The Challenge of Online Assessment
Cultivating a positive assessment culture in online and blended classrooms
Over the past two decades, classroom assessment for formative purposes has taken centre stage in curriculum policies, assessment standards, and professional learning conversations across Canada. Educators have increasingly embraced and implemented formative assessment approaches under the umbrella of assessment for learning. This endorsement of formative assessment is unsurprising as it has been shown to improve student achievement, metacognition, and motivation (Hattie, 2013) and to aid in promoting more equitable outcomes for lower-achieving students (Black & Wiliam, 2009). As a result, assessment is now more integrated within teaching and learning in Canadian classrooms than ever before, fostering an assessment culture that prioritizes ongoing feedback and the growth mindset (Shepard, 2019).
In this article, we ask: Is the ongoing pandemic and related disruptions to Canadian education threatening the positive assessment culture we’ve worked so hard to create? Classroom teachers have been thrust into online or blended learning contexts, often with little notice and preparation, forcing them to reimagine and transform their instructional and assessment practices in real time. While summative assessment remains a required component of schooling, many teachers are challenged by how to adapt formative assessment practices for online and blended learning contexts. With screens now interfacing so much of our interactions with students, the teaching profession faces pressing questions such as: How can we effectively engage assessment for learning with our students when learning is mediated by technology? How do we maintain the spirit of formative assessment when we don’t “see” or “hear” our students as much as we used to, if at all? and How do we avoid reverting to an emphasis on summative assessment in our online and blended classrooms?
Indeed, emerging research confirms these concerns. A recent report by Doucet and his colleagues (2020) highlights five key assessment-related challenges currently experienced by educators around the world:
- First and foremost, face-to-face classroom assessment strategies don’t necessarily translate to online or blended learning contexts, requiring a shift in our assessment approaches, tools, and mindsets.
- It can be more difficult to track and triangulate student observations, conversations, and products to evaluate learning over time, threatening the validity of our assessment.
- Students don’t always have the adequate technical infrastructure needed for online learning and meaningful formative assessment, posing equity issues.
- Authentic assessments and demonstrations of learning are more challenging in an online context (e.g. group projects and hands-on tasks), putting us at risk of slipping back to a reliance on traditional summative assessments like tests, exams, and essays.
- Finally, educators need targeted, explicit professional learning in online pedagogy and assessment strategies as we collectively face the “new normal” of K–12 education.
Moving forward together
While there is cause for optimism that these global challenges in K–12 education will dissipate, it is likely that current conditions will persist for some time and that elements of online or blended learning will take on greater precedence in future classrooms. As we collectively pivot and adapt our approaches to assessment in online and blended learning contexts, it is critical that classroom teachers, school and system leaders, policymakers, researchers, and teacher educators come together to rethink how we assess in online and blended K–12 learning. The changes we make now will not only serve our current students but also inform how we integrate technology in assessment after the pandemic subsides. In this vein, we offer three foundational tenets to help us move forward together to continue to foster a productive assessment culture – whether in online, blended, or face-to-face classrooms.
1. Defer to first principles
In rethinking how we assess online, it is essential to remember that we need not start from scratch. Instead, we can look beyond the surface of tried-and-true assessments to their underlying first principles and focus on: the learning we need to assess from our students (purpose), how students may demonstrate their learning (process), and what it is that we might do with that assessment information (use). In keeping an assessment’s purpose, process, and use top of mind, we are better positioned to incorporate technological tools that enable the assessment – whether in a face-to-face, blended, or online learning context. For instance, technology has now made it easy to capture how an idea or a product has evolved over time. Students can save multiple iterations of their work easily and with minimal burden, and easily share their work with others for feedback. Adopting these new technological options serves to strengthen the validity of the assessment by generating richer and more numerous observations of the learning, allowing for better triangulation of student assessment data. While there is no shortage of technological tools and applications that support assessment for learning in K–12 learning – which can be overwhelming in and of itself – emphasizing first principles allows us to confidently select the tool that best aligns with our assessment’s purpose, process, and use.
2. Keep students and their well-being at the centre
The shift to online and blended learning has created new professional challenges for educators and led to new stresses for students and families. Now more than ever, we must keep students’ needs, interests, and well-being at the centre of all teaching and assessment activities. Whether face-to-face, blended, or online, we can use assessment for learning to build relationships with our students and support their sense of inclusion. Leveraging one of the greatest strengths of assessment for learning – its capacity to build community – is essential in this time of prolonged isolation. Engaging students in peer feedback processes through group work, collaborative problem-solving activities, breakout rooms, or discussion boards can be a productive place to start. In addition, ongoing teacher-student conversations provide opportunities to celebrate successes, provide feedback, and show our students care and compassion. This supports not only their growth as learners but also their development as individuals. Further, allowing multiple opportunities for students to engage in self-assessment and reflection can serve to support their self-regulation and mental health. And importantly, aside from providing feedback on learning itself, assessment for learning can enable teachers’ ongoing communication with students and their parents/guardians to ensure students have access to the necessary infrastructure to support their learning and address potential equity or social-emotional issues students might be facing.
3. Learn together systematically and systemically
As we experience and reflect on the sudden and widespread shift to online and blended classrooms, we must continue to learn together about how assessment supports our teaching and our students’ learning and well-being. In the decade prior to the pandemic, educators were increasingly exploring and using various new technologies in the classroom to support teaching, learning, and assessment. However, the pandemic has forced our hand as a profession, requiring widespread adoption of technology in all aspects of our teaching practice, including assessment (Doucet et al., 2020). So, while systematic professional learning about assessment was already essential prior to 2020, the global pandemic has magnified the need to help classroom teachers develop new strategies and leverage technology to support both formative and summative assessment in online and blended contexts. As a result, it is critical that educators across classrooms, schools, boards, regions, and provinces engage in various forms of professional learning and inquiry – whether through self-directed learning, collaborative professional inquiry, professional webinars, social media networks, or formal coursework. We are all learning at a rapid pace that has been forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control, but we can use this opportunity to grow and develop as individuals and as a profession. We particularly encourage a system-wide approach to professional learning within boards and engagement with online professional learning networks such as the Canadian Assessment for Learning Network1 (CAfLN) so that educators may generate relevant and appropriate insights to their local contexts.
Where to next?
While education is constantly evolving and changing, the global pandemic has intensified the need to adapt how we teach and assess our students to better support their learning, development, and well-being. As a profession, we have been forced to change, expand, and redefine the assessments we were doing face to face into online and blended learning contexts. We must acknowledge the steep learning curve we are experiencing as a profession and prioritize open and honest communication among all stakeholders involved – students, teachers, school leaders, system leaders, policymakers, parents/guardians, other professionals, researchers, and teacher educators. We must also pause to celebrate our successes and progress to date in forging new territory in K–12 assessment amid a challenging time. Moreover, we must continue to allocate time, resources, and supports as we continue to learn and grow in our understanding and practice of assessment.
The pandemic has altered many things in our world, but it has not eradicated what we know about the value and importance of assessment for learning and our shared desire to sustain a productive assessment culture in schools and classrooms. Nor has it changed the spirit of assessment, which is captured by the etymology of the word assess itself: to “sit beside” our learners and support their learning. At the end of the day, we need to continue to come together as an education community to use research-based practices to collectively navigate online assessment and promote a positive assessment culture that transcends context.
1 Canadian Assessment for Learning Network: www.cafln.ca
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21, 5–31.
Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K., et al. (2020). Thinking about pedagogy in an unfolding pandemic: An independent report on approaches to distance learning during COVID19 school closures to inform Education International and UNESCO. Education International.
Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.
Shepard, L. (2019). Classroom assessment to support teaching and learning. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 683(1), 183–200.