Traditional exams may no longer be the best way to establish what a student has learnt. Online assessment not only evaluates what students know, it can develop their understanding, says Harriet Swain.
Online assessment is: a) a chance for hopeless students to get a right answer; b) a way for lecturers to avoid any direct contact with students; or c) a valuable learning tool.
The answer is "c", argues Gilly Salmon, professor of e-learning and learning technologies at Leicester University. She says assessment should reflect the skills students have learnt, which nowadays have more to do with using online resources than sitting down for three hours with a pen and paper, as most exams still demand.
But this means a radical rethink. The benefits of online assessment are the same as those of online learning - flexibility and re-usability, not concepts usually associated with exams. This means being open-minded about students taking an assessment more than once, or in their own time or space.
You also need to overcome worries about not knowing who is taking the test.
Increasingly, the use of passwords and biometrics is alleviating this problem. Salmon says it is also important to design a course and continuous assessment in such a way that it is difficult for somebody other than the relevant student to take the final test.
The other issue is plagiarism. Julia Duggleby, online learning manager for Sheffield College, says this can be overcome by personalising assessments as far as possible, either by asking students to apply what they have learnt to their own situation or by testing the same criteria but on different topics for different students.
But she also says you need to change the way you think about plagiarism.
"What we should be assessing is what learners know," she says. "One of the things they know how to do at the moment is pinch things. That's a bit of a skill." On the other hand, effective assessment should be able to identify what they really know and not only what they have taken from someone else, she says.
Denise Whitelock, director of the computer-assisted formative assessment project at the Open University, says a useful way of setting an e-assessment is to base your question on a common student misconception.
This will establish whether they have really understood what they have learnt and help them to develop this understanding if they don't yet have it.
She says it is possible to give hints and tips leading to a mark in summative assessments, as well as in formative assessments that just check progress. For example, if students get an answer wrong they can receive a message asking if they have thought of trying a particular technique. They can then have another go. In this situation, marks would be deducted but the advantage is that their understanding would be developed. If at the third attempt they still can't get the answer right, Whitelock says it's a good idea to offer them the chance to see what it should be - otherwise there is a risk they will be frustrated for the whole exam.
Be prepared for an increase in the number of questions students ask once e-assessments are over, she warns, because they rely more on students working things out for themselves. "When students start doing these sorts of e-assessment they start to understand what they don't know," she says.
Even if students know the answer, they often like to see the formal explanation of how it is arrived at because they cannot always articulate why they know it. Getting the explanation as clear as possible is therefore vital.
Duggleby says you need to be completely unambiguous in the wording you use for online assessment - unlike in face-to-face teaching, students don't have an opportunity to ask for clarification.
Clarity is important if students are working on an assessment together.
"Don't just ask them to discuss something in a vague way," Duggleby says.
"You need to ask for an end result - it might be a recommendation or checklist or summary, something that draws a line under that discussion."
She says constructive and motivational feedback is essential after each assessment to prevent students feeling isolated.
Research by David Nicol, director of the re-engineering assessment practices project, stresses the importance of students understanding what the assessment is looking for, of maintaining dialogue among students and of keeping them motivated.
He suggests one way to achieve this is to ask students to create multiple-choice questions, monitored by the tutor. This allows for plenty of feedback and peer interaction.
Programmes are being developed to set and mark short free-text questions online for formative assessments in arts-based subjects such as philosophy, but Whitelock says these should include a discussion forum alongside the tests so that students can check their understanding and continue peer discussion.
You also need to deal with practical problems. Rebecca Shilton, spokeswoman for the exam board Cambridge Assessment, says research on tests shows that basic familiarisation increases scores, so you should get students to familiarise themselves with the style of questions and practise using the online interface, including how to scroll, move to the next question and submit an answer. You must also stress the need to double-check answers, especially if the exam format doesn't allow for them to backtrack.
A study Whitelock carried out for the Joint Inform
ation Systems Committee found that e-assessment needs active institutional support from senior management, including pedagogical, technical and staff development support for tutors from central services if it is to be effective.
Duggleby says you should assess online little and often. That way you can keep a constant check on students' learning in the same way as you would if you saw them regularly face to face.
Re-engineering Assessment Practices project: www.reap.ac.uk
Joint Information Systems Committee roadmap for e-assessment: http:///jisc.ac.uk/elp_assessment.html