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Options for Assessing Student Learning When Teaching Online

Posted by on Thursday, March 26, 2020 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director

One of the important roles we play as instructors is assessing our students’ learning. Sometimes this assessment is formative, intended to provide us information about what and how our students are learning so we can be more responsive in what and how we teach them. Think of the problem sets or response papers we have students turn in during a semester. Other times our assessments are summative, intended to provide an evaluation of student learning after they have completed a unit or a course. That’s where final exams and papers and projects come in.

With Vanderbilt moving the entirety of its classes online this semester, faculty and other instructors are quite naturally thinking about options for both kinds of assessment in our new remote teaching and learning environments. Last week, Vanderbilt announced that all undergraduate classes this spring are eligible for pass/fail status, with the deadline for students to request a pass/fail course extended to April 10th. With that in mind, I wanted to share two new CFT resources that provide guidance and options for instructors as decide how to develop their online assessments this spring.

  • Cynthia Brame, CFT associate director, has written a new teaching guide titled “Giving Exams Online: Strategies and Tools.” For those who need to give an exam online, the new guide provides several options for structuring exams and leveraging tools (including Brightspace and Top Hat) for tests that reduce the probability of cheating. There aren’t ways to prevent all cheating, but we can reduce it.1
  • However, with the shift to alternative instruction, it’s a good time to rethink the role of tests and exams in one’s teaching. In some cases, other forms of assessment will be more practical and do just as good a job revealing what students have learned. Stacey Johnson, CFT assistant director for educational technology, walks through a number of assessment options in her latest Brightspace blog post on developing online assessments of student learning. She walks through strategies for moving online writing assignments, quizzes, student presentations, peer assessment, and more.

Here’s something I mention in teaching workshops all the time: The more our assessments are aligned with our learning objectives for students, the more meaningful and useful those assessments will be. As you consider how to move your assessments online this spring, take some time to think through what you really want students to know and to do, then consider ways you can have students demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Finally, don’t forget the various challenges that students are facing during the current pandemic. They may not have reliable computer or internet access, they may have siblings or children to care for at home, they may be in time zones far removed. Offering students some flexibility in how they demonstrate their demonstrate their learning, or when they do so, can help students stay engaged and motivated during these strange times.


1. For more on designing learning environments that help remove the motivation for academic dishonesty, see James Lang’s excellent 2013 book, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, from Harvard University Press.

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