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You have been teaching, but what have you been assessing? Can assessment also be about teaching? How do you know students have learned?

It is easy to forget that instead of being separate processes, teaching and assessment have a close relationship – they complement one another and comprise a holistic educational process. COVID-19 has prompted an increase in online interactions with our students. As a result, many educators have had to adjust their teaching and assessment strategies. In this article, we explore online activity-based assessment to support teaching and learning.

Assessment and Feedback

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of distance learning and emergency remote teaching during COVID-19 has been the aspect of assessment. In addition to putting your course materials online, you may have been anxious to confirm what students know, and demonstrate whether or not they have met curriculum outcomes. In other words your focus may have been on assessment of learning rather than assessment for learning. We have heard of cases, for example, where students have been allowed back onto campus to do exams, with little or no support for learning in preparation for those exams. It is certainly not fair, reliable, or valid assessment practice to expect students to come and write an exam when they have not had the opportunity and support to work through the activities and content leading up to that exam. Some institutions have managed to implement some form of online learning. Often, however, this has taken the form of asking students to read a textbook and submit an assignment. This is not necessarily very helpful for students struggling in this environment.  

If learning is reduced and less meaningful, what are you assessing?

Stop worrying about testing and start thinking about learning

In a post on Inside Higher Ed, in response to the pandemic, Jody Greene writes:

'By attempting to replicate in-person assessments in online settings, we fail to recognize that a change of medium may require a change of design. Especially if your instruction is interrupted close to the time of finals … don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that you can or should just “put the final exam online.” Sorting students and rigorously determining what deserves an A-minus as opposed to a B-plus may not be the most urgent business in the face of a global pandemic. … Think outside the parameters of your original assessments and ask the question, what can we do here that keeps learning happening? What if our first priority in an emergency is not completing testing but giving an opportunity for students to integrate and demonstrate their learning? ... Consult your campus disability resource center to make sure you maintain accessibility and equity.'

Challenge yourself to think about assessment differently. But how do you do that? There are two important considerations.

  • Learning is more important than assessing in this context.
  • Students need support and feedback

Support Learning

Give students something meaningful to do, preferably supported by communication with their peers and yourself as educator. Primarily the challenge is to find ways of introducing activities into the design of your materials. Rather than just reading text books, lecture notes, and PowerPoint presentations, ask students to critically engage with a reading, analyse case studies, create diagrams, tables or summaries, or conduct observations and interviews.

Students can also support each other. Encourage them to set up their own study groups, if necessary via WhatsApp or email. Build some kind of collaboration into the activities you set, creating and sharing the products of their studies, reflecting together and giving each other feedback.

Be there for students. Write your voice into the materials and engage in a written conversation with them. Ask questions and challenge students to respond in a variety of ways. Try to set times when students can contact you to ask questions and feel your presence, and clarify how they should do so. If you ask them to send you WhatsApp messages, make sure the messages come through, if you give them the option to email make sure you respond to the emails within the agreed turnaround time. It is frustrating for students to send messages or emails to which they never get responses.

Understand the value of formative assessment

Usually the focus is on summative assessment. This often takes the form of an assignment or a written exam after students have completed a section of work. Traditional summative assignments may be more challenging for online students, particularly. Online learning and assessment require more self-direction and self-motivation. Many students are still developing skills like time management. Most institutions have a Learning Management System (LMS), but, if your students only have intermittent access to the internet, they will not necessarily be able to do assessments online on your institution’s LMS.

Formative assessment is an activity, or set of activities, designed to support and enhance learning. It requires ongoing feedback to allow students to see their mistakes and fix them with guidance. This supports cognitive development. Once you have integrated activities into students’ learning, you have already begun to shift the focus to more formative kinds of assessment. An activity such as a quiz can be designed in a way that students engage with a base reading, do the quiz alone, and then compare their thinking with the feedback you provide. Provide written commentary on the activities against which students can check their own understanding. This can be followed up with a conversation between students about their responses. In this way, there is individual study, self-assessment, peer collaboration and formative assessment all built into one activity. This is learning and assessment.

As an exercise for yourself, consider each of the following statements. Are they true or false, in your view?

Note: Scroll down within the block below to complete all eight questions

 

 

All these strategies encourage communication, negotiation, and collaboration. Students use feedback they receive on their formative assessments to understand how well they have learned and where they need to focus to prepare for summative assessments. They are also motivated to continue engaging with the course.

Consider integrated summative assessment

In a context where students are not face to face with you or each other, and do not have a reliable connection to the internet, traditional summative assessments can be more challenging.

Summative assessment does not have to be an exam. The formative assessment activities that you have built into your design can form an important part of an integrated summative assessment strategy. Rather than a single exam, consider an assessment strategy that consists of four tasks that build up to a final product, for example, each building on the previous one, improving each time based on the feedback you have provided in between.

This site offers some ideas for thinking about alternative assessment strategies that might suit your context.

Use feedback to build communication and collaboration into assessment

Feedback is probably the most important aspect of assessment in any teaching and learning situation. Feedback can help a student to feel more ‘present’ in a course, and to feel the presence of others more strongly.

Provide feedback that is useful, timely and helps a student to reflect and assess themselves, and is useful for improvement. Encourage students to reflect on each others’ work by inviting comment or asking a question in a chat forum or WhatsApp group, or by sharing their work and requesting an evaluation against agreed criteria. The University of British Columbia in Canada has developed a series of workshops for online teaching. They talk about what makes feedback effective and describe ideas for communicating feedback online. For a useful article  giving ideas about the nature and extent of constructive feedback, go to the OER Africa website.

Additional Resources

For alternative assessment ideas in higher education:


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