Editor's Note: Assessment is a
flash point and catalyst for controversy - focused not only on Distance Learning
versus Face to Face classes but also acceptance of materials by which student
mastery is judged. Dr. Muirhead provides us with insightful research in
assessment of assessment.
Relevant Assessment Strategies for
Online Colleges & Universities
Brent Muirhead D.Min., Ph.D.
It is important for teachers to have a clear vision of
their roles and responsibilities to provide the best teaching strategies for
their students. The instructor’s role is a dynamic one that requires having
individuals who are able to create a virtual climate that encourages meaningful
individual and collaborative learning. Assessment is an important element in the
teaching and learning process that challenges instructors to consider evaluation
techniques that meet the learning needs of today’s adult learners.
The teacher’s assessment strategies are significant
because they provide a relational prompt for students and insights into the
educational process. Evaluating the teaching and learning process involves a
host of activities such as creating course objectives, gathering data from a
variety of sources and often assigning grades for student work. Hopefully,
relevant assessment methodology should accurately inform both the teacher and
student about the quality of the learning experiences.
A holistic view of evaluation will consider it as a vital
part of the entire teaching and learning process. Adult learning should be
evaluated to help individuals learn of their strengths and academic deficiencies
that can be corrected during and after a course or seminar. The student should
be given information on the quality of their work to have accurate view of their
learning. Additionally, the student should be given specific suggestions on how
to improve their academic performance.
The process of assessment involves gathering information
from a variety of sources to cultivate a rich and meaningful understanding of
student learning. A primary aim of assessment is provide the necessary
information to improve future educational experiences. Yet, it is vital that the
assessment data be accurate and relevant to effectively make informed decisions
about the curriculum. It requires taking the time to ask relevant questions that
help evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching strategies and curriculum plans
(Huba & Freed 2000).
Berardinelli & Burrow (1998) relate that an important purpose of evaluation
is “to determine if all of the learners developed important knowledge, skills,
and attitudes as a result of the program (p. 16).” This highlights that the
evaluation of adult learning has a variety of instructional purposes and impacts
various stakeholders who are interested in the educational process. Appropriate
assessment instruments can offer valuable information to teachers, students and
administrators. Ultimately, evaluation is important to the educational process
because it provides feedback on whether the course and learning objectives have
been achieved to satisfactory level.
relevant approach to assessing adult learners supports a student centered
educational philosophy. The focus involves helping individuals become more
self-directed in their learning plans and activities. This is a situational goal
that requires assessment procedures that acknowledges their needs, gifts and
talents. Teachers must recognize that adults are autonomous learners who have
varying degrees of independence in their study habits and desire relevance in
the evaluation of their assignments (Caffarella, 1993).
The student-centered model of learning encourages teachers
to view their students as academic partners who work together to produce
relevant and meaningful learning experiences. It requires professors who are
willing to change their standard teaching methods. Boud (1995) related “they
will need to become researchers of student perceptions, designers of
multifaceted assessment strategies, managers of assessment processes and
consultants assisting students in the interpretation of rich information about
their learning” (p. 42).
& Freed (2000, p. 33) have noted eight features that are considered the
hallmark of learner-centered teaching:
are actively involved and receive feedback.
apply knowledge to enduring and emerging issues and problems.
integrate discipline-based knowledge and general skills.
understand the characteristics of excellent work.
become increasingly sophisticated learners and knowers.
coach and facilitate, intertwining teaching and assessing.
reveal they are learners, too.
is interpersonal, and all learners---students and professors ---are
respected and valued.
and practices must affirm that adult learners do vary in their needs due to such
factors as having different cognitive experiences and educational backgrounds.
Therefore, it is important that learning should be more individualized and offer
significant connections to their personal and professional lives. Assessment
procedures need to foster a meaningful bridge between academic knowledge, skills
and experiences of the classroom to the student’s daily job. Teachers are
challenged to create evaluations that reflect respect for adult learners’
experiences while promoting growth (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind & Tinker,
The advent of alternative assessments has come as the result of
various educators who have been frustrated with the limitations of the
conventional evaluation methods (Sanders, 2001). It is interesting that more
traditional educators are using alternative assessment methods. There are two
major differences between the traditional educator and those who use alternative
assessment. The first is that the traditional educator is more dependent upon on
fewer assignments to evaluate student performance. The traditional teacher will
stress tests and term papers as their main resources for assessing student work.
In contrast, teachers who use alternative assessment procedures will use a
variety of assignments that might include portfolios, Power Point presentations,
book reviews and interviews of study participants (Travis, 1996).
Alternative assessment methods are promoted as a way to
encourage authentic learning. Students are given a diversity of learning
opportunities to display critical thinking skills, greater depth of knowledge,
connect learning to their daily lives, develop a deeper dialog over the course
material and foster both individual and group oriented learning activities.
Alternative assessments offer teachers new perspectives on student learning such
as insights to their individual learning styles. Yet, teachers have reported
that alternative evaluation methods require large amounts of time to develop and
integrate into the curriculum. It is wise to create a plan that alleviates the
grading of student work by limiting the number and size of projects (Robinson,
Alternative assessment projects can encourage reflective
thinking and self-directed learning activities involving the personal
construction of knowledge. Students are taught to be knowledge creator’s not
just receivers of information. Teachers can promote higher order thinking skills
by having evaluation procedures that allow students to vary their responses to
questions (Davies, 1999). It is important that teachers communicate their
evaluation criteria to their students to eliminate confusion over project
expectations. It is essential that teachers provide clear criteria that supports
high academic standards and brings consistency to the grading process. For
instance, history teachers will need to create a rubric that will assess student
knowledge and skills within that academic discipline (Drake, 2001).
grading rubric represents an affirmation of learner-centered education. It is a
public statement that strives to establish a greater level of trust between the
teacher and student. It rejects the notion that grading is a special secret
activity that only some of the learners can understand the instructor’s actual
grading procedures. Secondly, it is designed to establish a set of instructional
expectations and standards for the course. A rubric provides an instrument for
student feedback that promotes assessment of learning. A good rubric will reveal
valuable data on how the student’s work compares to the course standards.
Rubrics are significant because of their capacity to clearly reveal vital
information to students that enable them to improve their knowledge and skill
levels (Huba & Freed 2000).
Rubrics have the potential to be excellent assessment tools
because they offer students a vision of what the teacher is seeking to
accomplish in the class and why it is important. A rubric can indicate whether
students will be expected to explore knowledge beyond the assigned textbooks.
Students need to know the skills and knowledge expertise that are expected
within a course. Therefore, students want to have an accurate understanding what
is considered good performance. Teachers can use a rubric to demonstrate how a
particular set of skills and knowledge will compare with class objectives,
educated individuals and even within a professional field or academic
discipline. Students appreciate that the information they are learning are truly
valued in their field of work and not just a preference of an individual
teacher. In fact, some teachers will invite students to provide their thoughts
on a rubric before it is finalized to insure that the rubric is relevant to
their students (Huba & Freed 2000).
The use of rubrics is one way to help promote effective
evaluation procedures that reduces subjective grading procedures and offer
student relevant information on their academic performance. Huba & Freed
(2000) have outlined five key elements for creating a rubric:
- levels of mastery-
achievement is described according to terms such as excellent, good, needs
improvement and unacceptable.
- dimensions of quality-
assessment can address a variety of intellectual or knowledge competencies
that target a specific academic discipline or involve multiple disciplines.
- organizational groupings-
students are assessed for multidimensional skills such as teamwork that
involves problem solving techniques and various aspects of group dynamics.
- commentaries- this element of the rubric provides a detailed
description of the defining features that should be found in the work. The
instructor creates the categories for what is considered as being excellent,
sophisticated or exemplary.
- descriptions of consequences-this
is a unique rubric feature that offers students insight into various lessons
of their work in a real life setting (i.e. professionalism).
five rubric elements offer trainers and educators rich categories to develop
their evaluation procedures to fit their student population and various academic
Assessment Methods: Journal Writing
journals are an excellent way to evaluate student learning.
Journal writing can be an effective way to gather insights into student
attitudes and a practical format to enhance student-teacher communication
(Robinson, 1995). The journal writing assignments can be structured to address
the primary course learning objectives. At the University of Phoenix, online
doctoral students integrate journal writing in their Doctor of Management degree
program. The students can use their journals to meet a variety of learning needs
such as reflecting on research studies that are important to their dissertation.
Muirhead (2001) shares seven major advantages to journal writing:
an aid to our memory-
researchers and writers have learned the value of recording their ideas for
a basis for creating new perspectives-
it creates a framework to explore relationships and arguments between ideas.
critical thinking skills-
learning to analyze the underlying assumptions of our actions and those of
others is a very liberating process.
psychological/emotional advantages- it enables individuals to work through difficult work
or personal situations that can promote healing and growth.
opportunities to increase empathy for others- individuals can address social issues and enhance
their understanding of our society and world.
a way to practical way to understand books/articles- writing creates a format to regularly examine reading
materials and improve our ability to comprehend and recall knowledge.
support for self-directed learning activities- journal writing requires personal discipline and
establishing individual learning goals to complete journaling assignments.
Teachers can use journal writing in a variety of academic
disciplines as a creative way to enrich their instructional activities. It is
essential that teachers provide timely and constructive feedback to help
students have the time to make the necessary changes in their work before
turning in their next assignment.
The student-centered learning model challenges teachers to
carefully use descriptive language in their written and verbal comments to their
students. Teachers must develop dialogues with their students that foster
personal and professional growth. Obviously, the language of assessment must be
caring and honest while providing constructive feedback that helps the learner
have a clear picture of their academic work.
Critics of alternative assessments raise legitimate
concerns about excessive administrative time to prepare and grade assignments.
Yet, alternative assessments offer teachers unique opportunities to create
relevant work that promotes academic achievement and individualizes the
educational process. It is important to help new and veteran teachers become
more familiar with alternative assessments through classes, workshops and other
professional development activities (Liebers, 1999).
Boud, D. (1995). Assessment and learning: Contradictory or
complimentary? In P. Knight (Ed.) Assessment
for learning in higher education (pp. 35-48). London: Kogan Page.
R. S. (1993). Self-directed learning. In S. B. Merriam (Ed. ). An update on
adult learning theory. New directions for adult and continuing education,
57, 25-35. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Campbell, D. (2000). Authentic assessment and authentic
standards. Phi Delta Kappan, 81 (5). 405-408.
Collison, G. Elbaum, B., Haavind,
S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning:
Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
Wavering, M. (1999). Alternative assessment: New directions in teaching and
learning. Contemporary Education, 71 (1), 39-45.
Drake, Frederick (2001). Eric digest:
Improving the teaching and learning of history through alternative assessments. Teacher
Librarian, 28 (3), 32-35.
Huba, M. E. & Freed, J. E. (2000). Learner-centered
assessment on college campuses: Shifting the focus from teaching to learning.
Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Liebers, C. S., (1999). Journals and
portfolios: Alternative assessment for preservice teachers. Teaching Children
Mathematics, 6 (3), 164-169.
Muirhead, B. (2001). Learning leadership journal: Handout.
Doctor of Management Class, DOC 791. University of Phoenix Online, Phoenix,
Palloff, R. N. & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons
from the cyberspace classroom: The realities of online teaching. San
Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Robinson, M. (1995). Alternative assessment
techniques for teachers. Music Education Journal, 81 (5), 28-34.
Sanders, L. R. (2001). Improving assessment in university
classrooms. College Teaching, 49 (2), 62-64.
Travis, J. E. (1996). Meaningful assessment. Clearing
House, 69 (5), 308-312.
Vella, Berardinelli & Burrow (1998). How do they
know they know: Evaluating adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
About the Author:
Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education,
history, and administration, and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and
Ph.D.). His Ph.D. degree is from Capella University, a distance education school
in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Muirhead is area chair and teaches a variety of
courses for the MAED program in curriculum and technology for the University of
Phoenix Online (UOP). He also trains and mentors faculty candidates, conducts
peer reviews of veteran faculty members, and teaches graduate research courses
in the new UOP Doctor of Management program. He may be reached via email: