6 Assessment: helping students develop and demonstrate knowledge and skills

There are many ways for assessment to work in order for learners to build knowledge, track their progress (formative assessment), and to assign grades (summative assessment).

Principles for assessment

The University of Calgary created a thoughtful explanation of key principles to consider for online assessments, including their reasons, how to enact the principle, and further reading. The main points are:

  • Focus on learning (especially the most important aims of the course)
  • Balance structure with flexibility (consider potential/known challenges students are facing during the pandemic)
  • Provide clear instructions and quality, prompt feedback
  • When possible, replace timed exams with other types of assessments
  • Emphasize academic integrity (e.g., through conversations early and often, and an academic integrity statement in the syllabus)

Asynchronous assessment options

Here are some options for structuring assessments over the course of the semester. We suggest relying less on marks from midterm and final exams, and providing more marks from other sources:

  • Moodle quizzes; posted weekly on, say, Thursdays and due the following Wednesday
  • Complete a problem set (not evaluated, just for learning purposes); questions & answers posted as PDFs

Other alternatives include:

  • Summarize weekly reading; submit as a Brightspace assignment
  • Collaborative assignments; submit as a Brightspace assignment

Synchronous assessment options

  • Answer a series of questions in class – the instructor can review and expand on the answers or move on if the concept is well-understood. For example LectureTools and Menti are classroom response systems that can be used to gauge students’ understanding of material in near real time—they work as an online version of a clicker.
  • Submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a concept on Menti.


In short

A new situation requires new approaches, and one of the most challenging parts of moving to remote teaching is figuring out how to evaluate students’ learning.

To make a long story short, if you wish to give a fairly traditional exam under these non-traditional circumstances, we recommend:

  • a collaborative, open-book exam*
  • an individual, open-book exam*
  • if open-book exams cannot work, an exam using an online proctoring system

Whatever the exam style, administering the exam will require significant changes relative to typical, in-person exams. It is worth remembering that relatively few students cheat on exams. Most students live up to requirements around academic integrity, although an open book exam is probably going to be collaborative whether you want it to be or not, at least for a few students. Honest students may themselves feel cheated if they know that others have not upheald academic integrity standards and that is also a consideration.

Honour codes can also be used to emphasize and teach students about academic integrity and ethics; students can sign a declaration at the start of their exam attesting that they agree to follow the exam’s guidelines.

Practical details

To give a collaborative, open-book exam, set a small, maximum group size (e.g., 3). Students should not self-organize the groups. Communicate clearly with students about how answers are to be submitted (e.g., there is one submission per group, submit as a Moodle “assignment”, answers will be checked using plagiarism software). You can require students to certify that they have participated equally in the preparation of answers.

Suggestions for open book exams. Icon credits to Freepik, Eucalyp, Smashicons, Geotatah, and Goodware.
Tips for using open book exams, from MacEwan University. To learn more, consult the following resources for: question types and a discussion of advantages/disadvantages.

Open Book Assessments

First of all, consider the learning outcomes for your course. Are there outcomes that students have not yet met that you need to assess? Make sure these are outcomes that you have already taught or be prepared to add learning activities and resources to prepare students for these assessments. Remember, now is not to time to increase learner anxiety or place more demands on them.

Consider substituting a different assessment for your final exam. For example, perhaps you can assess the same learning with:

  • a case study,
  • problem-solving questions,
  • portfolios, or
  • self-reflective activities.

Open Book Exams

If you want to maintain an exam approach, we encourage you to adopt an open book exam. Michelle Schwartz, Educational Developer at Ryerson University, has prepared a document on Open Book Exams that we recommend. As Schwartz states,

In the broadest sense, an open book exam allows students to consult some form of reference material in the course of completing the exam. Open book exams and closed book exams have different pedagogical ends. While a closed book exam “places a premium on accurate and extensive recall, and unless carefully designed, its assessment of students’ knowledge is likely to be dominated by that ability” (Gupta, 2007), an open book exam places the focus on higher level learning. Because open book exams don’t have the same emphasis on memorization, questions can move up Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, and ask students to analyze, evaluate, or synthesize knowledge, rather than just remember it.

Design your exams to take advantage of being open book:

  • Questions should be designed so students “do things with the information available to them, rather than merely locate and summarize or rewrite it.”
  • Allow enough time. It may take your students longer to complete an open book exam.
  • Make sure you are clear in your marking criteria.

A Guide for Open Book Exams: The University of Newcastle Australia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning has created A Guide for Academics – Open Book Exams which provides more specific advice and questions types that you may also find useful.

Further Resources

Chan C. (2009) Assessment: Open-book Examination, Assessment Resources@HKU, University of Hong Kong.
Farrell, M. and Maheu, S. (April 5, 2019). Why Open-book Tests Deserve a Place in Your Courses. Faculty Focus.
Schwartz, M. (n.d.). Open Book Exams. Ryerson University.

Managing your marking load

It’s also important as you consider assessment for your remote course that you keep your own workload in mind. Again, Brenna Gray’s webinar Managing Your Marking Load provides some practical tips that you may find helpful. The slides are also a good reference: Managing Your Marking Load.

To go deeper

Up next

The next chapter addresses communication in the course, both between you and students and well as among students themselves.