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Online Assessment- Real-world learning or unseen cheating?


By Vincent Kovar

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In the real world, people use any and probably all available references and tools to complete a given task. Yet for some reason, on-ground education has traditionally relied upon memorization and “closed-book” testing. This can create confusion, both for the instructor and the students, when moving to an online model.


Instructors may find themselves wondering: how can I ensure that students are keeping up with the reading and engaging the material? The short answer is, you can’t.; at least not from an instructor-as-test-giver model. Without in-person proctoring, there is really no way to guarantee that remote students are not using resources other than their own memory. Yes, you can check for plagiarism but, especially with lower taxonomy testing, your learners can and will use all the materials at their disposal: textbooks, the Internet and each other.


So is there a point to multiple choice or short answer quizzes? I think there is. For starters, mentally frame the quizzes not as a way to check-up on your students but as a way for them to self-assess where they are in the progression of mastering the course objectives. If you design these short quizzes with the idea that they are “open book” you’ll find that you begin to frame your questions around the most important concepts in a text. The quiz questions therefore, become part of the learning. If you really want your students to define a given type of mortgage or list the components of a certain alloy, don’t worry about how they get there, only that they do.


Some students will skim material that others will read closely. Some will use the index to target only specific passages while still others will ask a classmate. In the professional workplace, these are all valid and acceptable ways of achieving the objectives of even the most complex tasks.


For higher level projects where students must analyze, synthesize and apply their learning, always ask your students about their real-world goals. For instance, in a recent Professional & Technical Writing Class, my goals were for the students to:

  • Learn research skills
  • Create a focused thesis
  • Persuade a reader
  • Apply a professional format to a body of writing
  • Achieve college-level benchmarks in syntax, grammar, proofreading etc.


First I created a multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank quiz that asked simple questions like “what are the parts of a grant application?” and “what are three resources where you can find available grants?” etc. These quizzes were not a measure of where the class was succeeding or failing. They just pointed to useful resources. The class almost immediately became student driven. Instead of my measuring a minimum absorption of material, the learners began sharing useful resources between themselves.


By transposing these goals from an academic context, amputated from reality to the students personal and professional lives, the question “Am I ever going to use this in real-life?” was immediately answered. The learners not only revised their work but asked their classmates for additional rounds of revision. Their theses were not regurgitations of an instructor assigned question but passionate, focused statements of belief. Students actually asked for additional grammar exercises. The projects were personalized and the students were engaged. The question of “cheating” became moot.


Whether or not you should assign points to low-level quizzes is debatable. Points help some students feel a sense of progress and security but they can also distract from the idea that these mini-tests are little more than study aids.


If nothing else, assigning simple quizzes frequently in your online courses gives your students a reason to logon to the class website and gives you a tool to draw their attention to various readings and resources. However, banish the idea that they are really a “test” where cheating is possible. Design quizzes as strength-building-exercises to be used toward a goal, not the goal itself.


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Vincent Kovar