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Rethinking Assessment Online

 Assessment Considerations

We cannot deny that for many students and faculty, the transition to remote instruction is challenging. Connectivity issues, a lack of appropriate equipment, unfamiliar technical tools, illness, child-care, or other added responsibilities at home, mean that the potential for disruption to student learning is high.

While we all work very hard to maintain continuity of teaching and learning, we know coverage of material does not guarantee learning has occurred. Students learn in different ways. The new educational environment (i.e., remote instruction) has presented some students with additional access to learning, while for others it has created barriers that were unforeseeable and uncontrollable. Any potential for disruption to teaching, learning, and/or assessment is an equity issue that needs our full attention.

As we plan intentionally for remote or hybrid approaches this Fall, we must consider that any potential for disruption to teaching, learning, and/or assessment is an equity issue that needs our full attention. We have before us an opportunity to rethink why and how we assess student learning.

Assessment plays a key role in the teaching and learning process. The relevant information about student progress (“for” learning) or performance (“of” learning) is to gather related to course learning outcomes (CLOs). But in addition to this purpose, assessment can be repurposed to enhance student learning (“as” learning).

The Primary Types of Assessment to Consider are:

            Formative assessments help us monitor students’ progress toward meeting the CLO. These are often referred to as assessments “for” ( to inform) learning because the data gathered drives future instructional and curricular decisions in the course. Formative assessments also enable students to learn about, and improve, their own progress.

            Summative assessments help us understand how well our students met our desired learning outcomes. These are often referred to as assessments “of” learning and can help us determine how effectively we designed our units, where students struggled/succeeded, and what revision we might need to make in future iterations of the course.

Given our transition to remote instruction, consider whether the following alternatives may be appropriate to your course.

Formative Assessments/Regular Checks for Understanding

Rather than using assessments (e.g., quizzes) as accountability measures to ensure students are reading (reward/punishment), design them to guide student learning and subsequent instruction. The purpose shifts from assessment “of” student learning to assessment “for” student learning. In other words, we want to amplify and facilitate mastery of key understandings rather than merely control student behaviors.


  • Design formative, weekly quizzes as low stakes checks for understanding among students. Rather than using these as accountability measures to ensure students are reading (reward/punishment), design them to guide student learning and subsequent instruction. These could be a mixture of lower-level terminology items and higher-level analysis, synthesis, and/or application questions.
  • Allow students to complete these assessment activities open book or even collaboratively with a peer (both names go on the exam).


Assessment “as” learning is an alternative way to think about how you design your assessment tools. Similar to assessments “for” learning, the purpose it to enhance and facilitate mastery of the learning outcomes. Are you crafting opportunities where students can deepen and refine their understandings as they also demonstrate their learning to you? When might assessment be more effective as low-stakes, collaborative learning experiences? These types of assessment scenarios encourage higher levels of critical thinking and thus allow you to determine (or facilitate) the depth of student understanding.


  • Giving students multiple choice exam questions that ask them to synthesize information;
  • Asking students to analyze “real world” case studies;
  • Requiring students to extrapolate from data and apply it to a situation they have not yet encountered in the class; or
  • Posing a short answer question where students have to supply an argument in defense of a thesis.

Summative Assessments/ Periodic Evaluations of Student Learning

For those of you who utilize papers, essays, presentations, or projects as a mid-term or final assessment of student learning, transporting these via email or Canvas will not be difficult. However, for those more traditional exams (i.e., multiple choice) that are usually done in-class and/or proctored, you may consider modifying the assessment(s). 

Additionally, given the potential for disruption to student learning this semester, the purpose of the final assessment may need to shift from measuring the depth of student understanding (i.e., assessment of learning) to amplifying the essential understandings (assessment as learning) in your course. Of course, you will want to create high-level analysis, synthesis, application, and/or evaluation exercises. Your purpose in modifying the assessment process is to utilize the assessment to facilitate understanding, critical thinking, problem-solving, and professional behaviors/skills consistent with the discipline.


  • Mid-term and final exams as open book or collaborative events, 
  • Employ academic prompts, 
  • Design performance tasks and projects that are open-ended, complex, and authentic.


Options to Consider for Alternative Final Exams:

  • Making the final exam an open book or collaborative learning experience whereby students work together to deepen their understandings and master learning essential and enduring understandings.
  • Designing performance tasks and projects that are open-ended (untimed), complex, and authentic.
  • Adding an exam wrapper that asks students to reflect on their key learnings from the course/semester.
    • For example: “In preparation for this reflection, please review the course learning outcomes. Describe what Key Learnings and/or Big ideas you have gained from this course that may or may not have been reflected in your overall performance on the final exam or other assessments this semester. Please keep your reflection to 1-2 pages.”


Additional Resources


For your convenience, you can download a PDF of this article here.



Content developed by Cathy A. Pohan, Ph.D.