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Blog Post: No More Tests: Assessing Students in Asynchronous Online Courses

I stopped using traditional tests in all my classes about seven years ago. Having students take two or three large exams in a course, may do an OK job of getting summary assessment information. I believe that providing smaller and more frequent assessment opportunities does a better job of collecting formative assessment information.  Information collected early in the semester can provide with ways to remediate when student weaknesses are uncovered. Having students spend class time taking exams does not seem consistent with my teaching philosophy.

I believe strongly in the value of hands-on practice based learning in developing engineering professional skills [1]. I make use of flipped classroom techniques to allow time for more hands-on work during class meetings. I believe that using mastery learning practices (where students are allowed to submit revised work for regrading) helps to build a culture which emphasizes quality in professional practice. If I do not use paper tests to assess my in-person students, why would I want to use timed digital tests to assess my online students?

How do you assess as online students without relying on testing? The short answer is to use the same steps you would for assessing in-person classes. Start with your course objectives and make sure that you have set clear measurable course objectives in your syllabus. Decide what you want to evaluate and how you want to evaluate it. The trick is making sure the “how” matches the “what.” This means ensuring your instructional activities support your assessment techniques [2]. It is important to consider what you want students to get out of each assessment opportunity.

My classes emphasize project-based learning. The most common student activities are group projects of all sizes and durations. In engineering, reports (both written and oral) and prototypes are the most common work products. It makes sense to have students develop progress report memos, lab reports, posters, and reflection pieces describing their lessons learned following textbook readings and learning activities [3]. These are short, frequent, and low stakes graded work products. Students complete 3 or 4 every week in my classes.

Oral presentations of work products (both group and individual) are frequent in my in-person classes. Online students need to submit videos of their presentations. To ensure that they get meaning feedback on their presentations students are assigned to provide peer feedback on other students’ submissions. Sometimes this feedback takes the form of informal peer review comments and sometimes students are asked to grade oral or written work products as part of a more formal peer evaluation process [4].

One of the purposes of assessment is to provide students with feedback on their work. In my classes students are turning in 3 or 4 graded assignments every week. When these assignments are group work products, the grading workload is not too bad. When these are individual assignments the grading effort required can be daunting. Trying to ensure consistent grading of large group work products can be difficult if every group submits distinct types of projects. This is where Canvas rubrics can be invaluable. While is takes time to create rubrics, they can be reused for several different assignments and for multiple groups of students in different courses if they are general enough

Rubrics can save grading time by allowing you store and reuse feedback comments for common student errors. Rubrics allow assessors to provided consistent and meaning feedback on the assignment components. If students are allowed to view the rubric before submitting their work, they can better understand the expectations and the various components of the assignment [5]. The American Association of Colleges and Universities has examples of rubrics for assessment of student learning in several areas such as oral and written communications, critical thinking, and creative thinking [6].

Examining the scores on each subsection of the rubrics can provide instructors with more meaningful insights into student learning than a single numeric score or letter grade and can be the basis for continuous improvement assessment activities.  Students can also use rubrics to complete self-assessments of their own work.

In courses focused on project-based learning, assessing project work is a good alternative to using paper tests [7]. But you can not simply assign a project the first day of class and then provide students with feedback at the end of the semester if you want students to be successful. If students are working on a multi week project by themselves or groups, they need help breaking up the project into shorter phases that can be completed and submitted for feedback. This helps prevent students from trying to do everything at the last minute. This also allows for early course correction if a project team has made poor choices in the current phase.

For term long projects I usually break the submission into two to four week time periods calls sprints. Students are given templates for the work products required for each sprint. The term long projects in my classes are often proposed by a student or group of students for instructor approval. This ensures that every project will be unique. Before a work product is submitted for grading, it is presented (orally or by video) to other students for peer review feedback. Student presenters are expected to consider the peer feedback before creating the final work product. If it is a group work product, students are asked to rate each group member’s contributions to the turn in.

Gamified learning or the gamification of learning has been defined as the use of game design elements in non-game settings to increase motivation and attention on tasks [8]. Using active-learning in may lead to issues with group-participation and motivation if students do not feel the need to work outside of class. Adding gamification elements to active learning can help mitigate this problem, for both in-person and online student teams. James Gee [9] has identified learning principles that are present in good games. Not only do these learning principles provide the backbone for good game design but they can be used as guiding principles when designing a gamified learning environment.

Gamification can be used as a means of promoting rewards for completing tasks. Students can be rewarded for compliance to software process steps and for taking the initiative to improve their “soft skills”. On diverse teams it is important to recognize the contributions of each team member. Allowing students to negotiate the nature of their activities (artist, author, designer, programmer) and knowing the rewards up front often goes a long way to ensuring that all students are engaged for the entire semester. In this way, I am trying to resolve some of the discrepancies in personal effort often present in student project work.  In my project classes, I usually have students complete personal time cards and require the team to review and approve the set of time cards before submitting them me to use in grading the team project.