Compassionate, equitable, and inclusive assessment of online learning
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Compassionate, Equitable, and Inclusive Assessment of Online Learning

Suggestions for online assessment during these challenging times

By Elizabeth Ciabocchi and Jennifer Mathes

February 15, 2021

There is no shortage of literature regarding best practices in the assessment of student learning, and there are plenty of examples to which we can point. Yet it’s now a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and many college and university faculty members are still grappling with adjustments to their assessment strategies for remote learning. At the same time, colleges and universities are still struggling to situate learning and assessment in the unique context of an ongoing global crisis that has completely disrupted the lives and livelihoods of millions of students and their families.

At the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), we find that it is important to consider a holistic view of assessment, especially when both students and faculty are facing a changing education landscape amid a global crisis. This means that we cannot rely on previous methods of assessment that may have been satisfactory for in-person learning. Instead, faculty need to make adaptations that fit the online modality.

This concept is supported by Assessment During a Crisis: Responding to a Global Pandemic, a recent report from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) that includes survey results about the assessment and teaching practices of faculty and administrators that were transitioning to online learning in spring 2020. While the report’s author, Natasha A. Jankowski, executive director of and research associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, acknowledges the importance of more flexible institutional policies such as pass/fail grading, she also argues that the higher education community should focus intently on listening to and supporting students, promoting equitable learning outcomes and assessment of student learning, and lowering the barriers to student success in the online learning environment.

This is a tall order for college and university faculty, many of whom are inexperienced in online teaching and learning and unfamiliar with some of the assessment strategies that are most suited to a remote or online course format. Many faculty are also still learning to address the deep digital divide—in which low-income students disproportionately face barriers to online learning, including less access to computers, internet access, and time off from work or caregiving responsibilities—and other systemic inequities in our society and higher education system that have affected college students so dramatically since spring 2020.

What practical guidance might we offer to college and university faculty members seeking to create more compassionate, equitable, and inclusive learning assessment strategies without diminishing academic rigor? Below, we offer a few suggestions for online assessment during these challenging times.

Provide creative alternatives to high-stakes assessments. Bowdoin College is encouraging faculty to decrease their dependence on high-stakes assessments such as exams that make up a large percentage of a student’s grade. Reimagining these assignments not only provides much-needed flexibility to students but can also increase retention and understanding of course content while reducing students’ motivation for academic dishonesty. Suggestions for alterations to high-stakes testing include open-note, unproctored examinations and collaborative final class projects assigned at the beginning of a course. Other creative alternatives include student-created exams and grading rubrics; oral or video exams with recorded student responses, for which multiple attempts are permitted; op-ed style articles; and social media exams for “branding” a course. Where high-stakes exams must be administered in an online format, remote proctoring may be employed to help reduce cheating, which is an often-cited faculty concern.

Draw from high-impact pedagogies like project-based learning. The online learning environment offers faculty a unique opportunity to reimagine their assessment strategies, provide students with different ways of representing their knowledge, and help students develop expertise in the subject. Specific strategies for project-based learning that may be applied in an online environment include asking students to submit situation reports, progress updates, and peer feedback through digital tools such as email, discussion forums, videos, polls, and surveys. Grading rubrics may also provide online learners with greater clarity on the instructor’s learning expectations in an online environment, and self-assessment activities such as learning journals or logs may help to reduce the cognitive distance between online instructors and learners.

Set and communicate expectations for student learning. Students are trying to navigate new remote learning environments and may not always know the best way to ask for help. Take the time to communicate to students what is required for them to be successful. Even students who have taken online classes before may not know what to expect from a course, so it is critical to provide information up-front on expectations like due dates, assignment requirements, and grading policies. This allows students to focus on learning the content.

Help college and university faculty via robust, well-supported professional development. After the transition to remote learning created a lot of chaos earlier this year, many faculty, staff, and administrators have engaged the OLC team for help and guidance. OLC offers Quality Scorecards that provide guidance on best practices for online learning at the course and program level, which provide recommendations for specific steps that can be taken to create more effective assessments while supporting students.

During this difficult disruption to the “normal” college and university experience, assessment of student learning is especially critical to ensure that students are achieving the learning goals and expected outcomes of their courses, advancing in their programs of study, and charting successful paths to careers or graduate studies. Whether the shift to digital learning is temporary or permanent, it demands that we examine and implement assessment strategies that optimize the advantages of the online teaching and learning environment. The suggestions included above offer a good start, and new strategies will continue to evolve as higher education faculty seek ways to enhance the academic success of all students.

Interview with Elizabeth Ciabocchi and Jennifer Mathes on the Assessment of Online Learning

The Next-Gen Assessment multimedia series is coordinated by M. David Miller (University of Florida), Tammie Cumming (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Gladys Palma de Schrynemaker (CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies), and Terrel Rhodes (AAC&U).


  • Elizabeth Ciabocchi

    Elizabeth Ciabocchi is vice president of the Board of Directors of the Online Learning Consortium and associate provost for academic affairs at Adelphi University.

  • Jennifer Mathes

    Jennifer Mathes is chief executive officer of the Online Learning Consortium.