by George París Conway
Assessing Online Learning -- A Brief Overview
There are several ways to look at assessment in online learning. One way is pre-assessment, also called readiness assessment. There are a variety of available instruments that can help make this task an easy one. Another type of assessment is course/program assessment. Thankfully, this, too, can be done with a variety of available survey instruments (or they can be custom designed in-house). Last, and certainly not least, is assessing student learning, which can be the most complicated, yet is perhaps the most important.
I have been involved in over two dozen online classes, and I have found that student frustration with Distance Learning (DL) can be attributed to two main problems: not enough feedback, and not knowing how they will be assessed. This article will focus on the latter: student assessment in DL.
How should we design and manage student assessment in the online learning environment? Should we stick to the traditional methods of testing that have been "tried and true, not to mention accepted? Should we design and/or implement completely new and innovative approaches? Are there alternative approaches (such as a combination of methods) that can be implemented? These questions only begin to scratch the surface when a discussion of online student assessment arises.
Assessment and evaluation of learning must leave no room for ambiguity. Even before you create your syllabus, you need to give serious consideration to what type of assessment system you want to use for your class, whether it is a traditional or online class, or a combination of both (hybrid class). So, how do we assess learning?
Multiple Choice -- The Best Choice?
Although I feel strongly that there are better ways to assess online learning than testing, there are still those who cannot get away from this method. Most of us who are teachers are aware that the multiple-choice test is the standard assessment to gauge learning. There are several reasons for this: 1) It is the only method that is more or less objective when needed to be gauged against educational standards that need to be met; 2) They are easy to administer and grade; 3) They are cheaper to grade than other types of assessment instruments; 4) They are the accepted standard testing instrument.
Personally, I have always felt that multiple choice tests encourage guessing. Many students feel they have a good chance of making correct guesses throughout most of the test, so they have a tendency to approach multiple choice questions lightly. How many of us have heard the expression: "multiple guess" exam? The problem with guessing is that it does not assure students of a passing grade, and, even more to the point, it does not help you to learn anything about the topic in question.
If we expect our students to be able to do well on these tests, then facts must be taught, memorized and then tested because the answers sought must be well known, explicit and precise. These tests preclude students from learning debatable points or being able to answer open questions or even muse on alternative answers. "In a multiple-choice test, there is a right answer. This is rarely true in real life, however. In real life, there are nearly right answers, answers that were missing a step, and most important, situations in which there is no right answer at all. Should the US have invaded Iraq? There is no "right" answer to this question, but there are many interesting answers" (ILS, 1994). Students may master the basic skills schools strive to teach, as measured by multiple choice tests. But if the terms of a test change slightly, or students are asked to apply their knowledge to real-world problems, they fail.
What Are The Alternatives?
To assess the process of thinking and to bring about increased understanding, instructors need to realize that objective testing alone is insufficient. Correct answers on a multiple-choice test do not mean that students understand. Quizzes and tests can be used when checking for understanding of basic facts, but they cannot spotlight the deep and enduring understanding that is needed today. Understanding involves using knowledge and skills by means of exploring important ideas, rethinking and maybe redefining them, and, finally, verifying if they have been understood. This process is central to making sense of anything we do not understand and to demonstrate that we understand it.
Online assessment needs to be more focused on learning outcomes than on the ability to pass tests. With online learning, it is much easier to dispose of old methods and use collaborative learning techniques to challenge our students and enhance the true acquisition of knowledge. This is what has come to be known as "Authentic" or "Alternative" assessment. Simonson (2000) gives his view of the term and states,
Alternate assessment, as its name implies is a method of gauging student progress in ways unlike those just described. In academic circles, this term has taken on an even more specific meaning, in which assessments are considered alternative and not simply because they are dissimilar to traditional ideals, but because they represent a constructivist or cognitive processing learning philosophy. Three approaches---authentic assessment, performance-based assessment, and constructivist assessment---have come to the forefront of this movement, with areas overlapping in each category. (p. 213)
So, How Do We Do It?
A tenet of the Constructivist theory is the inclusion of a variety of perspectives. We need to allow our students to open their minds to other perspectives. By encouraging active learning, we allow our students to explore areas that are important to them, instead of just what we think is important. This helps them feel that they are in control of what they learn, and ultimately their grade, and, thus, they are more eager to participate in the process.
While this makes for much more work for the online instructor (because of the need to monitor each discussion thread, and each project), it assures that the student is achieving an optimal learning experience. Much of the coursework is student driven as opposed to teacher driven, so it also means more work for the students, who will work harder in the class. But the reward is that they will be able to develop greater understanding and to construct new knowledge, provided they are given the proper support and tools.
Assessment in the online learning environment can be accomplished by the use of discussions, performance-based assessments, and other non-traditional tools and methodologies. Performance tasks/projects and discussions that encourage active learning should be the mainstay of any online course because they provide evidence that students are able to use their knowledge in context. Since another tenet of Constructivism is the belief in collaborative learning, these methods can be assigned individually, corporately, or to teams within the group. These assessments can be collected throughout a course in order to give a more complete picture of what the student has actually learned.
Questions that can be asked to assess online interaction can include: Are the students provided a platform for active interchange of information, both personal and academic? Are students provided with opportunities for social interaction both in-class and outside of class? Are a variety of communication formats being used, such as discussion board, email, and chat? Do these opportunities require students to work in pairs and/or in groups? Are guest speakers/experts asked to participate in these discussions? These are a few of the questions that can help ascertain how online interaction is contributing to the learning process.
Let's take a brief look at performance assessments and discussions (for each of these topics can be a paper unto themselves).
Performance assessments are tasks designed so that students demonstrate that they have a mature understanding of course content--specifically, of the major course concepts. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways that include: visual, oral and/or written products or performances that have been designed with specific goals that students must achieve based on standards of success for the project. Examples of these are: Portfolios comprised of a variety of performance-based projects, presentations, web pages, essays, papers, models, etc. These can be assessed with checklists and rubrics that have been provided to the students in advance, so that the not only know how they will be assessed, they will also know what will be assessed.
Discussion threads can be used for both formal and informal assessment. While there will always be differing viewpoints on quantity versus quality as a way of formal assessment, this is still an excellent measurement of cooperative, active learning. While quality may seem a more subjective method of assessing discussions, it affords both the student and facilitator an excellent method of measuring understanding. This can be accomplished with open-ended exercises, questions that force inquiry, extended response exercises, or other prompts that compel students to delve deeper into a topic.
A Web-based classroom not only distributes information to students; it also performs tasks related to communication, student assessment, and class management. If the faculty and administration want to be assured that the presentation of the course guarantees that the outcomes will emulate the classroom version (for this is where comparisons are generally made), then they need to identify their objectives and conceptualize what they want to teach and define why the students should learn it.
Traditional methods will always allow low achievers the opportunity to skim by more successfully than when they are exposed to Constructivist methods. Constructivism demands that students think critically and are highly involved. Learning is now not just about being able to answer test questions, but it is about finding answers and applying these answers to what has been learned based on the course objectives. By providing this type of environment, students can then use this lifetime accumulation of knowledge to demonstrate their understanding and enhance whatever educational or professional endeavors that they undertake.
The disadvantages to using alternative assessment include: the time and energy required to provide timely, meaningful and consistence assessments, and the fact that teachers have little training in the field of alternative assessments. But, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
When learners have discovered an idea for themselves, it becomes much more a part of them than if they had been forced to simply memorize information. Let's assist them with this process by employing assessment methods that encourage this lifelong learning process.
In our next series of articles, Leslie Bowman and I will discuss this area in more detail. At that time, we will also be providing examples of discussion and group process and product rubrics. (Note: If you haven't already, please read Leslie Bowman's article earlier this month: "Interaction in Online Learning")
Institute for Learning Sciences (ILS). (1994). Multiple Choice Tests. Retrieved July 10, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ils.nwu.edu/~e_for_e/
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., Zvacek, S., (2000). Teaching and Learning at a Distance. Prentice Hall, New Jersey.