Evidence-based best practices for summative assessments in online or blended STEM learning environments

Dear Education Committee, While I have taught introductory cell and molecular biology for many years, this fall will be the first time I teach this course online, due to COVID-19. I am particularly concerned about how to format my exams. I usually give three during the semester and one final. I have always used a mix of multiple choice and short answer questions and have developed an excellent bank of questions I can pull from over the years. However, online, I’m worried that students might look up the answers online or communicate with others in the class. I want all my students to learn and worry about them cheating. What is the best way to assess student learning in an online environment?

Exasperated about Exams

Dear Exasperated about Exams,

Thanks for your timely question. So many instructors are grappling with how best to “summatively assess” student learning in our classes this fall, whether we do it through quizzes, exams, projects, presentations, or other assessments. Many of us had a crash course experience with online instruction in the spring but this time we get to plan our courses with a bit more time and care.

It is clear from your letter that you want to support your students and assess their learning but you also have concerns about cheating. Has cheating been an issue in your class before, or is this just a fear of the faculty? We encourage you to think about where these concerns are coming from and whether you have evidence for them. The concern about cheating often leads quickly to a student deficit model—one in which some students who are lacking are considered lazy or unmotivated. You might consider ways to assess learning that allow students to utilize the resources at their disposal. In other words, how can you as the instructor create an online learning environment and testing situation that will incentivize students to study, prepare, and show their knowledge on your exam. That’s ultimately the goal, isn’t it?

To start, consider backward design principles as you think about assessing student learning online. What are the most important learning outcomes in your course? Ideally, these outcomes include at least some higher-order thinking skills that are difficult to test with easily searchable questions. You might start by considering your bank of questions from past exams and sort those questions into those that are easily searchable and those that require more complex thinking. This may help you in the upcoming term but may even have long-term benefits as you weed out questions that do not directly align with your learning outcomes. One important thing to remember is that you cannot just make the assessment questions more complex without giving students practice answering more complex questions before they get to the exam. In other words, at least some questions asked on quizzes or assignments or during class should be similarly complex.1

An example of outcome-aligned teaching can be seen in the Four Dimensional Ecology Education or 4DEE framework, adopted by the Ecological Society of America in 2018 (https://www.esa.org/4DEE). This framework challenges educators to include core ecological concepts, ecology practices, human–environment interactions, and cross-cutting themes of biology throughout the curriculum, including assessments. While the details and specific dimensions of an assessment might vary for cell and molecular biology, the same principles can be applied. Prevost et al. offer an example of learning outcome and assessment.2

With regard to exam structures, let’s consider the options. The suggestions below come primarily from the March 2020 CBE—Life Sciences Education (LSE) webinar with experts from around the country, Online with LSE: Transitioning to Online Instruction (www.ascb.org/ascb-meetings/online-with-lse-transitioning-to-online-instruction). As the panelists point out numerous times, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how you should do your online assessments. That said, here are some considerations:

High stakes vs. lower stakes? Many students face anxiety as we transition to online learning. Would it be possible in your course to have more lower-stakes test opportunities for students, such as more frequent, shorter tests that are each worth fewer points, rather than a few high-stakes opportunities? This may help with student anxiety and also give you more feedback about how students are doing in your course.

Exams vs. presentations or projects? Is a high-stakes exam necessary to meet your learning outcomes? Would a project or presentation be more aligned with your key learning outcomes? Is an individual or group project feasible with your class size? If so, consider switching to a presentation or project. Be sure to give students a rubric in advance so they are aware of expectations for the assignment and for grading. This will help lower the stakes for the project and help improve the quality of student work.3

Timed vs. untimed? There are certainly benefits to using both timed and untimed exams. An untimed exam gives students the opportunity to reflect on course material and draw connections. A timed exam can help to incentivize the kind of preparation that is more similar to an in-class exam. If you do use a timed exam, consider using explicit instructions to students that they should study in advance and organize their notes prior to the start of the exam. Let students know that if they are not prepared in advance, they will not have time or the ability to Google and learn the material during the exam.

Another important point discussed in the LSE webinar is that it would help lower the stakes to give students practice with lower-stakes, timed assessments. Perhaps consider one or more short quizzes that students take to practice using this format and the software you plan on using. Regardless of whether the exams you give are timed or untimed, consider making them “open note” and allowing the use of online resources. Done well, this approach can help students develop their skills in gathering and making sense of information rather than simply memorizing and regurgitating facts that are easy to find in a search. If your exams cannot be open notes or open Internet, you can consider using a proctoring service, if that is available at your institution. These can be expensive and can cause technical issues, especially for students with spotty internet service or older devices.

Individual vs. group? While they may not be suitable for all teaching contexts, group exams may allow you to use collaboration among your students to promote their learning. In one study of group exams with open-ended questions, Cooke, et al. showed that there can be benefits to students’ long-term retention of course material.4 Breakout groups could be used to allow groups to interact during the exam, or groups could meet offline, using group messaging or other communication tools, to collaborate.

When considering these various options for exams or other summative assessments, I encourage you to remember that:

  • You can try something and then change it if it does not work;
  • There is no single right way to give exams in an online course. Rather you will try things and refine based on what is working for your course, your students, and your institution;
  • Rethinking how students are assessed could be an opportunity to realign your exams with your learning outcomes, and to encourage students to move beyond lower-order memorization toward a deeper and more connected understanding of the biology they learn in your class.

Regardless of the type of assessment you choose, be kind to yourself and your students in this time of uncertainty. Remember that even if you could give your assessments in person this semester, it would look drastically different than it ever has before with masked students and spiking anxiety every time someone coughs. We are experiencing an abnormal era but we hope you can make the most of it in support of student learning.

The Education Committee

References 1Tanner K, Allen D (2004). Approaches to biology teaching and learning: From assays to assessments—on collecting evidence in science teaching. Cell Biology Education 3, 69–74. 2Prevost L, Sorensen AE, Doherty JH, Ebert-May D, Pohlad B (2019) 4DEE—What’s next? Designing instruction and assessing student learning. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 100(3), 1–6. 3Allen D, Tanner K (2006). Rubrics: Tools for making learning goals and evaluation criteria explicit for both teachers and learners. CBE—Life Sciences Education 5, 197–203. 4Cooke JE, Weir L, Clarkston B (2019). Retention following two-stage collaborative exams depends on timing and student performance. CBE—Life Sciences Education 18, ar12.

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EdComm is the short name for ASCB’s Education Committee.