Online assessment: it’s complicated

Assessment cartoon

So that’s semester two of the MSc in digital education done. Online assessment was a challenging but enjoyable subject, with lots of lively debate and activities.

Here are five things I think I’ve learned:

1.  Assessment ‘defines the de facto curriculum’ (Rowntree 1987, p. 1). So a course may claim to be about concepts X, Y and Z but if only X and Y appear on the exam / are assessed in the coursework, then students don’t give a damn about Z.

2.  Many current assessment practices aren’t working. They’re ‘not only unfair but … intellectually and morally indefensible, and statistically invalid’ (Rust 2007, p. 233). Exams are ‘very poor predictors of any subsequent performance, such as success at work’ (Gibbs & Simpson 2004–05, p. 7). Universities regard assessment practices as ‘negative’, ‘pernicious’ and ‘difficult and problematic’ to change (Carless 2007, p. 60). So what can we do?

3.  We could try using collaborative (rather than individual) assessments to help change this, and digital tools like blogs and wikis handle collaboration well. But ‘collaboration needs to be orchestrated if it is to be successful’ (Naismith et al. 2011, p. 229) and this is extremely difficult to pull off (see my earlier post). In one of the groups studied by Naismith et al. (2011), 41% of students said that collaborative projects were ‘time consuming and inefficient’ (p. 237). I was thinking similar thoughts as I sat up until 1am working on the collaborative assignment that was worth only 25% of my final grade…

4.  It would be nice if we could say that one assessment form, particularly a digital one, could do everything we want assessment to do. But (obviously) it’s more complicated than that. Assessment can have a positive effect on students’ motivation, engagement and skills if we’re able get the balance right between assessment for certification (summative assessment) and assessment for learning (formative assessment). Entire books have been written about how to do that, so I won’t even try here. But it can be done, and digital can help: writing a blog for IDEL was the most enjoyable and productive assessment experience I’ve had so far.

5.  Maybe the best thing online assessment can do is expose students to experiences that are not neat, tidy and predictable – and therefore more like the real world:

The only things we can be sure about are change and connectedness with others in a complex society. Those who are skilled and flexible learners will flourish in these conditions; others will languish (Boud 2000, p. 154)

Online assessment can help to challenge and disrupt some long-established conventions of education. Whether universities see that as an opportunity or a threat is the $64,000 question.


Boud, D. (2000) ‘Sustainable assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society’, Studies in Continuing Education 22 (2), pp. 151–167.

Carless D. (2007) ‘Learning-oriented assessment: conceptual bases and practical implications’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International 44 (1), pp. 57–66.

Gibbs G. and Simpson C. (2004–05) ‘Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning’, Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 1, pp. 3–33.

Naismith L., Lee B.-H. and Pilkington R. M. (2011) ‘Collaborative learning with a wiki: differences in perceived usefulness in two contexts of use’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27, pp. 228–242.

Rowntree D. (1987) Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them? London: Routledge.

Rust C. (2007) ‘Towards a scholarship of assessment’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 32 (2), pp. 229–237.

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