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.  

References:

Amobi, F. (2020, November 12). Reimagining assessment in the pandemic era: Comprehensive assessment of student learning. OSU Center for Teaching and Learning. https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/osuteaching/2020/11/12/reimagining-assessment-in-the-pandemic-era-comprehensive-assessment-of-student-learning/

Jankowski, N. A. (2020). Assessment during a crisis: Responding to a global pandemic. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. https://public.uhcl.edu/education/centers-initiatives/planning-assessment/documents/niloa-covid-assessment-report.pdf

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. https://journals.library.brocku.ca/brocked

Torda, A, (2020). How COVID‐19 has pushed us into a medical education revolution. Internal Medicine Journal 15(9), (1150-1153).  https://doi.org/10.1111/imj.14882

Student Flourishing in the Virtual Classroom

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There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated the rate at which schools and universities of all shapes and sizes have had to move to online teaching and learning modalities, even if only as a short-term conduit for allowing formal education to continue in these unprecedented times.  There is also no doubt that this emergency shift to online teaching has left many concerned about overall student well-being including screen fatigue, issues of access and equity, teacher readiness, social-emotional support in a digital environment, and the overall efficacy of the educational endeavor for students of all ages in digital mediums.  Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?  Or might there already be some twinkle lights strung up along the tunnel walls guiding the way? 

In this post I’d like to explore some of the evidence that already exists in support of student flourishing—particularly at the postsecondary level—in hybrid or fully online programs, as well as what best practices can be used to support student well-being in all online teaching/learning endeavors, during COVID-19 and beyond.  Thankfully, the pandemic didn’t bring about the dawn of online pedagogy in higher education, and postsecondary educators have places to turn in order to think critically (and perhaps hopefully) about student success and well-being, be it academic or personal, in the digital classroom.

Evidence of Flourishing:

Few would argue that an in-person classroom experience can be identically replicated online.  In fact, those who attempt to do so have probably done so with disappointing results.  But perhaps educators shouldn’t necessarily be trying to replicate a physical classroom experience in an online environment.  Rather, they should think of the virtual classroom as a new endeavor; it is a new context with new possibilities to explore, and online pedagogy may bring new teaching/learning benefits to the table that a physical classroom lacks. 

Indeed, there’s evidence to suggest that a hybrid of in-person and online teaching may be the very best approach to postsecondary learning—with or without a pandemic—as it capitalizes on the “best of both worlds.”  In an extensive, multi-year case study conducted at the University of Central Florida in 2004, research showed that student success in blended programs (success being defined as achieving a C- grade or higher) actually exceeded the success rates of students in either fully online or fully face-to-face programs (Dziuban et al, 2004).  Furthermore, in a meta-analysis of studies on online and hybrid learning conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, it was reported that students in online and hybrid learning programs had more gain in their learning when compared to face-to-face modalities, and students in hybrid learning courses had the largest gains in their learning among their peers in all delivery formats (Means et al., 2010).  In yet another study (Chen & Chiou, 2014) measuring the learning outcomes, satisfaction, sense of community and learning styles of 140 second-year university students in Taiwan, results showed that students in a hybrid course had significantly higher scores and overall course satisfaction than did students participating in face-to-face courses. The results also indicated that students in hybrid learning classrooms actually felt a stronger sense of community than did students in a traditional classroom setting (Chen & Chiou, 2014).

While one must make many allowances for the various emergency situations brought on by the pandemic (and that there is a distinction between emergency remote instruction and true online teaching/learning), there is plenty of evidence to suggest that well-implemented online teaching/learning can truly enhance student learning beyond what might otherwise be accomplished in a fully face-to-face environment.

Some Best Practices in Online Instruction:

Technology-mediated education is making it possible for students to participate in programs, access content, and connect in ways they were previously unable to.  Rather than viewing the Internet as a necessary evil for distance learning that ultimately begets isolated student learning experiences, digital education should, first and foremost, be connective and communal.  This means a professor accustomed to lecture-based learning in a physical classroom will need to consider a new approach in order to prioritize student voice in the learning process.  In an online context, this means there should be dynamic opportunities for students to engage in debate, reflection, collaboration, and peer review (Weigel, 2002).

If educators are going to seriously account for the rich background experiences, varied motivations, and personal agency of their postsecondary learners, they must also take into account the larger “lifewide” learning that takes place within the lives of their students (Peters & Romero, 2019). Student learning at any age is both formal and informal, and what takes place in a formal classroom environment—digital or otherwise—is influenced by informal learning and daily living that takes place outside of it.  If deep learning takes place, a student’s world and daily life should be altered by the creation of new schemas and the learning that has taken place in a formal classroom environment.  In a multicase and multisite study conducted by Mitchell Peters and Marc Romero in 2019, 13 different fully-online graduate programs in Spain, the US, and the UK were examined in order to analyze learning processes across a continuum of contexts (i.e., to understand to what extent learning was used by the student outside of the formal classroom environment).  In this study, certain common pedagogical strategies arose across programs in support of successful student learning and engagement including:

  1. Developing core skills in information literacy and knowledge management,
  2. Community-building through discussion and debate forums,
  3. Making connections between academic study and professional practice,
  4. Connecting micro-scale tasks (like weekly posts) with macro-scale tasks (like a final project), and
  5. Applying professional interests and experiences into course assignments and interest-driven research.

(Peters & Romero, 2019).

In many regards, each of these pedagogical strategies is ultimately teaching students to “learn how to learn” so that the skills they cultivate in the classroom can be applied over and over again elsewhere. This means that, where digital learning is concerned, the most important learning activities aren’t actually taking place in a large, synchronous Zoom meeting or broadcasted lecture series.

On a practical level, educators can also give attention to some of these simple “tricks of the trade” that have been proven to enhance student learning experiences in a virtual classroom:

  1. Communicate often with students to promote a feeling of connectedness
  2. Create ample space for student voice
  3. Take care that a course set-up in a learning management system is intuitively laid out, action oriented, and adaptable to student needs
  4. Give timely feedback and highlight student strengths
  5. Create opportunities for synchronous activities when possible
  6. Be explicit about expected course outcomes

(Vlachopoulos & Makri, 2019)

At the end of the day, learning and schooling no longer have the same direct relationship they had for most of the 20th century; devices and digital libraries allow anyone to have access to information at any time (Wilen, 2009). Schools, teachers, and printed books no longer hold the “keys to the kingdom” as sources of information.  Online education, then, will not function effectively as a large-scale effort to teach students information through a standardized curriculum.  Rather, education must be a highly relevant venture that enables individual students to do something with the virtually endless information and resources they have access to (Wilen, 2009).

Student Agency & Connection Lead to Student Wellbeing:

When considering how to best support student wellbeing in an online learning environment (at every level), it’s important to remember that the student is not a passive entity.  Indeed, the extent to which students are able to exercise agency in their learning can have a significant impact on their academic success, their attitude towards the learning experience, and their social-emotional wellbeing.  In this case, agency can be interpreted as a student’s ability to exercise choice and be meaningfully present and interactive in the online learning environment.

One of the significant benefits of learning management systems and digital classrooms is the existence of a platform through which resources and learning materials can be shared and posted for any length of time.  Thus, students have the ability to review online course materials at their own pace and engage at a rate that makes sense for their individual needs (Park, 2010).  Allowing students the time and space to persist in completing online learning activities can have significant impact on a students’ success in an academic course (Park, 2019).

Additionally, game-based learning activities, opportunities for collaboration in group projects, participation in threaded discussions, and dedicated spaces for students to freely express their views all assist students in taking ownership of their learning and pursuing their learning interests as those interests materialize in—and overlap with—the course content (Vlachopoulos & Makri, 2019).  These are the activities that directly impact student engagement in a course, as well as the likelihood that a student will have a positive attitude towards the learning experience.

For many traditionally-aged students navigating undergraduate studies during the pandemic, the decreased ability to connect socially with peers, faculty, and support staff has had a direct, negative impact on their academic motivation and overall sense of wellbeing (Burke, 2020).  Thus, creating time and space in the digital learning environment for social interaction, open communication, and for students to gain a sense of identity within the virtual classroom is perhaps more important than ever. 

Finally, it’s very much worth mentioning that the extent to which all spheres of life have been impacted by COVID-19—not just the classroom—is unprecedented.  Helping students think of remote learning as an opportunity for growth, one that will have challenges and limitations as well as potential and new kinds of goals that can be achieved, can help them maintain a sense of purpose and direction amidst the chaos (Burke, 2020).  Growth mindset has already been proven to positively impact student learning at all levels—what better time to remind students (and educators) of the opportunities for growth in the present.

References:

Burke, L. (2020, October 27). Moving into the long term. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/10/27/long-term-online-learning-pandemic-may-impact-students-well

Chen, B. & Chiou, H. (2014). Learning style, sense of community, and learning effectiveness in hybrid learning environment. Interactive Learning Environments, 22(4), 485-496. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10494820.2012.680971

Dziuban, C., Hartman, J., Moskal, P., Sorg, S., & Truman, B. (2004). Three ALN modalities: an institutional perspective. In J. R. Bourne, & J. C. Moore (Eds.), Elements of quality online education: Into the mainstream (127–148). Sloan Consortium.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf

Park, E., Martin, F., & Lambert, R. (2019). Examining predictive factors for student success in a hybrid learning course. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education 20(2), 11-27.

Peters, M. & Romero, M. (2019) Lifelong learning ecologies in online higher education: Students’ engagement in the continuum between formal and informal learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(4), 1729.

Vlachopoulos, D., & Makri, A. (2019). Online communication and interaction in distance higher education: A framework study of good practice. International Review of Education, 65,605–632. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11159-019-09792-3

Weigel, Van B. (2002) Deep learning for a digital age.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilen, T. (2009). .Edu: Technology and learning environments in higher education. Peter Lang Publishing.