Effective Online Assessment


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Low-stakes formative assessments distributed across the semester is routinely recommended as an important way to support student learning and success.  This post provides examples of formative assessment as well as important tips on how to ensure formative assessment does not translate into unmanageable workload especially in this pandemic context. 

Low-stakes formative assessment

Low-stakes (or no-stakes) formative assessment aims to evaluate or provide feedback to students without having a large impact on the final grade in the course.

It is not uncommon for students to receive meaningful feedback for thfirst time in a course after a high stakes midterm exam. Unfortunately, this can provide little opportunity to address misconceptions and recover by the end of the course. Formative assessment enables students to receive meaningful and timely feedback early on. In this way, students can be supported to be more actively engaged in the learning, more aware of their performance, and better able to seek help early on.  It gives students the chance to make mistakes and recover – thereby deepening learning. 

Some examples of formative assessment can include: 

  • Peer feedback using rubrics
  • Quick-response activities and polls (iClicker, etc.)
  • Group discussions
  • Weekly self-assessments (1 – 5 questions)
  • In-class problem solving
  • 1-minute reflections
  • Student-generated test questions
  • Journaling
  • Taking a larger project and breaking into component parts


Balance with time & workload  

While formative assessments can deepen learning, it is important to be cautious not to create excessive workload. A common mistake many instructor report making when teaching online (especially for the first time) is inadvertently inflating workload. Especially in the pandemic context, it is critical to keep workload manageable for both students and instructors. 

Try these tips to keep assessments balanced: 

  • Make sure assessments are really low-stakes. Ensure the time it requires students is balanced with the value (weight) it contributes to the final grade.
  • Make sure students know what is expected. Provide students with guidance on how much time they should dedicate to these assessments and be clear about their purpose and contribution to final grades 
  • Keep it simple and streamlined. Streamlined means focusing teaching (and assessments) on core learning outcomes.  You might think of an excellent formative assessment idea, but if it doesn’t assess a core learning outcome and provide a meaningful opportunity for student engagement, skip it!  
  • Balance formative assessment opportunities over the semesterYou might include one short formative assessment weekly (e.g., a short poll during a live course) or bigger formative assessments biweekly (e.g., a ten-question quiz). Whichever blend you choose, make sure to build in ‘time off’ for students (such as reading week).  Keep in mind students often have full course load with multiple other students. 
  • Use alternative exam/assessment formats (e.g., flexible start times, presentations, discussions). Providing alternatives ways for students to demonstrate their learning creates a learner-centred environment and reduces exam fatigue.  


Three Phases of Assessment

According to Taylor (2008)evaluation “must be both formative and summative in order to give value to the students and be valued by them” and according to Taylor’s (2008) Assessment Modelthere should be three overlapping assessment phases (particularly for first year students) in a semester including assessments for transition, development and achievement.  

Assessments for transition

Provides opportunities to engage the students in study and to kick start their activity in the course. It is characterised by low contribution to final grades and relatively low to zero marking times.” For first year undergraduate students, these types of assessments help set the tone for the course and engage them in the material. Examples include pre-tests, research plans, surveys and contracts.

Assessments for development

Assessments for development is the heart of the course’s assessment scheme and can feed forward into assessment for achievement. These assessments allow for significant feedback and low to middle contributions to the final grade. Marking times would be relatively high.” These types of assessments help students develop their abilities and skills needed for the final phase, ‘Assessments for achievement’. Examples include lab reports, discussion board contributions, essay drafts and reading reflections.

Assessments for achievement

Assessments for achievement includes final assessments such as essays, portfolios and examinations. Feedback and thence marking times may be relatively lower than the ‘Assessment for development’, but contribution to final grade would be relatively higher.” These types of assessments provide less opportunity for feedback that can actually be used in a student’s development within the course since they occur towards the end of the semester. 

About this post

This post was last updated:

September 25, 2020

We acknowledge and respect the Lək̓ʷəŋən (Songhees and Esquimalt) Peoples on whose territory the university stands, and the Lək̓ʷəŋən and W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples whose historical relationships with the land continue to this day.

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