Principles for Meaningful Online Assessment

Five Principles for Meaningful Online Assessment

1. Focus on learning

Effective assessment helps students focus their learning on the most important aims of a course. Stating learning outcomes in clear, accessible language and directly linking assessment tasks to those outcomes supports student learning and success. Think about what you want students to learn and how they will demonstrate their learning.

Focus on learning

Strategy: Use rubrics

Using rubrics helps students understand what high quality learning looks like and the criteria by which their learning will be assessed. Using a rubric can also help you (and any teaching assistants) grade with greater speed, consistency and transparency. 

Design a quality rubric for each assessment task that includes criteria, descriptors and performance levels. There are many examples online to get you started. You can then integrate the rubric right into D2L.

Brookhart SM (2018) Appropriate criteria: Key to effective rubrics. Frontiers in Education. 3:22. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2018.00022

2. Balance structure with flexibility

Even though the immediate transition to remote learning is over, people’s circumstances (including your own!) may still not be ideal for teaching and learning. Students may be experiencing the challenges of sharing space and technology with family members, living in different time zones, dealing with inconsistent access to internet, etc. Try not to make assumptions about students’ technological skills or expertise with online learning platforms. These strategies will also support many student accessibility needs.

Balance structure

Strategy: Avoid requiring and/or grading synchronous (live) participation. 

Linking grades to students’ ability to participate online at a given time is more likely to disadvantage people based on socioeconomic factors. Those with older technology, unreliable internet, small children at home, insecure living conditions, etc. will struggle most to demonstrate their learning in a synchronous situation.

Record any synchronous classes and post them in D2L. Students can interact with the material, the instructor, and each other by creating and/or responding to online posts in the discussion area.

Strategy: Provide flexibility by allowing students some choice about assessment weights

Allowing students some choice in assessment processes may increase motivation and self-regulation as well as promote equity by allowing students to minimize the impact of barriers related to access.

Allow students to choose how much weight will be given to various types of assessments tasks.



Option 1   

Option 2   

4 quizzes (2.5 or 5% each)    



Article review



2 Case study assignments
(25% or 20% each)



Open book exam




* If you are going to use specific online tools for assessment, plan a low-stakes or no-stakes practice session for students to learn the technology before they need to use it in a graded situation.

Strategy: Provide flexibility by allowing students some choice about how they demonstrate their learning

Following principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) – see the Taylor Institute UDL Guide - increases equity by providing options for a wider range of learners. Providing some options that are less dependent on students owning top notch technology helps level the playing field.

Some courses may also students to choose the type of assessment task. For example, students can demonstrate the same learning outcomes by writing a paper, recording a presentation , or creating a digital poster.  The key to this kind of choice is using a common set of criteria that applies across formats.  See Principle 1 for information on how to create a good rubric with clear criteria.

If you need help setting up this kind of system in a D2L gradebook, see the eLearn site or connect with a Learning Production Technology coach.

O’Neill. (2017). It’s not fair! Students and staff views on the equity of the procedures and outcomes of students’ choice of assessment methods, Irish Educational Studies, 36:2, 221-236, DOI: 10.1080/03323315.2017.1324805

3. Provide clear instructions and quality feedback

Clear communication is essential in online learning. As many students (and instructors) are still novices in online learning spaces, it is more important than ever to articulate your expectations and provide clear instructions for assessment tasks. Just as vital is the feedback students receive during and after assessment tasks. 

Provide instructions

Strategy: Take advantage of annotation options and audio- and video-recording tools in D2L

Let’s face it - assessment is time consuming.  But research shows that providing timely, specific, actionable feedback is one of the most impactful things teachers can do to support student learning. Recording feedback while you are grading can save time and improve clarity while supporting learning.

When you are reviewing assessments collected in the D2L dropbox – whether a graded final project or an ungraded draft - you can audio- or video-record your feedback while you are looking at each assignment. Note that D2L can also integrate rubrics (see Principle 1) as a source of feedback.

Wisniewski, Zierer, & Hattie. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers of Psychology. 10:3087. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03087

4. When possible, replace timed exams with other types of assessments

Assessment in online settings is significantly different than in face-to-face settings. While timed exams are ubiquitous in on-campus courses, online assessment requires a careful re-think of the role of exams.

Alternative assessments

Strategy: Use alternative forms of assessment

In online assessment, the key is to limit the possibility that technology limitations or glitches will negatively impact students’ ability to demonstrate their learning.  While proctoring tools do exist, they have significant limitations and raise new equity concerns. On the positive side, there are a wide range of thoughtful, creative alternatives to assess student learning.

Strategy: Use open book exams

Open book, or open resource, exams provide robust opportunities for students to connect course materials with their previous learning by analysing, synthesising, critiquing, and/or evaluating information. By providing a longer window for completion, open book exams require less reliance on stable internet connections and allow students to work across time zones and challenging living situations. Accommodations for longer exam times are also no longer needed as everyone has ample time for completion

Adapt the following tips to effectively implement an open book exam in your course. Try to have a TA or another instructor look through the exam to anticipate any student confusion or questions so that you can revise instructions or add a Frequently Asked Questions section.

  • Consider at least a 24-hour time frame from releasing exam questions to closing the submission dropbox.
  • Be explicit about how long you expect it will take for students to complete the exam so that no one spends a literal 24 hours writing. Let students know they will not be given additional time if they have more than one exam in that 24-hour period.
  • If you are concerned about how long students will devote to writing, consider breaking the exam up into multiple parts, each with a 24-hour window.  Release and collect part 1 before releasing part 2.  This allows you to see how things are going and make any needed adjustments for part 2. It also allows you to start marking part 1 as soon as possible.
  • Include word ranges or word limits for each type of response for clarity of expectations and to ensure a reasonable grading process.
  • Limit the need for students to create graphs/charts/complex diagrams if they will require technological expertise that may be a barrier.
  • Focus on higher level thinking questions (aka ungoogleable questions) such as “What would happen if…”; “Why do these two theorists/groups/researchers disagree about…”; “Read this paragraph and discuss how it relates to the concept of….” 
  • Require students to explicitly draw on course materials.  If you want citations, provide clear instructions about how to do that.
  • Decide if/how you will enable students to ask you questions during the exam. Also clarify if and how you will respond. 
  1. Weleschuk, Dyjur, & Kelly. (2019). Online assessment in higher education. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning Guide Series
  2. A Guide for Academics - Open Book Exams
  3. 5 Tips for Using Take-Home Exams

5. Emphasize academic integrity

Academic integrity is a core value of the University of Calgary. Academic integrity is the foundation of the development and acquisition of knowledge and is based on values of honesty, trust, responsibility, and respect. We expect members of our community to act with integrity.

Academic Integrity

Strategy: Keep the focus on promoting learning, not on avoiding cheating

Research does not support the idea that more cheating occurs in online courses. However, the nature of the academic misconduct may change. There might be more use of unauthorized materials or unauthorized third parties. As educators, our role includes assessing in ways that are appropriate and fair for the learning environment. Using the above principles can help to mitigate concerns about academic integrity.