A Look at Online Assessments


Can online assessments be trusted? This will likely not be a popular position, but it depends on how you choose to look at it. I believe that if you are asking yourself this question, then you are looking at the situation in the wrong light.

Generally speaking, and minus things like psychological assessments, an assessment is meant to test what has been learned during study. Fine, but that is not always a good idea. Traditionally, the tests that measure such knowledge are closed-book tests. Hence, trust becomes a significant factor due to cheating. However, when it comes to assessments done online, much like online learning, I believe that how assessments are approached might need to change.

Let us start with the why. There are a few inherent problems with traditional assessments. Let us keep in mind that the goal is learning. However, the truth is that, for many, a closed-book assessment does not effectively measure what was actually learned. In fact, in some cases, it merely complicates it.

For example, some people are genetically lousy test-takers, and some 40% to 60% of students admit to having test anxiety (Brideau, 2015). Psychologically speaking, these factors often inhibit information recall and skew the outcome or expected result. We could also discuss issues regarding reliability and consistency. Or, we could discuss the imperfect tests that do not measure knowledge retainment but instead provide a new and unwanted lesson on the importance of information interpretation. I could go on. My list is long, but the point is obvious; the current assessment approach is not perfect and needs improvement.

I’m not saying assessments are unnecessary, but what if assessments could be used as another opportunity to solidify the learning? Consider that traditional assessments do not reflect real life. In the real world, when someone has a question, they need the ability to find or confirm the answer. Let’s be honest; we cannot know or retain everything. So, why not just encourage the important life skill of reference and research throughout the learning process?

The good news is that some institutions have figured this out and decided to alter their approach regarding test-taking. For example, some institutions have decided that open-book testing might be a better way, and they are right to explore that. For starters, open-book assessments substantially reduce the trust concern. While still possible, cheating becomes unnecessary. Second, studies have found that not only do open-book assessments demonstrate better performance on the test, likely due to the reduction of anxiety, but the long-term retention of the information is equal to that of the closed-book tests (Agarwal et al., 2008). It’s a win-win. This is great because the information is retained through repeated review, and the necessary life skill of research and discovery is encouraged and practiced.

I see such assessments as similar to discussion boards. They are an opportunity to critically reflect and identify what the professor or teacher deems essential to understand. More importantly, it is yet another opportunity to review the material previously read or discussed. This is important because of the repetition component.

We know that repetition is critical to learning, and we have known that for a very long time. As Aristotle once suggested, “It is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency.” Now, if someone is anxious about the test or needs to try interpreting information, this opportunity is likely missed because their head is elsewhere.

Sure, measures such as Screen Switching Restriction, Interruption Limitation, Copy and Paste Blockers, Camera Surveillance, and Anti-Cheat Monitoring could be used to ensure integrity. However, such measures would not only add to the stress and anxiety, but they would be entirely unnecessary if the way in which assessments were approached was altered. That alteration, in my opinion, should be geared toward research, discovery, and repetition. Of course, this is just another one of my many unpopular opinions. However, science is on my side.

With that being said, we must also understand that students will only get out of their education what they put into it. You can set up discussion boards, online assessments, and so on, but the professor cannot really force the effort provided by the student. The lazy will always do just enough to get by. I bring this up only to emphasize the point that motivated and eager students should not be punished or burdened for the lack of motivation or eagerness of others. At the same time, the lazy and unmotivated should not be rewarded on par with the motivated and eager. Act accordingly.

Perhaps this is also a reminder of the importance of engagement. A good teacher or professor is a master of inspiring students to learn. “WOW” moments invite the student to connect with the lesson. Remember that anyone can tell a group of students to read a chapter. A good teacher or mentor will help the student understand the meaning of the chapter. A great teacher or mentor will help the student connect with the chapter and help them understand how the student can apply the lesson in their lives.

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Agarwal, P. K., Karpicke, J. D., Kang, S. H., Roediger, H. L., & Mcdermott, K. B. (2008). Examining the testing effect with open- and closed-book tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(7), 861-876. doi:10.1002/acp.1391

Brideau, M. (2015, September 10). Can people be “bad test takers”? Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://sites.psu.edu/siowfa15/2015/09/10/can-people-be-bad-test-takers/