Online Teaching & Learning

This guide was created in partnership with The Centre for Teaching and Learning & Library and Learning Services.

Principle 6

Use Appropriate Assessment Methods: Clearly align assessment methods with intended course outcomes; provide clear criteria for evaluation; emphasize deep learning; scaffold assessments to ensure progressive learning.

Assessing Learning in Online Environments

You may feel that assessing online learning experiences is limited to multiple choice quizzes. However, through careful design and technology use, there are other assessment options to effectively assess how well learners achieve learning outcomes in an online environment.

Consider the following: How do you measure learning online? How will learners demonstrate their understanding in the online space? What tools and/or approaches have you used before that could be modified and adapted online?

What does 'Good' Formative Feedback look like Online?

  • Ongoing throughout the learning experience
  • Timely and frequent
  • User-friendly
  • Clear and specific
  • Broken down into manageable pieces of information, then built back up over time
  • Balanced: confirms what learners did well in addition to stating areas for improvement
  • Provides very specific and targeted user-friendly feedback
  • Provides helpful advice, based on feedback
  • Reflects long-term, not just immediate, learning goals
  • Is low stakes: emphasis is on helpful, honest feedback and self-assessment
  • Informs subsequent instruction

(Wiggins & McTighe, 2006)


Formative Summative

What is it?

  • Assessment for learning
  • Generally low stakes - little or no point value
  • Assessment of learning
  • Generally high stakes – there are grades attached


Helps determine to what extent instructional and learning goals have been met, by

  • Summarizing learning at a given point in time (a “snapshot”)
  • Evaluating student learning against criteria (e.g., rubric)
  • Assigning value/grades to student effort


  • Ask students to:
    • Submit a research proposal for early feedback
    • Draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
    • Submit 1-2 sentences identifying main point(s) of a lecture
    • Monitor and reflect on their own progress, such as completing a self and peer assessment form
  • Pose questions of students during class
  • Listen to students questions and comments
  • Observe students’ body language and facial expressions (informal observation)
  • Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATS), e.g., clickers (see Angelo & Cross, 1993 for more CATs)
  • Midterm or final exam
  • Final project or paper
  • Quizzes
  • Lab reports

When is it given?

During a learning period/cycle or unit of instruction. That is, it’s part of the instructional process.

Typically at the end of a learning period/cycle or unit of instruction.

(Buchholz & Troop, 2014)

In assessing online learning, it is important to create a “mix” of assignments that cover the multiple dimensions of learning that online courses can employ. Traditional tests become a smaller part of the grade as you move towards encouraging student interaction on group projects and other activities. Different forms of assessment include: 

  • End of semester paper 
  • Weekly tests 
  • Group projects
  • Case study analysis 
  • Journals 
  • Reading responses 
  • Chatroom responses 
  • Threaded discussions participation  

For a sample of teaching and learning technologies, view McGill's Teaching and Learning Service (TLS).

Students in online courses are in particular need of clear information about course requirements and instructor expectations. Develop specific grading guidelines for course assignments and activities ahead of time so students know in advance what is expected of them. For example, articulate what are appropriate responses to questions in online discussions, what is a substantive answer versus a superficial response, etc. Providing students with specific examples of the kinds of work you are looking for is also helpful.

The gradebook feature in SLATE makes it possible to store all information about students’ performance in one place. It also makes it possible for students to look up their own progress on assignments.

  • At the start of the semester, clarify the type of feedback you will be giving (regarding discussion participation, writing assignments, group work, etc.) so students have a clearer sense of what to expect from you.
  • Students want feedback on assignments, but it is often difficult to provide much feedback when you use a number of varied assignments throughout the semester. You can create a comment bank to give students feedback so they know they are able to proceed, need to work on a particular area, or need more substantive feedback from you.
  • The gradebook feature in SLATE has a comment section where the instructor can give specific feedback to a student on an assignment that can only be seen by the instructor and that student.
  • Be clear from the start about what is allowed and what is not permitted when students take a test online (e.g., is the test “open book,” are there time limits on how long they can take to complete the test, etc.)
  • Because it is difficult to ensure that students taking an online exam are not using their books, some faculty encourage open book exams but place a time limit on how long students have to complete the test. These instructors believe that if a student knows where to go in the text book to get the information they need in a timely fashion then that student has clearly done the reading, and the issue of memorizing the information is less important. The Quiz function in SLATE allows you to limit the time students have to write a test and Respondus Lockdown Browser prevents them from accessing any other online material.
  • Help students become more reflective learners by asking them to set their goals for the course at the beginning of the semester. At the end of the course, ask them to return to their goals to reflect upon what they’ve accomplished.
  • The majority of students focus their academic effort on those elements of the course that will affect their grade in the course. Be sure that your grading policies reinforce the activities and assignments you value and that you take advantage of learning activities that are particularly suited for an online course. For example, if you want students to meaningfully participate in online discussions, be sure to include participation as part of the grading scheme.
  • Require students to participate in specific numbers of discussion boards.
  • Have interactive learning activities (e.g., discussion boards) account for a high percentage of the course grade.
  • Identify the qualities you look for in discussions and grade students according to those criteria (see sample discussion board rubric).

Adapted from Poe, M. Stassen, M.L.A. (n.d.) Teaching and learning online: Communication, community and assessment [PDF file]. Retrieved from 

So...You Need to Put Your Exam Online?

“So… you need to move your exam online” sideshow by Giulia Forsythe.

Consider the ICE Approach to Learning and Assessment

The ICE framework offers an alternative approach to learning and assessment—one that embraces a (w)holistic conception of learning and development. To find out more about how to mobilize the ICE approach in your teaching and learning practice, read this blog post titled "The ICE Model: An Alternative Framework - Monica Vesely".

The ICE model is an acronym for ideas, connections, and extensions as noted by the diagram.

Image from

Do you recall the section on the importance of Learning Outcomes? Here is a taxonomy of learning of ICE verbs that outline the different phases of learning -- namely Ideas, Connections, and Extensions. The ICE model maps an iterative process of learning as students move from novice towards competence and then expertise in an area of study.

5 Elements of Effective Online Assessment

  • Interaction between facilitator and learner and/or among learners
  • Contribution to the learning process
  • Real-world demonstration, application, or performance
  • Relevant and aligned to the learning outcomes and the learning community
  • Clearly communicated goals and requirements for success

(Gigliotti and Devanas, 2012)

Angelo,TA, & Cross P K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishing.

Gibbs G, & Simpson C. (2005). Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning Teaching Higher Education 1, 3-31.  Retrieved from

Gigliotti, G., & Devanas, M. (2012). Understanding assessment options in online courses, Rutgers University Center for Teaching Advancement and Assessment Research. Retrieved from:

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Nicol DJ, & Macfarlane-Dick D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good practice. Studies Higher Education, 31(2):199-218. Retrieved from

Poe, M. Stassen, M.L.A. (n.d.) Teaching and learning online: Communication, community and assessment [PDF file]. Retrieved from