The shift to online learning calls upon educators to reimagine the ways we structure our courses and facilitate the learning experience. With that comes the imperative to modify the way that we assess student learning. Even this fall term will be different from the swift move to online that many instructors experienced in the spring, now that we’ve had some months to get used to the idea of teaching online and have some experience under our belts. It’s important to remember that we are teaching online in the context of a global pandemic and that these are indeed exceptional times. As such, it is crucial to be not even necessarily our best teacher-selves but our best human-selves. This means remembering that our students are going through it and that we faculty have a responsibility to teach with compassion. Compassion is especially important in designing assessments for our pandemic-era courses, and it does not mean fostering a culture of slacking off or aiming for pedagogical mediocrity in order to prove the point that in-person education is better than online. Indeed, the pre-pandemic fear of online education replacing the in-person seminar where learning magic happens seems to be less of a threat now that administrators see how much money their schools are losing with online classes and how much value students place on the college experience, complete with the campus landscape, the library, and even the hard chairs in the lecture halls. I do not see aiming for excellent online courses as selling out or abetting the impending automation of teaching; rather, incorporating online best practices into my brave new teaching world is making the best of the situation and helping me ensure that my classes are inclusive.
Whether we are zooming into our virtual class meetings or creating an asynchronous course, assessment is a constant in our teaching. How can we design assessments that are adapted to online learning while also incorporating the principles of personal learning, which in essence means empowering students to make decisions about their own education and learning and to participate in building their coursework? At best, personal learning can make the education experience compassionate. Again, incorporating a spirit of personal learning into your course does not mean dumping or watering down your learning objectives. Rather, it means offering some flexibility within a range of possibilities that could all satisfy the pre-established requirements and learning objectives. Yes, assessment can be humane, personal, and rigorous. Here are some ideas to add that personal-learning touch to online teaching.
First, Chill Out and Give Students the Benefit of the Doubt
Perhaps you feel responsible for instilling good work habits in your students, and therefore you refuse to accept late work or you punitively grade work submitted after the deadline. Stop. Now is the time to give students the benefit of the doubt when they miss deadlines. Remember, some of them are essential workers, some have had to move back into abusive homes, some of them are taking care of children or other family members, and some are getting sick themselves. If you make it clear that your deadlines are soft and that they will not be docked points for late work, most of them will still turn in their work on time, and the ones who miss the deadline will turn in something better than they would have had they rushed it. Soft deadlines let students know that you recognize that life is unpredictable and that it is acceptable to prioritize their health and families during a pandemic. Of course, you should be clear about the hard deadline at the end of the term after which you will need to turn in grades. In my experience, creating soft deadlines also fosters a culture of transparency and care in the learning community, and students become more inclined to tell you when they are missing a deadline rather than just avoiding you and slipping off into the abyss.
Another way that we can give students the benefit of the doubt is to just say no to surveillance software that records students as they work. It’s an invasion of privacy, and I would argue that this kind of pre-emptive discipline is more aligned with the practices that make up the school-to-prison pipeline. Given education’s historically dominant role in enforcing and perpetuating systemic racism, police-like surveillance undermines any efforts toward anti-racist pedagogy and inclusive teaching.
Faculty and administration paranoia about cheating is our problem, not our students’ problem, and by that I mean that we need to eliminate the pressures and the opportunities to cheat from our assessment design. Consider an open-book, open-note assessment. Try questions with open-ended answers. Ask students to produce the knowledge instead of memorizing specific responses. Create assessments that don’t need monitoring.
More Assessment Opportunities, Lower Stakes
Several colleges, including my own, are encouraging instructors who are adapting to online learning to scrap those high-stakes exams that determine the bulk of a student’s final grade. To be sure, instructors who pivoted online in spring 2020 mid-term who had designed their students’ grades to be based mostly on a big final exam were flabbergasted when their institutions implemented rules for “no-harm” finals, meaning that students were suddenly given the option to either take the final or not and that those who decided not to take it would keep their pre-final grades. Indeed, how can students choose their pre-final grades when there has been no assessment prior to the final?
It’s important to offer several low-stakes assessments that simultaneously give students numerous opportunities to earn their grades and enable you, the instructor, to get to know their work over the course of the term. This is especially crucial in asynchronous classes.
Low-stakes assessments can be short multiple-choice and true/false quizzes about the material. Required participation in a discussion forum can be a low-stakes assessment. Reading responses and short-answer quizzes are excellent low-stakes assessments.
Creating more assessments might sound like a time suck, but many learning management systems and plug-ins have tools to help you design assessment activities that are self-grading and enter the grades automatically into a gradebook.1
The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Model
One of the possibilities that asynchronous online teaching offers is to allow students to choose their own adventures. This model is already pretty common in assessment, for example when we let students choose topics for their own assessments. Another common choose-your-own-adventure practice is to give students options for a high-stakes assessment such as a midterm paper OR a presentation OR an exam OR a creative project and to allow students to pick the assessment that works best with their interests and strengths. Implementing the personal-learning strategy of having students pick their own assessment style can result in more meaningful work for them, and more interesting work for you to grade.
The choose-your-own-adventure model can be expanded to the course design and can result in an inclusive and compassionate course, especially during these unpredictable times. One implementation would be to offer several options of assignments and require a minimum to complete. For example, perhaps the course website has 20 possible activities and students must complete 15.
They can choose those 15 based on their interests, or they can choose what they are able to do. For example, in the event that they fall ill or that they must care for a sick family member, they can skip certain activities and pick up where they left off to still complete the minimum requirements for the course. This model ensures that students can be successful despite the unprecedented challenges they are facing. A choose-your-own adventure course works best with soft deadlines and several opportunities for assessment.
Reimagining Assessment in Online Language Classes
Language courses present unique challenges for reimagining online assessment to be personal, inclusive, and compassionate. Many language departments are insisting on video chat as the centerpiece of their online classes, even though such an approach is anxiety-inducing and disregards the damage the video dynamic does to the affective filter. To lower the affective filter in the class, instructors can create more asynchronous communicative activities without required use of the webcam. For example, simulate the kind of communication that students would have with a friend in the L2 by assigning texting or chat partners. Provide a prompt with questions that students can ask each other using the target grammatical structures and vocabulary and ask students to certify to you that they had their texting conversation by a (soft) deadline. Similarly, conversation groups with prompts for their discussions can meet on video or audio chat. When assigning text or conversation groups, be mindful of student privacy by allowing them to choose their own platforms for meeting with their groups. For example, some students might prefer instant messaging instead of giving out their phone numbers for texting, and others might not want to use their cameras for conversation. To keep a low affective filter for oral assessments, consider allowing students to submit recordings of their voices to give presentations or respond to prompts. While this kind of assignment is inherently very different than live oral exams where students role-play or answer questions in real time, it enables them to have more control over what they turn in and it avoids the double blow of anxiety that speaking an L2 and using video chat can cause. Ultimately, our focus should be on fostering a supportive environment and designing assessments that enable students to demonstrate their mastery without adding unnecessary stress.
Dr. Kristal Bivona holds a PhD in Hispanic languages and literatures. She is the assistant director of the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University, where she also teaches.
1 See Bivona, K. (2018). “Digital DIY,” Language Magazine, www.languagemagazine.com/2018/10/12/digital-diy/.