Assessment in Online Learning

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Assessments communicate to both the instructor and the learner whether the learning outcomes (or outcomes) for the course have been mastered. Because of their importance in measuring student progress and success, it is essential that assessments directly measure the stated learning outcomes for the course and modules. In this article, we focus on assessment for online courses with a modular structure.

Measure the Course Outcomes

Student performance on assessments should show you clearly whether they have mastered the learning outcomes for the course or module. The easiest way to design this into your course is to look closely at each module and the assessments that go with the module. Do the assessments support the module-level outcomes? If not, then is the assessment necessary and could it be removed? If it cannot be removed, then you will want to add a module-level outcome that addresses the assessment. See our article, Creating Learning Outcomes for Your Online Course, for more on learning outcomes and alignment. The same technique can be used for any course-long assessments (such as papers or projects).

In addition to ensuring that assessments are necessary for the course, you will want to check that the assessment format you are using matches the outcome. For example, if your outcome states that students will be able to discuss, then a multiple-choice test will not be appropriate. Instead, you would want to be sure that the assessment allows them to demonstrate that they can discuss, possibly via a discussion forum or a written assignment.

Clarify Grading

A clear grading policy in the course is necessary to ensure that students understand what will be expected from them. Best practice indicates that instructors should include a list of all graded assessments and activities for the course, along with their associated point and/or percentage values. Additionally, you will want to include a grading scale showing the necessary points and/or percentages for letter grades. Here, it is especially important to communicate clearly if you are using both points and percentages in the class. Here is an example:


Points Possible

Percentage of Final Grade

Assignment 1 – Library Visit

50 points


Assignment 2 – Thesis Statement

50 points


Assignment 3 – Rough Draft

50 points


Assignment 4 – Final Paper

350 points


Participation 5 Discussion Forums @ 40 points each

200 points


5 Blog Posts @ 40 points each

200 points


Collaborative Wiki Participation 4 Contributions @ 25 points each

100 points


Total Points Possible

1000 points



Grading Scale:

90% - 100% = A

80% - 89% = B

70% - 79% = C

60% - 69% = D

59% and below = F

In addition to clear grading for the course overall, you will want to provide assessment/activity specific information showing how the different components of each assignment will be evaluated and graded. Many instructors create rubrics for this where they indicate the number of points that different aspects of the assignment are worth. Other instructors prefer to identify this via a few bullet points clarifying the important areas of the assignment and how much each area is worth. Whatever way you choose, the end goal is to make it clear to students how many points are to be gained by successfully completing different components of the assignment.

An additional aspect to consider here is connecting the different components of an assignment, or specific test questions if you are using a test, to course or module-level learning outcomes. If you do this, then it becomes very easy for you to pull data from your assessments showing exactly how well students did on the different outcomes for the course. If you would like help planning for this in your course, contact your instructional consultant. They can assist you in creating a grading strategy that will fit with your goals for the course.

Choose Assessments Carefully

When choosing your assessments for the course, try to provide some variety in how the assessments require students to demonstrate their understanding and achievement of the outcomes. For example, while some students may do well completing tests with select-response items such as multiple-choice, matching, etc., others may do better at communicating their understanding through writing, speaking, or other means of expression. Additionally, asking students to demonstrate achievement in a variety of formats can help deepen their learning of the topic.

Using sequencing with assessments can also be helpful for both you and your students. For example, many courses can benefit from a course-long project broken up into smaller parts that build upon each other. This format allows students to submit parts of the project throughout the semester and gain feedback at incremental stages, which they can then use to continue improving their work. It also allows you to provide them more frequent feedback with less grading overload, since you are grading smaller chunks throughout the semester, rather than many long projects all at the end.

Offer Self-Check Opportunities

In addition to sequenced projects, it is a best practice to add opportunities throughout the course for students to check their progress. For example, you may want to include short, low-stakes quizzes that allow students to determine if they are understanding the broad concepts that have been introduced in a module. Or, you may want to add discussions where they have an opportunity to talk about their ideas with others in the class, determine if they are understanding content the same as others are, and correct any misinterpretations before they get in too far. Some other ideas for self-check opportunities include allowing students to submit drafts of assignments for feedback before the graded assignment is submitted; providing opportunity for peer-review; and providing sample papers, discussion posts, or assignments so that they have a better understanding of what is expected.


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.