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Revised July 2014


The core premise of this overview is a discussion about the purpose of assessment for online courses. As demands for accountability increase at the university level, instructors are increasingly asked to provide evidence that students are learning. Often, this evidence is viewed in light of state requirements and accreditation standards.

Purposes of Assessment

Use of the term assessment generally refers to the various methods that may be used to obtain information about the amount of learning. Tests or exams are types of assessment instruments. To make inferences about the amount of learning, some form of measurement is usually employed to assign some measure of worth based on the student’s responses to items on the particular assessment instrument. You have a variety of choices in the types of assessment instruments you employ in your online course.

Regardless of the type of assessment in your online course, some general considerations are warranted. Your assessment must produce valid and meaningful data so you can make valid inferences about student learning and the effectiveness of your teaching activities. Assessments must be developed that minimize error in measurement. Failure to minimize error means that incorrect levels of achievement or effectiveness may be inferred.

In simple terms, assessment is some mechanism to determine how well students demonstrate what you expect them to know as a result of instruction. This may be thought about as the degree of "fit" between what you expect students to learn and what they actually do learn. Kellough and Kellough (as cited in Buzzetto-More & Alade, 2006, p. 253) identified multiple purposes of assessment:

  • Improve student learning
  • Identify students’ strengths and weaknesses
  • Review, assess, and improve the effectiveness of different teaching strategies
  • Review, assess, and improve the effectiveness of curricular programs
  • Improve teaching effectiveness
  • Provide useful administrative data that will expedite decision making
  • To communicate to stakeholders

Assessment Considerations for Online Courses

Formative and Summative Considerations

In broad terms, assessment may be divided into two broad categories. One category is characterized by a concern for using assessment to provide feedback to learners and the instructor during the learning process. Often described as formative assessment, this category is interested in providing ongoing information to shape learning processes or to provide feedback and evidence on the effectiveness of instructional methods. The second category is characterized by concerns for assigning some measure of worth. Assessments in this category are typically administered after the learning activities are complete and are often used for assigning grades or scores to the learning.

One way to think about these two large categories is to think of the formative assessment category as an assessment for learning. The decision to use formative assessments is often motivated by a desire for the instructor to know more about how well students are learning at a particular point in the course. Formative assessments are also useful to allow students to self-assess their understanding before a summative test of the material. In contrast, the summative assessment category can be thought of as an assessment of learning.

Criterion-referenced Interpretation and Norm-referenced Interpretation Considerations

Another important assessment consideration centers on the types of interpretations you intend to use in the course. In general, we can classify interpretations based on assessment into two major categories: Criterion-referenced interpretations and norm-referenced interpretations. Criterion-referenced interpretations interpret results on the basis of some measure of performance that can be interpreted in terms of the degree of mastery. Norm-referenced interpretations use an individual’s standing or rank in relation to some known group. In the online class, you must decide whether you intend to assign grades to individual students, independent of how other students performed on the same assessment or whether the performance of all students impacts the grades of all students.

Grading that uses the percentage of points earned in relation to total points available are one example of a criterion-referenced interpretation. On the other hand, grading on the curve means that the student’s grade is based on his or her rank in the class.

Developing Your Assessment System

Each instructor will need to balance formative and summative assessment considerations with interpretation preferences. The highly personal nature of teaching and assessment beliefs will dictate how you approach your assessment system.
Svinicki (1999) suggests that an assessment system should be relevant, reliable, recognizable, and realistic. Relevancy is concerned with ensuring that all assessments accurately reflect the skill, concept, or knowledge being assessed. That is, there is alignment between the learning outcome and the assessment instrument. There should also be a clear and visible relationship between what was taught and what was assessed. One way to ensure this is to develop assessments directly from the learning outcomes or objectives. Reliable assessments should consistently yield similar results. The greater the degree of congruence between your judgment criteria and task requirements, the more reliable the assessment will be over time. Recognizable assessment activities are highly transparent. This means that students know, in specific detail, how they will be assessed and how learning activities prepare them for the assessment. Realistic assessment systems are designed so that the amount of information obtained by the instructor is balanced by the amount of work required by the student. This reduces the tendency for assessments to contain irrelevant elements that waste the student’s time and are not used for interpretation by the instructor.


All of the elements discussed in this document are important for assessment in the online environment. You should decide on your need for ongoing information about student mastery and teaching effectiveness. You should decide on assessments that are used to assign a measure to the degree of mastery. You should reflect on how you intend to interpret the results of these assessments in order to assign grades. Finally, you should consider how to create an assessment system that is relevant, reliable, recognizable, and realistic.

Each consideration for assessment has a definite place in the online course but it is important to realize that no single assessment will successfully serve to meet all of the elements outlined above. Assessment systems, with a balance of formative and summative assessments that align to the four R’s, provide the greatest chance that you will be able to make valid interpretations based on the evidence presented by students.


Bocij, P. & Greasley, A. (1999). Can computer-based testing achieve quality and efficiency in assessment? International Journal of Educational Technology, 1(1).

Buzzetto-More, N. & Alade, A. (2006). Best practices in e-assessment. Journal of Information Technology Education 5, 251-269.

Cassady, J. C. & Gridley, B. E. (2005). The effects of online formative and summative assessment on test anxiety and performance. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 4(1).

Svinicki, M. (1999). Testing and grading. In Teachers and students A sourcebook for UT-Austin faculty. Austin, TX: Center for Teaching Effectiveness.

page last updated 7/17/2014 11:46 AM