Assessment Methods

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Assessments are used to check and evaluate students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Assessment results enable students to check their own progress and performance and inform instructors on students’ progress toward achieving learning objectives and course outcomes. It is important that assessments encourage and empower all the students to succeed, regardless of their diverse backgrounds. There are a range of assessment methods, including but not limited to: essays, exams, quizzes, self-assessments, peer-assessments, case studies, authentic assessments, and group projects. These assessment methods can be categorized as formative assessment or summative assessment. (Credit to the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching for foundational information in this article.)

Formative Versus Summative Assessment

Formative assessment and summative assessment are equally important in an online course. “Formative Assessment is defined by its purpose which is to help form or shape a student’s learning during the learning process” (Trumbull & Lash, 2013, p.2). Formative assessments need to be well integrated into the instructional process so that instructors can adjust their teaching based on students’ performance in formative assessments. Formative assessment can take any form which allows instructors to reveal students’ thought processes, progress toward certain learning objectives, and any misconceptions (Supovitz, 2012). In contrast, a summative assessment is comprehensive and used to assess whether students have acquired required knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes covered in a course. A summative assessment is typically distributed at the middle or end of a semester. Those distributed mid-semester provide students with opportunities to reflect on their progress or adjust their learning strategies. They also provide instructors with time to adjust their teaching priorities(Maki, 2002). Summative assessments distributed at the end of a semester don’t provide the same opportunities for growth. As is shown in Table 1, formative assessment and summative assessment differ in why, what, when, and who.

Table 1 Formative assessment Vs Summative Assessment

Formative AssessmentSummative Assessment
WhyAssessing students’ understanding of certain knowledge and mastery of certain skills and/or attitudes to identify whether and how to adjust subsequent teaching for instructors and adjust learning for studentsAssessing students’ understanding of a range of knowledge and mastery of a range of skills and/or attitudes to determine student performance in terms of grades and the effectiveness of an online course
WhatExamples: essays, quizzes, concept maps, peer-assessment, self-assessment like portfolioExamples: final project, mid-term exam, final paper, final group presentation
WhenThroughout a semester, regularly like once a week At the end of a semester and/or mid-term
WhoMostly assessed by instructors, sometimes by students in terms of self-assessment and peer-assessmentAssessed by instructors

The following assessment methods are often employed in online courses.


Essays are a common form of a writing assignment in online courses. Short essays are often used to examine students’ understanding of concepts, principles, and theories in one field. Long essays are often used to assess students’ skills in analyzing, problem solving, or completing creative work. 

The key to an effective essay assignment is to provide a clear rubric and effective prompts that can encourage students to think critically and create something new.


Exams have long been a go-to method for assessing students’ knowledge and skills. Exam questions can be multiple choice, true/false, matching, essay questions, etc. It might take a lot of time for instructors to design and develop exam questions, but grading an exam tends to be easier than it is to evaluate projects or research papers. One big challenge when preparing exams is to make sure questions are valid and reliable for students who might perform at different levels.

A key part of the process is to engage students in the exam preparation process, so as to avoid cramming and surface learning. A good strategy for mitigating cramming is for an instructor to review key concepts, theories, principles, and applications with students through lecture videos or module overviews in online courses.


Quizzes are often provided at regular intervals, usually by week or by module in an online course. These quizzes can help instructors make sure whether their students are on the right track. Quizzes can help students review what they are learning, identify their knowledge gaps, and retain information. For students who are nervous about mid-term and final exams, quizzes can help them prepare and ease anxiety. 

The Bloom’s Taxonomy as shown in the figure classifies the cognitive domain of learning into six levels. Using these levels as a guide can assist instructors in developing effective quiz questions.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

The following is adapted from the article “how to create a quiz in your online course“.

  1. Knowledge: create simple essay questions or fill-in-blank questions that ask students to recall facts and basic concepts. For instances:
    • can you recall…?
    • how would you show…?
    • what’s the term for…?
  2. Comprehension: Create essay questions or multiple-choice questions that ask students to organize, compare, or interpret, giving descriptors and main ideas. For instances:
    • how would you compare…?
    • what is the main idea of…?
    • what are the two factors that influence…?
    • which description is incorrect about…?
  3. Application: Create essay questions or multiple-choice questions that ask students to apply facts, techniques, or rules they’ve learned in a new way. For instances:
    • how would you show…?
    • what approach would you use to…?
    • use the given formula to do the calculation, what’s the result?
  4. Analysis: Create essay questions or multiple-choice questions that ask students to identify causes, make inferences, and find supporting evidence. For instances:
    • what causes are there…?
    • what conclusions can you draw…?
    • what goes wrong in this situation?
  5. Synthesis: Create essay questions that ask students to write a response in which they need to compile information in a new way or propose alternate solutions. For instances:
    • how would you improve…?
    • what would happen if…?
    • how would you do differently?
  6. Evaluation: Create questions that ask students to make judgments about information and validate ideas. For instances:
    • what is your opinion of…?
    • how would you justify…?


Self-assessment is not the same as self-grading. Self-assessments invites students to reflect, in writing or orally, on their learning process and their work. Self-assessments enable students to develop essential meta-cognitive skills, such as the ability to judge their own work. The process can provide students with a sense of ownership and engage them more deeply with a course. Self-assessments can take many forms, including portfolios, logs, instructor-student interviews, learner diaries, journals, reflection posts in a discussion forum and reflection papers.

Portfolios are increasingly popular because they are a powerful tool for students to collect and organize all the artifacts they have completed throughout a semester. Portfolios enable students to present their work comprehensively and coherently while also reflecting their personal style. On Blackboard Ultra, instructors can manage portfolios sent by their students. Check this guide “Portfolios” to learn more about it.

One big challenge is that students are not always confident in evaluating their own work. Nor have they necessarily developed the expertise to assess themselves objectively and thoroughly. The key for self-assessment is to provide a clear rubric that students can use to assess their level of achievement in different performance areas. Instructors can develop this rubric or ask students to co-develop a rubric for self-assessment.


Peer-assessment is not the same as peer grading. Instructors hold the authority to assign grade or points. However, peer-assessments can provide students with an opportunity to use an existing rubric to assess their peers’ work. By assessing other’s work, students can compare and contrast a peer’s performance with their own. Students can also gain insight from seeing how a peer interprets a common rubric.

It is a challenge is to assure that peer assessment is fair and accurate. Given students’ varied knowledge, experience, and backgrounds, bias is often unavoidable. Instructor feedback is often needed to supplement peer feedback on students’ work to maintain fairness and accuracy. 

As with portfolios, it is necessary to provide guidance via a clear rubric. Tool such as those provided through FeedbackFruits can dramatically streamline the peer-assessment process. Feedback Fruits’ Peer Review tool has gained considerable attention in higher education because the tool makes it easier for instructors to randomly assign work to different students and grade the whole peer-review activity. It also makes it easier for students to submit their work for review, review their peers’ work, and read the feedback they have received. The video tells you more about Peer Review on FeedbackFruits.

Case studies

Case studies can provide a good opportunity for students to apply what they learned by solving a real world problem. While working on case studies, students engage in critical thinking and problem solving. Case studies can take different forms in different disciplines. For instance, instructors in the Nursing department often apply case studies through which students apply a concept or theory to diagnose patients and provide possible treatments. Instructors in the Psychology department often apply case studies in which they ask students to analyze scenarios for patients and come up with treatment strategies and a plan of care.

To successfully implement case studies in a course, instructors can employ the following five strategies that are adapted from the list provided by Penn State University.

  • provide a series of questions to guide students to analyze an important concept or a real-world scenario in a systematic approach, for instance,
    • What problem did the character encounter in this scenario?
    • What causes of the problem can you identify?
    • What factors should be considered to solve the problem?
    • What possible solutions could you propose? Justify the solutions
  • provide a scenario that are appropriate for concepts or theories addressed in one course and for students at different levels
  • provide a clear rubric so that students can know clearly what’s expected of them
  • review the case study through lecture videos or a synchronous zoom sessions to help students compare their analysis result with actual solutions to the real-world problem
  • provide constructive and specific feedback on students’ case study paper to help them identify areas for improvements

Authentic Assessments

Authentic assessments can provide students opportunities to solve real-world problems by applying related knowledge and skills. Authentic assessments can help students see how the knowledge is used in real world. Authentic assessments is consider as one important characteristics in the framework about authentic learning proposed by Herrington and Oliver (2000). Messier (2022) provides a detailed guideline about types of authentic assessments, why to use authentic assessments, considerations when designing authentic assessments, types of authentic assessment products and performance, and how to communicate authentic assessments. The list of examples for different types of authentic assessment can be useful. There four frequently used types of authentic assessment products and performance: writing for an actual audience in one field like a strategic plan and proposal, performance, design of products, and creation of products.

Group Projects

Group projects can provide a good opportunity for students to work with their peers closely to exchange knowledge, brainstorm their ideas, and collaboratively work on deliverables. To complete a group project, students will spend time in searching for materials, discuss with team members, and collaboratively edit deliverables. Examples of online group projects and tips for creating group projects can be found at


Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational technology research and development, 23-48.

Maki, P. L. (2002). Developing an assessment plan to learn about student learning. The Journal of Academic Librarianship28(1-2), 8-13.

Messier, N. (2022). Authentic assessments. Center for the Advancement of Teaching Excellence at the University of Illinois Chicago. Retrieved 2/14/2023 from

Supovitz, J. (2012). Getting at student understanding—the key to teachers’ use of test data. Teachers College Record, 114 (11), 1–29.

Trumbull, E., & Lash, A. (2013). Understanding formative assessment: Insights from learning theory and measurement theory. San Francisco: WestEd.

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