If You’re Teaching Online in the Summer, Part III: Rethinking exams, assignments, and other graded work

If the unexpected switch to remote teaching was your first experience moving a course online, you may have discovered that the exams, projects, performances, or other graded assignments that your students normally do in your face-to-face class don’t work as well (or don’t work at all) online. As you’re deciding how to adjust for summer, it’s useful to begin with the instructional purpose of exams, projects, and other graded assignments. This work should:

  1. Provide students with opportunities to apply what they are learning in the course, thus increasing their skill and fluency with the ideas or material; and
  2. Give both the instructor and the students useful information about students’ intellectual, professional, or personal growth (i.e., their progress toward the learning goals).

Though a particular method might be favored in your discipline, there’s no single right way to assess—or gather evidence of—students’ learning. Many different kinds of strategies can work as long as there is alignment among the goals, the graded work, and the practice and feedback students get in the course. Students only have a fair chance of success when the major components of a course are connected and coordinated, so we have to be careful to avoid, for example, testing them on things they haven’t had opportunities to practice.

Here are a few avenues you might take when you’re rethinking what to assign, how to grade, and how to make the most of students’ time:

  • Move from testing students’ ability to recognize or recall information to testing their higher-order thinking. This might look like switching to “open-book” exams, where you can ask the type of application and analysis questions that the internet can’t answer. Of course, if you’re moving to challenging higher-order questions, it’s essential that students have opportunities to practice this type of thinking before they have to do it for an exam.
  • Switch from high-stakes to low-stakes graded work and consider adding a culminating assignment or project. This might look like switching from giving three high-stakes exams to six lower-stakes “quizzes,” and then asking students to write a detailed reflection on what they learned at the end. Or it might look like switching from assigning a term paper to assigning a variety of shorter assignments, which students can put together into a portfolio with a cover letter at the end.
  • Switch from using exams to teaching through projects. If your class size allows, you can assign a project (or a sequence of projects) through which students will do most or even all of the learning that happens in the course. If you choose this method (called project-based learning), all of the smaller activities—the readings, discussion, research, brainstorming, drafting, etc.—should be in service to, or a component of, the project in one way or another. This way, students can use everything else they do in the course to make their projects better, and the work they do in the project can provide a window into their progress toward the goals of the course.
  • Work with students to develop an authentic assessment in which they do a project in a real-world context and can get feedback from real audiences. These kinds of projects engage students in “doing the discipline,” in a level-appropriate way. Examples include writing an op-ed, making a business plan, evaluating a case study, developing a website, creating an app, and more.

Among the benefits of trying one of these approaches, each one of them can lower students’ incentives and/or opportunities to cheat or plagiarize in an online course. And preventing academic dishonesty is so much better than having to police it.

If you’d like support as you determine what kind of graded work students will do in your remote or online courses, please contact us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu. We look forward to working with you.

Note: This is the third installment in a series of tips about teaching remotely this summer. If you’d like to look back at the earlier messages, in part one, we explored the first step in designing any course: determining what’s most important for students to learn. When the goals and priorities are reasonable and clear, students are better able to meet them, and we are better able to help. In part two, we discussed breaking the course in modules, so that students can understand the organization of the online course and stay on track during a compressed summer semester.