Why Assessment Still Matters in an Online Education Environment


As many institutions of higher learning (IHEs) quickly transitioned to emergency remote learning in the spring of 2020, the focus was often on completing the semester with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). While faculty devoted more resources to helping students make the transition, many students still struggled as they grappled with illness in their families, lack of space to study, and unreliable internet access.

For the Spring semester, some institutions discontinued assignments, deadlines, exams, and grading — academic basics traditionally used to determine successful student outcomes. Some colleges and universities that eschewed letter grading allowed students to choose between a traditional letter grade or an alternate system with “satisfactory,” “credit,” and “no credit,” according to the Washington Post.

As many IHEs shift to at least starting the Fall semester online, they must determine how to assess students. Programs are assessing their online transitions and course quality through a variety of means including student and faculty satisfaction and student performance data, in addition to the usual tasks of measuring learning outcomes against goals and assessing student mastery of subjects, all while maintaining academic integrity. No matter whether the online program is steady state or in flux, newly implemented, or long established, all education and measurement of critical objectives depends on incorporation of two fundamental types of assessments:

Formative assessments are a crucial component of learning designed to monitor student learning while it’s occurring, help keep students engaged during lectures, and provide instructors with real-time feedback. They offer valuable opportunities to assess student progress, provide targeted remediation, reveal students’ level of subject mastery, and adjust the curriculum and approaches as needed by scaffolding new concepts to those that are known. These assessments offer critical feedback to both students and professors about how they are each meeting their respective learning and teaching objectives as well as inform summative assessment creation and timing. These assessments often have low point values or little impact on grading.

Examples of formative assessment include quizzes, discussion board posts, and audience response, or simply asking students to raise their hands and answer questions.

Summative assessments are high-stakes, which means they have a high impact on grading and other overall measures of student performance. These include midterm and final exams, final projects, and papers. Information generated from these assessments is used to guide and measure student learning. These assessments can also validate the degree to which course content supports learning goals and objectives. With the use of ExamSoft, instructors can tie specific learning, program, and accreditation outcomes/objectives to exam items and see how well each individual student, as well as the class as a whole, is performing.

Accountability for Faculty

While it may be challenging to assess faculty efficacy during times of such drastic and unplanned change, by the end of the Fall 2020 semester, instructors will be accountable for student performance against objectives. In part because of the investments already made in an online transition, many universities are starting to see online learning as more than just a stopgap solution.

Pressure from Students and Employers

During the abrupt Spring semester transition, taking the easier path of reducing or eliminating assessments and grading may seem to have outweighed the disadvantages. However, top performing students in many institutions prefer to receive graded exams and assessments. If our best students have no way of distinguishing themselves in the academic environment and to future employers on their transcripts, IHEs that do not move quickly back into assessments may lose them. That could quickly change the competitive landscape among institutions.

Accreditation and Assessment

Prospective students depend on accreditation of institutions, schools, and degree programs to make comparisons, before choosing where to invest their resources. Assessments of student learning and faculty performance are a vital part of the accreditation process. In order to maintain accreditation, institutions must continually uphold the standards that qualified them in the first place, so the accrediting bodies will demand a return to the rigor of assessments. While we do not yet know how the pandemic and its resulting changes to education will affect accreditation reviews, the best course of action is to be ready. Be prepared with assessment data that shows students are still learning and meeting course objectives.

Assessment matters in online higher education, perhaps now more than ever before. The futures of students and faculty, and the reputations of institutions are all at stake.

Learn more about ExamSoft’s data and reporting.


Miami Dade College: Transitioning to Remote Teaching & Support: Assessing Learning Remotely

TimesHigherEducation: THE Leaders Survey: Will Covid-19 Leave Universities in Intensive Care?

iSpring: 9 Ways to Assess Student Learning Online

Carnegie Mellon University: What Is the Difference Between Formative and Summative Assessment

Washington Post: Colleges Are Ditching Letter Grades This Spring, but not all Students Are on Board with ‘Ungrading’

Inside Higher Ed: Evaluating Teaching During the Pandemic

Inside Higher Ed: What’s Next for Remote Learning?

Published: August 5, 2020

Updated: July 17, 2023

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