Learning assessments are fundamental to any eLearning process. Assessments, if designed well, can serve multiple purposes, including:
Supporting the elearning process
The active process of undertaking an assessment forces the learner to recall and apply their learning. ‘The Testing Effect,’ also known as ‘retrieval practice’ demonstrates that the more effort an individual learner devotes to recalling key knowledge and applying it in an assessment, the greater the level of long-term recall and learning. Every time a student has to retrieve a memory in order to answer a question or participate in an assessment, the strength of that memory is consolidated through the creation of additional brain synapses that reinforce and consolidate that piece of knowledge.
The aggregation of assessment results contribute to the evaluation of the effectiveness of a course or learning program, and can provide useful insights that inform course modifications and improvements.
Learner feedback / performance assessment
Assessments can assist individual learners in identifying strengths and shortcomings in their knowledge and highlight areas of further learning need.
This article explores a range of assessment techniques that can be applied in eLearning. It is vital that assessments are selected and designed with a specific objective in mind (not just assessment for assessments sake), and that care and effort are applied in the design of the assessment and the content that goes into the task.
Valid objectives with regard to assessment could include:
In deciding what assessment tool to use, it is useful to consider the purpose and context of the assessment. Assessment tasks can generally be grouped into three categories: summative, formative and diagnostic.
Summative assessment is the traditional method of testing, which is focussed on performance and is generally used to identify how much a student has learned at the end of a learning experience. Most of the techniques used, such as multiple-choice testing, are efficient, scalable and provide for objective results. They do not, however, typically provide insights into the learning process that the student has experienced, and nor do they provide opportunities to alter the learning pathway while the course is taking place.
Formative assessments are typically conducted during the learning experience, and are used to identify gaps in learning, which can then be used to provide additional learning support or a means to improve the course content. The goal of formative assessment is to serve as a vital feedback mechanism to both instructor and learner. The nature of formative feedback is ongoing, as opposed to an end-point evaluation.
Diagnostic assessment is about establishing ‘what the learner already knows’ prior to (pre-assessment), or while undertaking the course. Diagnostic tools provide valuable information about the current knowledge-base of a cohort of learners so that eLearning programs can be customised and focus on performance gaps.
A description of the types of tools available for use in eLearning contexts is provided below.
Multiple-choice tests are widely used and are very familiar to course administrators and learners alike. They are also very easily created using most eLearning authoring tools. They involve asking questions with a number of alternative answers (generally between 3–6 options), with one or more being correct. The learner’s task is to select the answer/s that are correct.
Figure 1. Example of a multiple-choice online test question
Multiple-choice tests offer a number of advantages:
Disadvantages of multiple-choice tests include:
Where concepts being tested have very clear answers, true/false tests may be appropriate. They are ideal for the assessment of knowledge of facts. They are very easy to create and assess, and they are very familiar questions for students to consider. They are, however, exposed to the same limitations posed by lower-order multiple-choice questions where answers can very easily be guessed correctly.
Matching exercises involve matching groups of information. For example, an activity might be matching data in two columns of information. They require a greater degree of interactivity compared to true/false questions or multiple-choice tests, and they are more difficult to guess correctly. They are a useful tool to add variety to assessments and to increase engagement with the learner.
Figure 2. Example of a matching exercise
Drag and drop eLearning assessments require the student to move, group, rank or reorganise visually presented shapes and concepts into a correct order or configuration. They are well-suited for the assessment of processes, procedural steps or sequences of events.
Drag and drop activities are well suited to visual learners, and generally require the learner to recall multiple pieces of information and relational data points. They are, therefore, very useful in consolidating knowledge and recall.
Figure 3. Drag and drop exercise example
Fill-in-the-blank questions, like true/false questions, require the learner to recall specific facts. However, unlike true/false questions, they are more difficult to guess, as the user needs to construct a word or sequence of words to fill a gap, rather than simply choose between two options. When creating fill in the blank questions, it may well be necessary to create multiple correct answers and allow for common misspellings.
Online journals involve the learner making notes or describing their knowledge on a particular topic. They can involve the learner writing down pre-course learning expectations, or they could support a post-course learning reflection.
As online journals are personal reflections, they provide opportunities for more complex, and potentially more sophisticated, learning evaluations. However, due to their subjective nature, journals tend to be less useful as an objective tool that can be used by course administrators or teachers to evaluate the effectiveness of a course.
As a diagnostic tool, journals provide an opportunity for learners to self-reflect on their level of knowledge before, during or after the completion of a learning experience.
The creation of scenarios or simulations are useful eLearning assessment tools that can be used for both diagnostic and performance assessment purposes.
Scenarios can be used in conjunction with other assessment methods, such as multiple-choice, true/false or drag and drop type questions. Text, video or animation-based scenarios will tend to promote learner engagement with the task, and therefore variety and interest to the learning experience.
Branching scenarios (which vary based on the responses to particular questions), commonly used in adaptive learning, can be used to identify what areas of knowledge are deficient, and therefore, what learning messages need to be prioritised.
Surveys can be a useful diagnostic tool for obtaining feedback from a learner or group of learners about any aspect of a learning process. They can be presented at the start or end of a course, and the results can often be aggregated to enable a statistical analysis.
As responses to surveys tend to be subjective, they are generally used as an evaluation tool rather than a performance assessment method.
Where the learner group is well-defined, online interviews (either individuals or a group) can be used by a course leader, teacher or facilitator to gather feedback on a course and the nature and extent of learning achieved.
While interviews are time-consuming and are not scalable across large learner groups, and can be costly to perform, they do, however, give the facilitator the flexibility to spontaneously modify their line of questioning based on responses received. In so doing, more nuanced and sophisticated insights about a course can be obtained.
There are a wide range of assessment tools available for use in the eLearning course development process. Most well established authoring platforms have templated assessment methods that can easily be applied and edited to suit the learning task at hand.
Assessment is a vital component of any learning process. In addition to serving a performance assessment purpose, they support active learning and recall, and facilitate evaluation of the effectiveness of courses.