Typically when students and instructors hear the word assessment, they think of a long, arduous exam (or a long, repetitive night of grading!). However, an assessment can be any task or activity that evaluates students’ progress toward your course’s learning outcomes. Traditional examples include papers, projects, reflective journals, group work, quizzes, and much more. Online learning has broadened the possibilities of assessment even further because it gives you, the instructor, a wide variety of tools that you can use to help students interact with material in new and exciting ways. Here are some strategies for thinking more creatively about assessments in your course, including examples from actual online courses.

Capitalize on digital resources

Students in your online course will be sitting in front of one of the most powerful tools for knowledge collection and creation: a computer. Think about how you can design assessments that use the digital environment while also meeting your learning objectives. For example, you might ask students to find, evaluate, and synthesize information from Web-based resources to answer questions or solve problems. Or you might have them use multimedia tools (e.g., video, podcasts, digital storytelling, concept mapping tools) to present their work.

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  • In an exercise science course, the instructor asks students to critically evaluate free online nutrition and fitness tools and explain which they’d recommend and why based on what they’ve learned in class.  
  • In an architectural history course, the instructor shows students a photograph of a 13th-century Portuguese church and asks: “Why did churches built around this time need to look like fortresses?” It’s then up to the students to find out when and where the church was built, research the political role of churches at that time, find answers, and report back.

Aim for authenticity

Many online students ask the question, “How will this material help me in the workforce?” Authentic assessments are a way for you to answer that question. To design authentic assessments, think about what professionals in your field do regularly and then ask yourself how students can take the knowledge and skills from your course and apply them to those tasks. Could they design a database for real or fictional clients? Create interpretive labels for an art exhibit? Write a grant proposal? Compose a letter to a policy maker? Also consider whether you could provide students with authentic feedback from a nonacademic audience. For example, you could have students present their work publicly or to a panel of expert reviewers through a live synchronous session.

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  • In an organizational behavior course, student groups work with local companies to research organizational problems and make recommendations for solutions.
  • In a software development course, students get their assignments in the form of a memo from a fictional manager. They must ask any questions about project requirements in a concise, professional e-mail.
  • Students in an environmental engineering class receive a real case study of a major fish kill downriver from a chemical plant and must determine whether the plant was responsible. They must do all the research to determine an answer.

Use students’ environments and experiences

One of the chief benefits of online courses is the opportunity to bring together students from diverse backgrounds so they can learn from one another. Depending on your teaching situation, you may have students from very different parts of your own country or from other countries. Think about how you might design assessments that capitalize on their diverse environments and experiences to enrich their own and one another’s learning.

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  • In an online civil engineering course with students in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States, students create a video showing local social and infrastructural issues that would impact engineering solutions.
  • In an online anthropology course, the instructor asks students in a number of remote locations to map their own neighborhoods, using audio, video, and images to highlight and explain places of cultural significance.
  • Early in an online architecture course geared toward working professionals, students take their classmates on a virtual tour of their studios and workspaces.

Incorporate collaboration

In online courses, it’s especially important to build a sense of community and connection. One way to do this is by assigning group tasks and projects. Well-designed group projects help students connect to one another, learn course content more deeply through discussion and debate, and build important skills for working in teams (an increasingly valuable skill in the global workplace).
Group projects have their own complexity, however, so be sure to structure them in specific roles for group members or having students evaluate one another’s performance can help ensure that everyone contributes fairly.

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  • In a nursing course, students have an unfolding case study in which they gradually receive new information about a patient. They work in groups to collect relevant information from a range of digital and nondigital sources to devise and justify a treatment plan.
  • In an online German course, students work collaboratively in Twitter to compose a short story in German.

Use both formative and summative assessments

When we think about assessments, we often think of summative assessments: high-stakes, graded evaluations such as assignments and exams. But equally important are formative assessments: low-stakes or ungraded evaluations, administered frequently to gauge student understanding. Formative assessments help you better understand students’ instructive needs and help students know what areas they need to focus on. Think about how you can incorporate regular formative assessments into your online course.

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  • During live sessions in an engineering course, the instructor uses polls and quizzes to assess student understanding in real time, to diagnose areas of confusion, and to provide targeted explanations and clarifications.
  • In a course on adult development and aging, the instructor asks students to write about what they do and don’t look forward to about getting older and to describe the type of person they’d want to be when they are 65. Their answers give the instructor insights into students’ perception of aging while also motivating students’ curiosity about the subject.

Online learning harnesses the power of technology to help students interact with course material in new and creative ways. When designing assessments, you can incorporate audio, video, social media, collaborative wikis, creative research techniques, and more to help students build valuable skills they can use in the workplace and beyond. In addition, you can take advantage of convenient and far-reaching tools of communication to help students connect with one another and even their own communities. Assessment no longer needs to be dry exams that students dread; rather, it can be an opportunity for exciting, focused forays into real-life teamwork, problem solving, and knowledge building.