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Rethinking Assessment at a Distance

Posted by:
March 18, 2020

By Dana Shreaves, Instructional Designer

Considering how to assess students at a distance may seem daunting. Many faculty have always relied on specific assessment practices and believe in-person assessment is the best way to assess student learning. However, the principles underlying good assessment practices are relevant to both online and face-to-face activities. Assessment at a distance may require instructors to revisit their learning outcomes and find new ways to collect evidence of learning.

Online Assessments

Many assessments can be designed for completion or submission online, including:

Flexibility and creativity are key in planning assessments at a distance. In some instances, it may be better to set aside those tried-and-true methods in order to imagine new ways to assess student learning outcomes. A balance between rigorous and realistic expectations must be established, especially when distance learning is planned on short notice.

Academic Integrity

Research studies on academic integrity usually indicate that cheating online is no more prevalent than cheating in traditional courses. Nevertheless, it is important for instructors to emphasize policies and expectations for academic integrity. Such information should be posted in your syllabus as well as in the instructions for particular assignments.

Instructional trends are moving away from the memorization of content toward encouraging students to use resources appropriately. When applicable, clarify if, how, and when students are allowed to use outside resources during an assessment. For fully online PLUTO courses, we do not recommend using proctored testing as the logistics and cost of this practice can be prohibitive. Webconferencing software is not intended for monitoring students during an assessment; at best it provides a false sense of security.

One way to discourage cheating is to design assessments that are unique and authentic, requiring higher order thinking skills like synthesis, analysis, or the creation of original content. For written work, Turnitin’s Originality Check (via Sakai Assignments) is a popular tool to discourage plagiarism and cheating. An option for multiple choice assessments is to use “question pools” where assessment questions are drawn randomly from a large pool of options. You can also randomize answer choices to further discourage dishonest behavior.

One surprisingly effective strategy to promote academic integrity is simply to discuss your expectations with students. Can students work together to complete individual assignments? Can they consult outside resources? Review the resources below to explore other strategies to promote academic integrity.

Student Feedback

Students learning at a distance should receive frequent, timely feedback on learning outcomes. Some Sakai tools, like Tests & Quizzes or Lessons Questions, can automatically display instructor-specified feedback when students submit their answers. Personalized feedback can be provided using the Assignments, Tests & Quizzes, or Gradebook tools as typed comments, audio recordings, or attached rubrics. If you are ready to take feedback strategies to the next level, you may want to consider using video feedback to engage student interest. The blog post Could Video Feedback Replace the Red Pen? from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus explores this very topic.


If you need assistance rethinking your strategy to assess student learning, please contact Sometimes simply talking through an idea with faculty and staff peers can help to clarify and confirm the best path forward.


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