Published: Oct. 2, 2020 By

Let’s face it: There is plenty of anxiety to go around on a college campus these days. The unusual situations that we are experiencing have ratcheted up the normal pressures of university life, contributing to heightened anxieties for students and faculty alike. Course assessments – exams, essays, research papers, performances, etc. – can be more stressful in a remote environment, as students may feel isolated or detached from peers and instructional support.

As instructors, we can help reduce that pressure by attending to a few elements when designing course assessments. Through careful alignment of assessments to learning outcomes and being creative in how they are implemented, faculty can better facilitate learning and support student success.

Align assessments to learning outcomes

At its core, assessment seeks to understand how well students are learning what we want them to learn. This starts with defining learning outcomes, first for the course and then for each of the assignments or activities used in the course. What do you want students to know or be able to do by the end of the course? If students take only one class in your subject, what would be two or three things you want them to remember 10 years from now?

Align course assessments to the level at which you intend students to learn. For an introductory course focused on recall of factual knowledge or terminology, use quizzes and exams. A course that tackles theories and controversies in the field might use case studies, critiques, and projects to assess students’ ability to analyze or apply. A capstone course that asks students to synthesize what they have learned in their curriculum will use assessments like research projects, senior design projects, or original performances.

Get creative online

Many have raised concerns about the potential for cheating on assessments in an online environment. This can be a serious issue for courses targeted at the level of factual knowledge where answers to exam questions can be easily shared through peers or found online. A group of us explored these issues and put together some information about online assessments and exams on the Center for Teaching & Learning website, and a collaborative group led by CU Computer Science Professor Ken Anderson produced the in-depth report, Remote Exam Best Practices.

For courses that go beyond the recall level or for instructors who want to use other forms of assessment, the online environment provides opportunities as well as challenges. Students can submit written work and engage in collaborative writing, using an online platform such as Google Docs. At my previous institution, dancers submitted video performances and communications students recorded their speeches for peer review--mostly using smart phones. In one English class, students created audio recordings of themselves reading poetry accompanied by a song they chose to represent the poem. Sharing your grading rubric at the start of an assignment can reduce student anxiety by communicating your expectations and using common language.

Use low-stakes formative assessment

Use frequent, low-stakes formative assessments that give you quick feedback about how students are doing, and help them identify gaps in their learning. Assessments that can be done online include iClicker quizzes, one-minute essays, and Zoom breakout group discussions with answers to questions on a Google Doc. I often use “the muddiest point” activity, for which students identify something in the reading or lesson that didn’t make sense.

To lower the burden of grading, strategies such as spot grading – grading low-stakes assignments randomly or checking for key pieces of the response – can save time, while simultaneously ensuring that students are grasping key concepts. Having students use that work in a peer activity holds them accountable to each other and furthers their understanding of concepts through the collaborative task.

Stay hopeful!

While this year is posing challenges for even the most experienced instructor, there are also opportunities. Try something new. Ask your students what is working for them in other courses. Be open to new strategies and be flexible when things don’t work well the first time. You just may discover a better way to connect with students or a new insight into your own practice.