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Designing or adapting assessments for an online learning environment involves several considerations, some distinct to online teaching, some broadly relevant:

  • What are your most important goals for students to know or be able to do by the end of the course?
  • What types of assessments or assignments will help students to meet these goals: papers, projects, presentations, tests or quizzes, something else?
  • What tools are available to assess students and provide feedback online?
  • How can you maintain academic integrity and sufficient rigor in an online environment?
  • How can you keep students on track while they work on their own time?
Below are suggestions to guide you in thinking about assessments in online courses. To further help answer these questions, consider available online assessment tools and strategies for promoting academic integrity in online assessments.

Effective Practices for Assessing Students in Online Learning Environments

The online learning environment may give students the opportunity to learn on a flexible schedule, to collaborate with classmates, and to consult a variety of resources connected to their learning goals and interests. These same advantages can make it challenging (but not impossible) to adapt more traditional assessment methods, like high-stakes, closed-book exams, for the online environment.

When designing or adapting your assessment plans for online classes, it can be helpful to:

Start with the course’s goals. Starting with the thinking or work you want students to be able to do can be helpful for making your assessments work well online. From there, consider what students will submit (such as a paper or exam).

Think about future situations where students may be expected to apply their knowledge or skills. Will students need to present their work to others, work collaboratively as part of a team, or produce certain outputs? Are there ways that your assignments could mimic what they might be asked to do beyond your class?

Identify opportunities for students to collaborate, feel connected to one another, and learn from each other. This could include developing collaborative study guides, providing peer feedback, or participating in graded online discussions, group work, or group projects.

Consider using more frequent quizzes and assignments rather than just a few high stakes exams or projects. Many online courses include a small stakes assignment at the end of each week that allows instructors to more easily assess students’ progress and provide feedback along the way. Breaking down bigger projects or papers into small assignments or steps can also help students manage their time and achieve complicated goals. As another advantage, it can disincentivize dishonesty and give students the ability to learn from mistakes when each assessment has less weight toward the final grade.

Be clear with students about what you expect for each assessment or assignment, what resources they can and cannot consult, whether collaboration is allowed, and how their work will be assessed. You can also consider including rubrics, grading criteria, checklists, and/or examples to help students better understand what they should be aiming toward. This can also help set students up for success and prevent last-minute emails seeking clarifications.

Design quizzes or exams to require students to demonstrate their thinking, not simply that they can produce an answer. This can also promote academic integrity. You might:

  • Use open-book formats, so you do not need to worry about students accessing course materials during a test. This may mean changing the questions you ask.
  • Use open-ended questions or question types that assess thinking rather than information retention. Avoid questions that could be searched for online. For example, ask students to apply what they have learned to a scenario; to analyze specific texts, objects or data; to explain the relationship between multiple ideas or phenomena.
  • Ask students to annotate their thinking on a question. For instance, you might have students describe how they would approach a problem, detail why they took the steps they did, or explain why one multiple-choice answer is the best option (or why a given solution is wrong). You can grade the annotations or simply use them as a check against dishonesty.
  • Require students to show their work. Learn more about how students can show their work on exams using Canvas.
  • Allow students to work collaboratively, either on a two-stage exam with partial credit for fixing mistakes or on a take-home assignment or project. This can encourage students to explain their thinking to others and eliminate collaboration as cheating.

Structure online quizzes or exams with discouraging dishonesty in mind. Canvas features can help. You might:

  • Use Canvas’ quiz settings to limit how long students have to complete the assessment and/or limit the time frame students have to take the assessment. You can also use Canvas’ quiz settings to shuffle or randomize the order questions will appear for each student and/or the order of the answer choices. Learn more about Canvas’ quiz settings for Classic Quizzes and New Quizzes.
  • Use question banks to create a variety of different questions that measure similar content and ways of thinking. Canvas can then automatically select a set number of questions from the bank so that students see different questions.
  • Don't post grades or show the correct answers through Canvas until all students have taken the assessment and grades are assigned.
  • Provide practice exams to help familiarize students with the settings and question types you will use.
  • Remind students of the Code of Academic Integrity prior to any online exam and clarify your expectations. Learn more about Academic Integrity in Online Courses.

Prepare ahead for how you will handle technical issues. Who should students contact and what will your policies be in the event that students encounter technical issues?

CETLI is available to consult with you about ways you might adapt your assessments to meet the opportunities and challenges of online learning.