by Ron Johns, Austin Community College Associate Dean of Assessment & Evaluation

Assessment During a PandemicAs we have all made the dramatic and sudden transition to remote teaching, I know I speak for many when I say that there has been a rather steep learning curve.  There is a huge difference between using BlackBoard as a supplement to your class and using it to teach your class.  

But we still have to teach the same curriculum and we expect our students to learn it.  But the assessments that we use to measure that learning and have honed over the years in our face-to-face classes do not always translate very well into an online format.  So what we do?

I wish I had an answer.  There are a variety of options for online exams and assessments that can be found here, here, and many other places with a Google search. Instead, I’m sharing some guiding principles that I have gathered from discussions with colleagues across the country and other sources as we develop whatever assessments we think will work in the current situation.  In particular, Erick Montenegro and Natasha Jankowski at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) have put together some very relevant information, including a great Google doc on online instruction resources.  Joe Feldman, an outspoken advocate for more equitable assessment, has also put together some guidelines that I will be happy to share with you if you’re interested.  So the items below are gathered from these various sources.

1) This is teaching (and assessing) in a crisis.  

Teaching and learning online is hard.  There has long been a cultural undercurrent that online instruction is somehow easier than doing it in a classroom.  I doubt very many people still think that.  Nearly every college across the globe has shifted to a radically different instructional format in a couple of weeks.  That this has been done in anything approaching a competent fashion, as it has, means ACC faculty and our colleagues around the world deserve high praise.  Kudos!

But it is still not where we want it to be, and there are any number of ways in which we feel we are falling short.  We are.  There was no other possible outcome under the circumstances.  But things are definitely better than we feared they would be.  So let’s give ourselves some credit.  Adequate is awesome under the circumstances.

2) Don’t assume the worst of your students just because you’re not seeing them in person.

When we conduct assessments online, it presents opportunities for cheating that we can guard against in a face-to-face class.  Students can Google an answer while taking an exam, or text a friend for help.  But students have been cheating in face-to-face classes since time immemorial as well.  We should not assume that our students will suddenly become amoral and devoid of any ethical principles simply because the class format has changed.  In other words, don’t become obsessed with ensuring that no cheating will occur.  Some likely will no matter what you do.  But don’t underestimate the value of the bond you have built with your students.  Most people will rise to your expectations.  Ask your students to be honorable, and it is likely that nearly all of them will.  Joe Feldman suggests having students sign an integrity agreement.  The higher emotional commitment made by signing one’s name has an impact.  And if a few cheaters do slip through without learning the material, they will struggle in the next class.

3) Consider making summative assessments into formative assessments.

If students cheat, it is often on high-stakes major exams.  If you are concerned about cheating, then make it a lower-stakes formative assessment.  The point of any assessment is to determine what students know or are able to do.  Could an assignment rather than an exam gather the same information?  How important is it that they know how to do something without having any resources at hand?  Maybe it is very important, and that’s fine.  But if they know how to solve a problem, how critical is it if they had to investigate the solution instead of knowing it off the top of their head?  Isn’t researching an answer also a useful skill to learn?  And giving them back an assignment or test to correct forces them to review the material and helps them to learn it.

4) Best practices aren’t always the best practices.

The situation we are in is unprecedented in our lifetimes.  What might be considered best practices for online assessment might not work very well under the current circumstances.  For example, as Dr. Natasha Jankowski of NILOA has pointed out, a timed online exam might be a reasonable way to assess students.  But what if their schedule is a complete mess, juggling altered work schedules, children at home, or their internet connection is being overloaded at that time?  Having students submit a video seems an excellent way to evaluate their speaking skills, but what if their internet connection cannot handle the bandwidth?

5) Everyone is stressed.  A lot.  A whole, whole lot.

The challenges of this sudden transition in format, especially for those of us who have never taught a distance-learning section, are hard to overstate.  But, as we know, it is also very hard on our students.  In addition, many of them may have lost their jobs, and over 40% were food insecure before this all hit.  With all of our lives in turmoil, it bears repeating:  Be Kind.  Be kind to our students, be kind to our colleagues, and, not least of all, we need to be kind to ourselves.