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Step 2: Rethink your assessments and assignments

The next step involves considering what assessments students will need to complete to demonstrate they've mastered each of the learning outcomes articulated in Step 1, and how you can implement them in your instructional context.

Many instructors have found that the assessments they used in their in-person courses do not translate easily into an online environment.  Rethinking assessments for this reality means re-examining what you are trying to accomplish with big exam and projects and considering alternative ways to reach the same goals. 

With the learning goals in mind, ask yourself:

  • How will I know if students have achieved the learning goals?  What should they be able to do?
  • How can my assignments and assessments create opportunities for students to demonstrate their achievement of the goals?
  • Do my existing assessments or assignments provide those opportunities? 
  • Are there alternative ways for students to demonstrate their learning that can reduce the need for proctoring, give students more control and choice, and/or are more engaging?
  • At what point(s) in the course will they have these opportunities? 

These two-minute mentors illustrate how instructors can think through these questions. 

Following the principles of Universal Design for Learning, look for multiple ways for students to demonstrate their learning. Use a combination of low-stakes assessments, to provide practice and feedback on critical skills and knowledge, and high-stakes assessments. Consider also how your assessments might be designed to capture increasing levels of understanding of the semester.  On all assignments, feedback is a key part of the learning process.  The CTE website provides in-depth information about designing assessments and assignments. You can also find examples of assignments and assessments in CTE's portfolio gallery, which showcases the work of KU faculty members and instructional staff and is searchable by discipline or pedagogical topic/strategy. The panel to the right shares a few examples. In the sections below, we focus on forms of assessment that may be particularly useful in flexible and online formats, and how you could implemement them and provide feedback. 

Through our partnership in the Bay View Alliance, KU has collaborated with a consortium of 10 research universities to develop a new Resource on Online Assessment that includes principles for online assessment, recommendations, and a range of examples. Go here to learn more about the project and the resource

Periodic, Low-Stakes Assignments

Many instructors ask students to complete and turn in frequent low-stakes assignments such as quizzes, reading reflections, short essays, problem sets, or other homeworks. These assignments are especially useful in online learning. They help scaffold the learning you want to happen by providing students practice and feedback on critical skills or content. They also provide structure to students' time of the course, create multiple checkpoints to keep students on track, and enable you to gauge and respond to their learning in an ongoing way. Systematic checkpoints are valuable even in in-person courses, but are especially important in online courses because there are no other regular indicators of whether students are "getting it."  This page lists several options in Blackboard for implementing these types of assignments, depending on the question format and modality.

In reflecting on her spring 2020 experience, Michelle Miller, a faculty member at Northern Arizona University and author of Minds Online: Teaching effectively with Technology, writes that she plans to significantly reduce her reliance on high stakes assignments in favor of periodic, smaller assignments.  "... I’m going to avoid anything that puts students in the position of cramming a lot of work in on a test or a project within a short time frame, just to satisfy a grade requirement. Such heavily weighted assignments turned out to be the worst ones to try to run with integrity in a virtual environment."   

Grading and Feedback. Some low stakes assignments (e.g., Blackboard quizzes) are automatically graded, giving students immediate feedback on their learning and lightening the vrtual paper load on you. Others (e.g., discussion forum posts) could be evaluated with a very simple rubric or for completion, with either personalized feedback (more time consuming), or group-level feedback in the form of an instructor post or synthesizing/wrap-up commentary.

Major Assignments and Course Projects

There are innumerable ways to create assignments, projects, or papers that align with course or module learning outcomes. Here are some advantages of using major assignments over exams in online courses (in addition to the difficulty proctoring exams in an online environnment, discussed below):

  • Assignments are a great way to engage students and to help them see the value of what they are learning
  • Students tend to distribute their time more effectively when working on papers and projects than studying for exams
  • Assignments are associated with longer lasting learning than exams
  • They are less stressful for most students than proctored, timed exams
  • There are fewer concerns about academic integrity than with exams

The assessments you choose can shape the rest of your students' learning experience, so think about assignments that will promote engagement and excitement about the material, that give students a sense of ownership, a chance to connect their learning to things that matter to them, or leverage the online medium in interesting ways. For more ideas about developing engaging assignments or assignments involving high-impact learning experiences, go to the Creating Engaging Experiences page.  

Implementing Assignments in Blackboard.  The most straightforward way for submitting, grading and providing feedback on student papers, assignments, projects or take-home exams is to use the Assignment tool under Blackboard Assessments. This allows students or groups to:

  • Upload a Word document, PowerPoint file, PDF, or other software-based file.
  • Upload a picture or a scanned document created by hand.

Grading and Feedback. The Assignment tool allows you to streamline the grading and feedback. Instructors can Create a rubric for feedback and grading. (video tutorial), use SafeAssign to check for plagiarism, and synch grades to the Blackboard Grade Center. (video tutorial)

Tests or Exams

Closed-book, individual tests or exams are the trickiest type of assessment to replicate online because it is difficult to restrict student access to peers and resources. The current proctoring solutions are not optimal due to the expense to the student and the fact that they do not work well for our many students who will have poor quality or inconsistent internet access. The graphic below outlines some steps for deciding what to do with your exams, followed by some KU-specific recommendations. 


Here are some options to consider:

  • Consider replacing traditional tests or exams with tests, assignments or projects focus on application, evaluation, and skills other than remembering. Use the Assignments tool under Assessments (see above) for this option.
  • Revise your assessment into a take-home exam and assume that students will use the course material and one another and resources. This is the best approach because it helps you create more-authentic assessments, which improve student learning.
  • If that is not possible, the Test tool in Blackboard Assessments allows instructors to specify a defined amount of time to complete an exam. If some of your students have accommodations, you will need to work with Student Access Services. Timed exams or quizzes should be scheduled during your regular class time to avoid conflicts with other classes, or can be set up to be completed during a timed period within a longer time window. Flexibility in the time window will be important for students whose schedules have changed due to new responsibilities (e.g., caregiving) and for those who have inconsistent or poor quality internet access.   
  • You can also create question pools so that different students receive a subset of randomly selected questions on each topic. (video tutorial)
  • Consult with CTE or CODL for help rethinking your assessments for the online environment.
  • For students with accomodations, consult with Student Access Services (SAC) to ensure that you are adhering to ADA requirements with your assessments. Contact SAC staff at 785-864-4064 or sactesting@ku.edu.

These slides and this handout capture the recommendations on exams by a panel of Faculty Consultants for Online and Flexible teaching.  Recommendations for promoting academic integrity are provided on this page. 

Next, Step 3: Plan Your Instructional Activities


What can your assessments do for you and your students?

Assessments can do much more than simply enable you to assign grades:

Assessments are the primary determinant of how students spend their time on a course.1

Assessments can generate feedback that both you and your students can use to gauge and guide learning.

Some assessments support more robust learning than others. Exams are much poorer predictors of postgraduate performance than assignments like projects and papers1

Assessments can be a great way to engage students and help them see the value of what they are learning. 

1G. Gibbs and C. Simpson, “Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Student Learning,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, V. 1, pp. 3-31, (2004).