Top tips for better assessments in elearning

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When I was 16, I applied for my two-wheeler licence. I was told that the riding test involved doing a ‘figure of 8’ in a small, confined space, and that I had to ensure that my legs didn’t touch the ground for multiple rounds. What a realistic way of assessing my riding ability…NOT!

And while I passed my test, here’s how I felt about the experience:

> I was stressed

> It did nothing for my confidence

> It didn’t contribute to me becoming a better rider

> It was unrealistic, and

> It made me lose faith in the system.

The question for us as learning designers is: Do our learners feel the same about the elearning assessments we design? It’s worth pondering over how we can avoid invoking similar reactions.

Let’s face it, most people dislike being tested. The ones who like assessments get frustrated when the assessment is unfair, too easy, and tricky for tricky’s sake. If we can get away without our learner thinking “Aargh, kill me now”, it’s half the battle won. The other half is being able to contribute to the learner’s learning and retention.

So, what causes these negative reactions? Click a section below to read on…

Once you have a clear understanding of the needs and learning outcomes, assess if the topic in question even needs an assessment.

The focus needs to be on the learner’s and client’s needs – hence learning designers must work collaboratively with the client to make this happen by considering these questions early in the Analysis stage.

> Will your learner benefit from being assessed?

>  Will your learner see relevance in being assessed?

> Will your assessment contribute to the achievement of learning outcomes?

> Will your assessment contribute to increased learner retention?



If the answer is ‘Yes’ to all four questions, then carry on…

But if the purpose of an assessment is to highlight important areas, allow learners to reflect on a topic, or to simply confirm their understanding, all you may need are formative questions at logical intervals.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked to include 10 questions in the end-of-course assessment…

On probing why, the reason proffered is often that it ‘sounds’ like a reasonable number, or that 10 questions make it ‘feel’ like an assessment, or an ‘even’ number is better than ‘odd’.

Take a step back – your assessment strategy must align with your learning outcomes (which hopefully focuses on your learner’s needs). End of story.

If that means that three questions do the trick, so be it.

An organisation I worked with introduced a new mobile app for lodging incidents. They rolled the app out via an elearning course – lots of screenshots, simulations etc. They basically expected learners to learn the entire app through a 45-minute course.  At the end, an assessment expected us to score 100%.

Here’s what was wrong with that approach:

> This was an app that most employees would probably never use during their entire tenure in the company, yet were still expected to score 100%.

> If an employee didn’t want to use the app, he/she could use email instead, so why the pressure to score 100%?

On the other hand, a course on vaccinations for paediatric nurses required their learners to score 80% on the assessment – does that mean that it is acceptable in their roles to perform at 80% accuracy? Scary, isn’t it?

Your course content may be fantastic, but all it takes is ineffective writing for your assessment to lose credibility, like:

> Validity of options: Presenting ridiculous and irrelevant options in a multiple-choice question thus making the correct answer the only obvious choice.

> Length of the options: Inconsistent length of options with the correct answer being the most detailed and the longest (and thus obvious).

> Being lazy: How easy is it to write a ‘True or False’ question or options that include a ‘None of the above’ or ‘All of the above’? Neither add any value to our learning design. Avoid them like the plague!

Top tips for better assessments

  1. Write one or more questions that effectively assess each learning outcome; mapping your questions to each outcome in the design phase helps identify gaps.
  2. Don’t under-estimate the value of a formative assessment. Usually considered ‘low value’ (not true), they are often low risk (nothing wrong with that). They allow learners to try out things in a risk-free environment and act as ‘coaching’ questions when constructive feedback is provided.
  3. Shorter and frequent questions at various points in the course can also help learners pace their learning without feeling overwhelmed.
  4. If your questions and choices provided aren’t getting learners to think, experiment, question, recall and make their own decisions, go back to the drawing board.
  5. Make sure your assessments are aligned with the content covered in the course. Don’t ask a learner a question if you haven’t given them all they need to answer it OR how about writing your questions BEFORE the content? By writing questions that test your learning outcomes, you develop content to support your questions! Try it before dismissing the idea.
  6. Would your learner benefit more from an on-the-job assessment? For example, if your learner has done an online course on ‘Managing people’, how about assessing the learner’s progress six months later using a 360° survey?
  7. Use realistic scenarios-based questions to test what a learner should ‘do’ rather than ‘know’.
  8. Spend time writing your distractors – they are as important as the question and the correct answer.
  9. Be innovative with grading or scoring the assessment – will learners be more motivated and less overwhelmed from a gamified approach?

To conclude, assessments are meant to help learners get better at what they do, not to confuse or frustrate them. Assessments must be learner-centric and must add value to your course.




Advanced Online Assessment Techniques, Elearning Faculty Modules

How to write great multiple-choice questions for your elearning, Elucidat

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