Assessment in higher education during COVID-19 and beyond: Will it ever be the same?

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Perhaps the word “unprecedented” has been overused in recent months, but it consistently seems to be the most fitting word to express the seismic shifts in all areas of life that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. As K-12 and higher education institutions worldwide have grappled with rapid pivots to online teaching and learning (and have continued in these blended and fully remote modalities for much longer than anticipated), academics are now taking a moment to reflect on the past year and its lasting implications for the world of education.  After all, as business theory would posit, disruption leads to innovation.

As an educator interested in online teaching/learning in post-secondary education, I would specifically like to explore how the last year of remote learning has impacted assessment strategies in higher education. How have widespread shifts to online teaching/learning impacted college students’ abilities to demonstrate competency in varied and student-driven ways?  Higher education is notoriously “old school,” and post-secondary classes are most frequently  lecture-based, led by instructors who are slower to adapt to more progressive, student-driven pedagogies.  And yet, as universities across the U.S. have made college and graduate school entrance exams like the SAT, ACT, and GRE optional for applicants in 2020 and 2021, a world beyond high stakes standardized testing can perhaps be imagined now more than ever.

Higher education instructors worldwide are already engaging in this issue and offering recommendations for ongoing change.  Perhaps surprisingly, some of the first publications I encountered came from educators in the graduate medical school community in both Australia and Pakistan. This was particularly striking since the medical sciences require lab work and clinical assessments which are particularly challenging to address in remote situations, as well as the fact that the medical sciences have long required high stakes testing at many stages of a medical student’s training.

According to Torda (2020), many medical school instructors in Australia have moved to lower the stakes of traditional written or multiple choice exams delivered online during the pandemic.  At the same time, a shift has been made to put more weight on multi-sourced feedback and student portfolios.  Where clinicals are concerned, simulation platforms such as the OSPIA (Online Simulated Patient Interaction and Assessment) system have been leveraged to bridge the gap until in-person clinicals may safely resume.  Another significant shift has been an emphasis on measuring a student’s ability to exhibit key professional skills, known in the medical community as “Entrustable Professional Activities,” over and above written examinations (Torda, 2020)..  In other words, students are being assessed on their ability to apply their learning in professionally relevant contexts.  Some of these skills include, but are not limited to, recommending and interpreting common diagnostic and screening tests, providing a (virtual) oral presentation of a clinical encounter, forming clinical questions and retrieving evidence to advance patient care, and collaborating with professional colleagues (Torda, 2020).  It was noted that, taken as a whole, these measures go a long way toward easing test anxiety and motivations to cheat in an otherwise high stakes, demanding field of study (Torda, 2020).

Additional examples of altered assessment strategies in the medical community have been reported in Pakistan.  Similar to Torda (2020), Khan and Jawaid (2020) posit that the pandemic has necessitated lowering the stakes of online-proctored, traditional exams.  The authors advocate for the use of student portfolios and video evidence of professional tasks completed, as well as synchronous open book exams.  The authors note that the aim of synchronous open book exams “…is to assess the ability of students to analyze and solve a problem, [and to] assess critical thinking and creativity. With open book exams taken in real time, the issues of cheating can be minimized.” (Khan & Jawaid, 2020, p. 109)

Changes in higher education assessment have also been reported in the United States. In June of 2020, Natasha Jankowski, in partnership with the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), spearheaded a higher education survey meant to capture “a snapshot of assessment-related changes made during Spring 2020 in response to the sudden shift to remote instruction…” (Jankowski, 2020, p. 3). The survey included responses from faculty and staff at 624 different institutions, both public and private, with representation from all 50 states. The survey sought to record learning changes that higher education instructors were making, the impacts of those changes on assessment culture, and the role of student voice in the decisions (Jankowski, 2020).  The survey results showed that 97% of respondents made learning, instructional, and assessment changes of some kind during Spring 2020. Changes included modifying assignments and assessments, allowing flexibility in assignment deadlines, shifting to a pass/fail grading model, and modifying assessment reporting deadlines.  Though some respondents made changes that included accepting alternative assignments, this was a less often made change (Jankowski, 2020).  The survey also showed “…that assessment-related changes were undertaken to address student needs” (p. 3).  However, these changes may have had more to do with faculty/staff perception of student needs as opposed to action taken in direct response to student reports: “Information gathered from students was less likely to influence decisions on what to change, and students were less likely to be asked to identify their needs prior to decisions being made.” (p. 3) Consequently, it might be hard to define many of these changes in assessment as authentically “student-driven.” 

Nevertheless, it seems that the pandemic has disrupted “business as usual” in higher education such that many of the changes reported above may in fact have lasting impact with increasing opportunity for student voice to take a front seat in decision-making.  Dr. Funmi Amobi of Oregon State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning puts forth compelling arguments in favor of  “reimagining” assessment in higher education in light of the lessons we’ve learned in the pandemic (Amobi, 2020).  Amobi asserts that the radical move to remote instruction has “refocused attention on improving assessment practices to alleviate student stress and anxiety, emphasize learning, and redress inequities in student success.” (par. 2)  The author goes further and provides seven practical strategies for reimagining assessment in higher education.  Though these strategies can certainly be used effectively in remote learning environments, they are not only meant to solve problems related to online teaching and learning.  The strategies presented by Amobi (2020) should be taken seriously by all higher education instructors wanting to diversify their approach to assessments and create more student-centered learning experiences: 

  1. Use short, weekly quizzes to assess students formatively, and consider making the quizzes cumulative so that they may contribute to a summative assessment score.
  2. Ask for justification on multiple choice tests and grade the response instead of the answer.
  3. Create opportunities for collaborative, group tests.
  4. Have students construct exam questions themselves as a way of reviewing and exercising higher order thinking skills; then, include many of the student questions on the exam.
  5. Allow for notes or a study card and have students submit the prepared materials for credit along with the actual exam.
  6. Utilize practice tests.
  7. Spend time reviewing exams to address misunderstandings and improve future performance; consider giving credit for thoughtfully corrected exams where learning is evident.

In each of the reviewed publications, certain recurring themes were readily apparent: 1) it may be high time for colleges and universities to rethink the value of high stakes testing 2) varied assessment strategies allow for a more effective presentation of student learning 3) assessment is part of the overall learning process and should not be divorced from student voice 4) varied assessment strategies reduce test anxiety and the motivation to cheat (the ladder being oft-cited as a obstacle in online assessment). 

We must avoid the underlying assumption that more technology is needed in order to solve the problems that technology introduces.  In other words, as the pandemic continues to require extended engagement in remote teaching, higher education instructors must not assume that the only way to assess online is to find a way to virtually proctor the same exam that would normally be given in a physical classroom (Kumar, 2020).  Instead, educators at all levels may take this opportunity to make meaningful changes to their use of assessments, both now and into the future, thinking critically and creatively about how to best meet students where they’re at.  


Amobi, F. (2020, November 12). Reimagining assessment in the pandemic era: Comprehensive assessment of student learning. OSU Center for Teaching and Learning.

Jankowski, N. A. (2020). Assessment during a crisis: Responding to a global pandemic. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Khan, R. A. & Jawaid, M. (2020). Technology Enhanced Assessment (TEA) in COVID 19 Pandemic. Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences 36, 108-110. 10.12669/pjms.36.COVID19-S4.2795

Kumar, R. (2020). Assessing higher education in the COVID-19 era.  Brock Education Journal 29(2), 37-4.

Torda, A, (2020). How COVID‐19 has pushed us into a medical education revolution. Internal Medicine Journal 15(9), (1150-1153).