. Authentic assessments are activities that mimic ‘real world’ scenarios that a student would experience in their profession. These assessments should also align with course learning outcomes, and if they can align with your students’ passions and interests, this makes them even more effective. Stackable assessments are projects that can be broken down into smaller assignments that lead up to the final assessment. Students can begin working on their final assessment the first week of your course, and the smaller assignments that are due in-between serve as formative assessments and ways to check for learning.

  1. Trust students: Provide alternative assessments (not quizzes and tests) where the concern of cheating is off the table. High impact strategies engage students and lead to deeper learning than more traditional assessments, such as:
  • Service learning
  • Project-based learning
  • Collaborative projects
  • Research projects

In life, we use resources to help us answer questions, solve problems, and learn. Allowing students to use resources teaches them important lifelong skills of learning. There will be no need to use lockdown browsers because students can demonstrate their learning in a variety of meaningful ways.

  1. Frequent feedback and communication: Provide feedback that helps learners improve their learning. Make sure students are aware of the objectives and goals of the assessment and how this assessment will help them learn course content and contribute to career and life learning. Provide learners with opportunities to give each other feedback and collaborate on assessments. Some examples of tools to use to get feedback, as well as to provide feedback, are:
  • Exit tickets to collect student feedback/peer feedback (Google forms)
  • Posting comments on a digital wall (Padlet/Jamboard)
  • Discussion boards (via LMS and/or VoiceThread)
  • Chat in Zoom/Teams/etc.
  • Online whiteboard ( – great for math classes)
  • Annotations – peer or instructor can provide feedback (Zoom, Kami)

We have found through our work with faculty over many years, as well as being faculty members, that faculty need time to discuss their ideas with each other and to share ideas related to how they are using assessments in virtual environments. Teaching virtually can be isolating, so providing an online space for faculty and opportunities for collaboration can help. Collaboration between faculty and instructional support can help to ensure that faculty are provided with tools that lead to deeper and more engaged learning. The pandemic most certainly has created opportunities where doing what we have always done may no longer work. This situation creates an opportunity for us, especially in higher education, to rethink our practices, try something new, and embrace deeper and more engaging ways of assessing our students without using lockdown browsers or worrying about our students cheating. 

In what ways have you modified your assessments to fit better into a virtual environment? How can students benefit from completing authentic, alternative assessments?

Laura McLaughlin is an associate professor of education and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. Laura has over 20 years of experience working with adult learners providing training, professional development and coaching in corporate and educational settings. She is coauthor of Nurturing Young Innovators: Cultivating Creativity in the Home, School and Community and Teaching the 4 Cs with Technology: How Do I Teach 21st Century Skills with 21st Century Tools. 

Joanne Ricevuto is the assistant vice president for instructional success and is responsible for the faculty programming at her institution, which includes providing and presenting a multitude of professional workshops to the faculty on various current topics in higher education.  She has been in higher education for 20+ years and a professor of early childhood education.


DeWitt, P. (2020). What to do about cheating on assessments in virtual learning.

Eaton, S. E. (2020). Academic Integrity During COVID-19: Reflections from the University of Calgary. International Studies in Educational Administration (Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration & Management (CCEAM)), 48(1), 80–85.

Spendlove, Z., & Best, R. (2018). Innovation in assessment: Building student confidence in preparation for unfamiliar assessment methods. British Journal of Midwifery, 26(3), 180–184.