Online assessment

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What do we mean when we say ‘online assessment’?

Any assessment, of which a significant part occurs online, can be termed as online assessment. However, assessments that are merely submitted and/or marked online would not qualify as online assessment. Like most forms of assessment, online assessment can be formative, summative, diagnostic or a combination thereof. There is a wide range of online assessment available including methods such as problem sets, blogs, portfolios and multiple choice questions.

What are assessment conditions?

It is useful to bear in mind that what is sometimes referred to as an assessment method is, in fact, only the condition in which the assessment takes place and thus only one of several choices to be made in assessment design. The term ‘online assessment’ mainly describes the conditions under which an assessment will take place – it does not describe the method by which the students will be assessed. Assessment conditions establish the parameters of assessment but within each of these assessment conditions a number of assessment methods may be used. Reflecting on the purpose, timing and assessment mix should help with decisions regarding assessment conditions.

Advantages of online assessment

  • Affords convenience and efficiency to students and teachers as assignments can be submitted and accessed anytime, anywhere.
  • Results, especially for objective tests can be instantaneous, and feedback can be automated and delivered on a conditional, generic/individual basis.
  • Online applications and virtual learning environments permit a high degree of customisation which allow for the design of sophisticated formative and summative assessment (eg. adaptive tests, tailored feedback, conditional progression).
  • Most online learning systems allow for student activity to be tracked in terms of student/cohort performance by question, submission attempts, Turnitin scores etc. In this way, the metrics available online enable teachers to use this data to tailor and target their teaching and feedback more effectively.
  • As students are expected to use their own computers, individuals may have access to technology that support specific learning disabilities.

Challenges of online assessment

  • The more sophisticated the assignment, the greater the degree of planning and organisation involved, which can be managed through digital competence and technology support.
  • Since students are working at a distance they may not have easy access to support when they encounter problems.
  • Technology-related issues such as platform and device agnosticism can mean that some teachers are wary of using online assessment.
  • The time, resources and costs associated with setting up the technology and providing training can be prohibitive.
  • Possible issues of academic misconduct, since students are working at a distance.

How students might experience online assessment

Online applications and virtual learning environments permit a high degree of customisation which can significantly enhance the learning experience. For instance, lecturers can create adaptive tests, where students receive questions based on how they answered previous questions. When used for formative assessment, the assessment can be set up in such a way that students receive instantaneous feedback – immediately after they submit their test. This feedback can be tailored to the grade they received, their answers to the questions or a link to the class notes, further reading, etc. Internet-based apps and virtual learning environments allow for a range of feedback to be incorporated. In addition to being constructively framed, the feedback should be timely irrespective of whether it is pre-loaded or written after marking the assessment. When it comes to online assessment, issuing clear assessment guidelines, marking criteria, offering mock assignments/exams, providing assessment samples and managing students’ expectations are key. Often, the method (eg. blog) and mode (eg. Moodle) of assessment are new to the student, so they need to inducted into /familiarised with the process in a clear, timely and supportive manner.

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity of online assessment

The more objective and closed-ended forms of assessment such as multiple-choice questions tend to be more reliable tools than open-ended assignments such as writing a blog or building a portfolio. Online assessment can be a thorny issue as access to technology is not uniform, though above average in the LSE student community. Ensuring that deadlines are well-spaced out will help students who prefer to use campus computing facilities to work on online assessments. Assessment questions can be shared with academic peers to check their clarity, and should be approved by the department and external examiners if required by departmental practice.

How to maintain and ensure rigour

It is good practice to pilot all aspects of the technology, including checking to see that it is accessible on a number of devices and formats, to ensure that students are not penalised for having specific devices. Marking and moderation (particularly for more open-ended online assessment) should follow departmental practice. Since online assessment data can be captured and stored, there is usually a helpful data trail for external examiners to review, and external examiners can often access information from their own devices at distance.

How to limit possible misconduct

Most online learning systems allow for student activity to be tracked in terms of when an assignment was submitted and the number of submission attempts. There is also fairly fine-grained data available such as how many posts were viewed/replied per student; the range of activity over a period, and a breakdown of performance by question. With group-based assessments such as wikis, it is possible to view it by version and contributor, giving the assessor a good idea of how the work had developed and the quality and quantity of input from the various team-members. Tools such as Turnitin are commonly used to check that submitted work is original. While these tools provide some measure of plagiarism detection and a check on referencing, examiners should still make their own checks and not become reliant on the software. The risks that apply to take-home assessments such as collusion, cheating and plagiarism also apply to online assignments. The solution is always to try as far as possible to design academic misconduct out of the assignment and this is no different for online assessment. Teachers can also contact Eden learning technology team for specific guidance if they are planning to use an online assessment.

Accessible assessment in online assessment

There are practical design issues to consider when using online assessments to assess students who are either physically impaired; have mental health difficulties; specific learning differences, or Autism Spectrum Condition. Wherever possible design issues should be addressed in the initial course design phase. The Accessible Assessment area of this toolkit provides further information about how this might be achieved. This is a guide and should be treated as such. In all cases the experiences of individual students can be diverse. You should always consult the student’s inclusion plan as well as speaking to the student directly. The discussion in this section is drawn on the work of the Inclusive Practice community at Sheffield Hallam University who we wish to acknowledge and thank.

Physically impaired students

The layout of all on-line material should be clear and consistent, with easily identifiable links. Navigation using keystrokes and the mouse should be straightforward. It would be beneficial to make all students aware of the short cut keys and for teachers to demonstrate any new material put into the course to make sure it can be accessed in this way. An induction session when students are using an online environment for the first time would also be beneficial. If students are using assistive software teachers must establish that the online environment is compatible with this software.

Students with specific learning differences (SpLD)

The layout of all online material should be clear and consistent, with easily identifiable links. Navigation using keystrokes and the mouse should be straightforward. It would be beneficial for teachers to make all students aware of the short cut keys and demonstrate any new material put into the course to make sure it can be accessed in this way. An induction session when students are using an online environment for the first time would also be beneficial. If students are using assistive software teachers must establish that the online environment is compatible with this software. Students with SpLD should not be penalised for their use of spelling and grammar. Teachers should be aware that posting ‘public’ contributions to their peers, who may not know they are dyslexic, could be very anxiety provoking for students with dyslexia. Such anxiety can be reduced by breaking down a large group into smaller discussion groups or making it clear to all students that spelling and grammar will not be a priority in this circumstance. If the online assessment includes MCQs or objective tests one of the key issues can be the wording of questions and in particular the question distracters. Teachers should ensure that they do not use any language based ‘tricks’ such as similar spelt or sounding words as distracters. This does not mean that questions should be easy, rather that all distracters should be plausible. The question should be testing knowledge as opposed to the student’s ability to decode the language. This is good pedagogic practice for all students but failure to do this particularly disadvantage students with SpLD.

Students with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC)

The term ‘Autism Spectrum Condition’ (ASC) is used to describe the range of the autism spectrum, including Asperger syndrome. The layout of all online material should be clear and consistent, with easily identifiable links. Navigation using keystrokes and the mouse should be straightforward. It would be beneficial for teachers to make all students aware of the short cut keys and demonstrate any new material put into the course to make sure it can be accessed in this way. An induction session when students are using an online environment for the first time would also be beneficial. In relation to online discussion, including commenting in other students’ blog contributions, teachers should be clear about the focus for discussion. A student with ASC may have difficulty sticking to the topic and may rather become overly interested by a single detail. If this occurs the teacher should provide a reminder of the topic to help the student come back on topic. This should also be taken into consideration when the teacher is marking online contributions. If the underlying skills needed for online discussion are an empathic understanding and ability to discern outcomes of actions, this may be problematic for a student with ASC. Some students may be able to undertake such an assessment with the appropriate support; providing that what they are to record in their contributions is made explicit and their contributions can be undertaken in a structured way. How online contributions are being marked should be discussed and presented in writing from the outset, so the student is clear what the criteria are against which contributions will be marked.

Students with mental health difficulties

The layout of all online material should be clear and consistent, with easily identifiable links. Navigation using keystrokes and the mouse should be straightforward. It would be beneficial for teachers to make all students aware of the short cut keys and demonstrate any new material put into the course to make sure it can be accessed in this way. An induction session when students are using an online environment for the first time would also be beneficial. Some students with mental health difficulties may have difficulty expressing points in online peer discussion; therefore, students should have the opportunity to discuss with their teachers any problems they experience through separate and secure online channels or face-to-face.

 

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