Assessments refer to the activities students complete to demonstrate their competency in relation to predefined learning objectives. Broadly speaking, there are two types of assessments (formative and summative), but regardless of the type of assessment you’re designing, it’s essential that they be in direct alignment with your learning objectives.

Summative Assessments

Summative assessments serve to evaluate student learning at a specific benchmark (for example, the end of a module, a course, or any other instructional unit in a course). These assessments are often high-stakes activities that have more impact on students’ grades, such as final exams, annotated bibliographies, or portfolio submissions. Use summative assessments to evaluate students’ achievement of your macro-objectives.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments monitor student learning. They include self-checks, rough drafts, concept maps, and any other low-stakes activity that allows students to practice the skills they’re working to master. Given the lack of physical presence in online courses, formative assessments are critical because they provide valuable insight into skill or knowledge deficiencies. Use formative assessments to gauge students’ progress toward the completion of your micro-objectives.


Regardless of whether you use a formative or summative assessment, it’s critical that all your assessments align with your learning objectives. Because objectives define what students should be able to do, your assessments should serve as ways to measure those specific skills. Furthermore, ensuring this alignment provides you with the data you need to make informed instructional decisions during the course (for example, adjusting your next module’s content to remediate poorly understood material). Alignment also provides students with a clearer understanding of how well they’re progressing through the course.

Below is an example that demonstrates a misalignment between a learning objective and an assessment.

Learning Objective Assessment
By the end of the course, students will be able to analyze a patent proposal. Students will complete a multiple-choice exam.

These two are misaligned because the faculty member wants students to be able to analyze something, but a multiple-choice exam is really just about selecting or identifying items. Any analysis involved will be minimal.

Here’s a better approach to the assessment:

Learning Objective Assessment
By the end of the course, students will be able to analyze a patent proposal. Students will analyze a patent proposal and fill out an official patent review form from the USPTO.

Not only does the assessment test students’ ability to analyze, but it is also an authentic assessment—in other words, something that students might do in the real world if they pursue a career in patent law.

Chunking and Feedback

Consider breaking up your larger assignments so students work on various components throughout the course. This not only assists students who struggle to manage their time, but also allows for more opportunities for you to provide feedback. For example, if you have a research paper as your summative assessment in Week 8, you might have your students write an outline in Week 5, a rough draft in Week 6, and the final draft in Week 8.

Regardless of whether or not you chunk assignments, feedback is essential. The more opportunities you have to provide students with feedback, the better they’ll perform. This is especially true for online courses, where research suggests that students can’t as easily assess themselves against their peers. To maximize the efficacy of your written feedback to students, try to make sure that it is:

  1. Descriptive: Directly refer to what students did.
  2. Constructive: Tell students what they did well and what they need to improve.
  3. Action-oriented: Provide a clear picture of what students need to do to improve.
  4. Prioritized: Feedback is not overwhelming in its scope.
  5. Timely: Provide feedback soon after the performance of the task.

Designing an online course is a wonderful opportunity to be creative in assessing your students’ progress. As always, remember the course design triangle not only because you should keep your assessments aligned with your objectives, but also to remember your course’s context. Make sure that what you’re offering is feasible for you and your teaching team to grade!