Assessment Tasks in Online Courses (Distance Learning)


Assessment tasks refer to tasks that an instructor requires students to complete and that counts towards their final grades in a course. Assessment tasks, in the relevant literature, are also called assessment (e.g., Dirks, 1998), assessment methods (e.g., Flinders University, 2002), assignments (e.g., Arend, 2006), or assessment tools (e.g., Simonson, Smaldino,Albright, & Zvacek, 2002). While there is a plethora of literature on assessment tasks in traditional environments, there is a paucity of discussions on assessment tasks in online environments (Comeaux, 2005). This short chapter discusses

(1) importance of assessment tasks in online courses,

(2) opportunities and challenges that online environments bring to assessment tasks, and (3) principles and strategies in design and use of assessment tasks in online courses.

importance of assessment tasks in online courses

The importance of assessment tasks has been well documented in the literature. First, instructors can indicate what they think is important in the courses they teach through the assessment tasks they use (Anderson, Bauer & Speck, 2002). To a certain extent, assessment methods are teaching methods as well (Dewald, Scholz-Crane, Booth, & Levine, 2000). Boud (1995) further points out students can escape bad teaching (e .g., finding an excuse for being absent from a class) but they cannot escape bad assessment. Not surprisingly, therefore, assessment is acknowledged as a fundamental element in course design (Christen, 2003; Liang & Creasy, 2004).

The assessment tasks used by instructors also affect the depth of student learning, the learning strategies they take, and how they manage their study time (Australia National Training Authority, 2002; Brown, Bull, & Pendlebury, 1997). Furthermore, from the feedback they receive on the assessment task they complete, students can tell to what extent their learning outcomes met the instructors’ expectations. Assessment is also a key factor in motivating or demotivating students in learning (Boud, 1995; Harlen & Crick, 2003). Considering these important roles that assessment plays in teaching and learning, it is reasonable to agree with others (e.g., Anderson, 2004; Hannafin, Hill, Oliver, & Glazer, 2003) that no factor influences a learning environment as much as assessment.

Assessment tasks are even more important in online environments because of the special characteristics of the delivery mode (Rovai, 2000). According to Anderson (2004), most online students, who are busy adults with many family and work commitments, tend to be more practical and are less likely to participate in activities that are viewed as supplemental to the course goals and assessment scheme. Morgan further point out that in face-to-face environments instructors have opportunities to go over the course materials with students, while in online environments, where students have more flexibility in deciding when and what course materials to read, “the instructor’s efforts may be wasted unless assessment tasks are closely aligned and interwoven with study materials” (p.22).

Opportunties and challenges for assessment tasks in online couRsEs

Online environments bring opportunities and challenges to assessment tasks (e.g., Comeaux, 2005; Rovai, 2000). The key opportunities and challenges indicated by the literature are summarized in Table 1 below.

principles and strategies in design and use of assessment tasks

Many general principles of good assessment practice apply in any learning environments and context, al though how to implement these principles may differ. The following are some key principles that appear to be especially important for an online environment:

Table 1. Summary of key opportunities and challenges for assessment tasks in online environments


• Every learner has the opportunity to respond to every question the instructor asks (Liu, 2006).

• Students have more opportunities and ways to receive feedback (Comeaux, 2005). For instance, students could receive feedback on their assessment tasks (e. g. , weblogs that they are required to write for a course) from not only their instructor, but from their peers, experts in the field, and even the public at large.

• Students have greater flexibility in where, when, and how assessment is taken (Australian National Training Authority, 2002)

• Instructors can provide immediate feedback to individual students via the aid of the automatic feedback mechanisms (Booth, et al. , 2003)

• Instructors can track, monitor, and document students’ activities and learning process conveniently with the technology (Comeaux, 2005; Liu, 2007).


• Instructors may find that there is more grading work to be done (Bonk & Dennen, 2003; Morgan & O’Reilly, 1999)

• Instructors may find it more challenging to handle cheating and plagiarism issues, e.g., the instructor may not know whether it is the student who is actually taking the exams at a distance (Christen, 2003; McKeachie, 2002)

• Assessment tasks should match teaching and learning objectives of the course (e.g., Bonk & Dennen, 2003; Morgan and O’ 1999).

• Assessment tasks should be ongoing, monitoring the process as well as the product of student learning (e.g., Rabinowitz, 1995; Rovai, 2000).

• Assessment tasks should be sufficiently flexible to accommodate circumstances and needs of students (e.g., Australian National Training Authority, 2002).

• Assessment tasks should be explicit concerning its objectives, values, requirements, and grading criteria (e.g., Brown, Race, & Brenda, 1996; Simonson, et al, 2002).

• Assessment tasks should be authentic, helping students to apply what they learn in the real world (e.g., Heyes, 1999; Hjelm & Baker, 2001).

Based on relevant literature (e.g., Flinders University, 2002; Fripp, 1997; Hotton & Smith, 1995; Liu, 2007; Mason, Pegler, & Weller, 2004), Table 2 below summarizes advantages and limitations of some assessment tasks as well as strategies in design and use of them. These assessment tasks include asynchronous discussions, quizzes and exams, essays, simulations, reflections, and e-portfolios.


This short article reviews the importance of assessment tasks in online courses, opportunities and challenges that online environments bring to assessment tasks, as well as principles and strategies in design and use of assessment tasks in online environments. The advantages and limitations of some types of assessment tasks are also described. It is worth mentioning that much of the literature available on online assessment is anecdotal or opinion-based, as many researchers (e.g., Arend, 2006; Liang & Creasy, 2004) note, more research is needed to explore this important area.

Table 2. Summary of advantages and limitations of some assessment tasks and suggested strategies in design and use of them

Type of assessment



Suggested strategies

Asynchronous discussions

• Increase interactions among students

• Help build learning community

• Help students to be reflective learners

• Time consuming to grade

• Hard to grade quality of discussions

• Some students may feel forced to participate

• State objectives and rationales for using this assessment task

• Provide clear guidelines for the discussion

• Explain how the discussion will be graded

Quizzes and exams (mainly multiple choice questions)

• Easy to score

• Objective in grading

• Difficult to write quality items

• Challenging in assessing higher order thinking skills

• Be clear about purposes of using the quiz and/or exam

• Decide how necessary to ask students to take the quiz and exam as closed book

• Decide how long students should be given in taking the quiz and exam, how many times they are allowed to take, and whether collaborations among students are allowed


• Easier and faster to construct

• Opportunity for students to develop an extended argument

• Test student’s ability to compose an answer and present it in logical manner

• Low scoring reliability

• Time-consuming to read and grade

• Highly subject to bias by the graders

• May involve cheating and plagiarism issues

• Provide specific guidelines and grading criteria

• Have a colleague as the second rater

• Ask students to provide drafts and/or

• list resources they refer to


• Help increase learners’ motivation

• Offer a risk-free environment

• Provide authentic and experiential learning experiences

• Provide quick feedback

• Promote critical and evaluative thinking

• Extensive preparation time

• May have high cost

• Complicated to assess

• Match the complexity of the program with learning objectives

• Make instruction and grading criteria clear to students

• Take into consideration student access to the technology and other relevant factors in choosing simulations and grading student performance


• Help students internalize what they have learned

• Encourage student critical thinking and self-efficacy skills

• Help assess students’ learning process and their understanding of knowledge in greater depth

• Can be time consuming

• Maybe involves privacy issues

• Grading can be challenging

• Be clear about the purpose of using reflections in the course

• Decide to use the assessment task in an informal or formal way

• Provide grading criteria, such as referring to the four types of reflections defined by Hotton & Smith (1995), i.e., descriptive writing, descriptive reflection, dialogic reflection, and critical reflection


• Allow access to different artifacts and make presenting and sharing much easier

• Can be easily modified to meet specific goals

• Foster active learning

• Provide more detailed picture of student achievements than test scores

• Require higher computer skills

• Require quite an amount of time and effort for students to complete and instructor to grade

• Require cross-platform compatibility

• Challenging for students who are not used to self-directed learning

• Be sure that the purpose and requirements of the portfolio assignment is clearly communicated to students

• Let students know early on if they should collect certain artifacts/kinds of artifacts to illustrate their knowledge and skills.

• Provide clear grading criteria


Alterative Assessment: Alternative assessment refers to such assessment tasks as case analysis, simulations, and e-portfolios. Such assessment is considered more appropriate and effective for measuring higher order thinking skills.

Assessment Tasks: Tasks that instructors ask students to complete and count towards their final grades in a course.

Authentic Assessment: A form of assessment that requires students to demonstrate knowledge and skills in performing real-world tasks.

e-Portfolio: A purposeful electronic collection of work done by a student over time. This type of assessment allows students to demonstrate their efforts, progress, and achievements in one or more areas of the curriculum.

Online Courses: Courses are offered at a distance. Students do not need to come to campus and can take the course via the Internet.

Performance Assessment: A form of assessment that require s students to perform a complex task that has to do with producing a certain product or performing a specific task. This assessment can be used to evaluate any learning that is skill-based or behavioral.

Traditional Assessment: Traditional assessment refers to such testing techniques as multiple choice questions, fill-in-the-blanks, true-false, matching, and essays.

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