Designing & Developing Online Assessments

Last revised: 02/19/2019 by tjs.


This article describes research-based recommendations for designing and developing assessments in online courses.


Course Assessment Planning
When creating  an online course, develop an assessment plan detailing the methods that will be used to measure student progress towards meeting the learning objectives.  Effective assessment also relies on a clearly expressed grading policy and response & feedback plan (Quality Matters Rubric, Standards 3.2, 5.3).


Characteristics of Assessments: Sequence, Variety & Suitability

According to the Quality Matters Standards for Online and Blended Courses, assessments should be sequenced, varied, and suited to the level of the course. (QM 3.4)  

  • Assessments should be “sequenced so as to promote the learning process and to build on previously mastered knowledge and skills gained in this course and prerequisite courses.”
  • Multiple assessment strategies should be used, “that require learners to apply what they learn and to think critically.”
  • Assessments should be “varied in order to provide multiple ways for learners to demonstrate progress and mastery, and to accommodate diverse learners.” (QM HE Rubric Workbook, 2018)
  • While traditional assessments often ask students to select a response from different options, in alternative assessments (also known as performance or authentic assessments) —  interviews, journals, portfolios, demonstrations, performance tasks, exhibits — students “develop a response to a prompt or stimulus.” (QM, 2014)

Types of Assessments

A variety of activities can be used for formative, interim, and summative evaluation of student learning.  

A well-designed course includes:

  • Formative assessment –“activities… which provide information to be used as feedback… to adapt the teaching to meet the needs of the student” (Black & Wiliam, 1998, p. 2)
  • Interim assessment – “Interim assessments (concept tests, quizzes, written essays, etc.) may be more formal and can occur throughout the semester.” UConn CETL
  • Summative assessment — activities to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit or course (Tyler, Gagne & Scriven, 1967).

Consider some of the different forms of assessment at these sites:

Aligning Assessments with Learning Objectives

Assessments should serve to measure one or more specific stated learning objectives.  (QM 3.1) When developing a course, be sure to match, or align, the measurable behavior of the learning objective (i.e., the action verb) with an appropriate type of assessment:  

Learning Objective Behavior Potential Online Assessments
List… Complete a “Fill in Multiple blanks” or “Short answer” quiz
Compare… Create a table or write an essay
Discuss… Participate in a Discussion Board or recorded video conference
Analyze… Write a lab report or write an essay of literary analysis
Critique… Write an editorial or create a blog


Assessments should be “paced to give students adequate time to achieve mastery” and complete the work in a thoughtful manner.  (QM HE Workbook, 2018) Plan formative assessment opportunities throughout your course to monitor students’ progress toward the objectives.

For larger projects, including summative projects to meet course objectives, consider breaking the assignment into component parts that students submit periodically to allow for formative assessment and improved student engagement.

Evaluative Criteria and Rubrics

When developing an assessment, determine and share with students specific and descriptive criteria for evaluation. (QM 3.3)  A rubric can be an effective way to organize and communicate assessment criteria. Grading rubrics include the specific expectations for an assignment and descriptions of performance quality.


If possible, provide examples of high-quality student work to “illustrate dimensions of quality and clarify assessment expectations” (Newlyn, 2013).


Provide clear written instructions for all assessments.  In an online course environment especially, care should be taken so that all students comprehend your specific expectations.  

  • Briefly explain the purpose of the assignment and identify its associated learning objective.
  • Indicate the intended audience for a piece of writing or a presentation so that students can determine appropriate content and tone.
  • Break down more complex tasks into their component steps, listing them sequentially.
  • Include assignment parameters (length, citation style, format, font, etc.).

Before an activity is assigned, ask someone who is unfamiliar with the course to review the instructions to point out anything that was unclear.  The first time a new activity is assigned, encourage student questions and revise the instructions to address any gaps.


Additional Resources:


  • Allen, M. (2004).  Assessing Academic Programs in Higher Education. MA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Assessment Primer: How to Do Assessment. (n.d.)
  • Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5, 7-74.
  • Fulks, Janet, “Assessing Student Learning in Community Colleges”, Bakersfield College, 2004 obtained at
  • Quality Matters (QM) Higher Education Rubric, Standards 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5, 5.3. Sixth Edition, (2018) with Assigned Point Values.  Retrieved from
  • Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric Workbook, Sixth Edition. (2018). Annapolis: MarylandOnline, Inc.
  • Tyler, R., Gagne, R. & Scriven M. (Eds.) (1967). “The methodology of evaluation.” Perspectives of curriculum evaluation. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally. pp. 39–83.
  • Grainger P., Heck D. & Carey M. (14 August 2018). Are Assessment Exemplars Perceived to Support Self-Regulated Learning in Teacher Education? Frontiers in Education,
  • Newlyn, D., and Spencer, L. (2009). Using exemplars in an interdisciplinary law unit: listening to the students’ voices. J. Aust. Law Teach. Assoc. 2, 121–133. file://usc.internal/usc/home/pgrainge/Downloads/2-2-59-749.pdf.

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