Riot stairs outside Reed Library


This pathway provides an overview on topics of formative assessment, summative assessment and Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATS).


Within a conventional classroom experience, assessments most often mean tests or quizzes. These assessments are often over-represented because they require low effort to administer, are easy to 'score', and align easily to the provision of student grades. To their credit, when thoughtfully created and aligned to pre-determined objectives, these kinds of assessments can produce a strong impression of student learning. The Learning Management System (e.g. OnCourse) automates a great deal of the labor of designing, administrating, and grading assessments of this kind, too.

But for the online classroom, the conventional multiple choice and short answer assessment presents new challenges. Think back to the Seven Principles of Good Practice:

  1. Encourage contact between students and faculty
  2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Encourage active learning
  4. Give prompt feedback
  5. Emphasize time on task
  6. Communicate high expectations
  7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning

How might online assessments work with or against these seven principles? What is your experience with online tests as an instructor? As a learner? How might over-reliance upon online tests and quizzes negatively impact the online student experience?

What follows is an exploration of ways to modify the conventional online exam that build reciprocity and cooperation, respect diverse ways of learning, and encourage active learning without sacrificing prompt feedback.


  • A pre-quiz to measure learners' background subject knowledge
  • A free-write activity gauging student understanding of an important concept
  • A pop-up question embedded into a video lecture to encourage more active engagement
  • A directed reflection (video, audio, or written) submitted at the end of class

These and similar tasks and techniques help determine the effectiveness of one's instruction, and are most helpful when employed to provide feedback at strategic points along the way. They are examples of formative assessment. Formative assessment provides insight to instructors. These insights then guide modification. This might mean slowing down to more thoroughly cover material, or it may mean speeding things up. When used normatively, formative assessments can reveal a need to make slight changes for the benefit of particular students. These adjustments often can be made more effectively, and with better long-term outcomes for learning, than those made after poor results are achieved on high-stakes tests.


Formative assessment is about deriving feedback when it can matter most. This is especially important within the context of the online classroom. Carnegie Mellon University's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation provides a good list of what are called Classroom Assessment Techniques, available here:

Another concise guide from the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Iowa State University is available here: Please have a look at both.

Do you utilize any of these techniques? Do you have any others of your own to share? Most importantly, can you imagine ways formative assessment can be adapted to the online classroom?


Summative assessment, or assessment of learning, determines a learner's mastery of material after instruction has occurred. Summative assessments may also attempt to align programmatic objectives to evidence of student learning. These assessments tend to fall at the end of particular units or at key points in the semester (e.g., mid-terms and finals). Most often, summative assessments come with high stakes for learners. Performance generally translates into course grades.

Within an online classroom emphasizing active learning, high stakes summative assessments present challenges. Some courses necessitate learners to commit large amounts of declarative or procedural knowledge to memory. This foundational or requisite learning can be efficiently and fairly evaluated by conventional summative assessments.

But with creative modifications, summative assessments can be re-worked to build social presence and incorporate more collaborative and active learning characteristics. As José Antonio Bowen writes in The Teaching Naked Cycle , "the world is 'open book': when was the last time you were asked to produce work without access to the Internet or other sources?" The online classroom requires a reconsideration of the proportion of assessments of learning to the overall student grade. Similarly, the nature of questions within a summative assessment needs to adapt.

Want to explore this topic further? 

Self-paced Modules:

Course modules have been set up OnCourse with self-paced activities where we will look at the various tools available to you in OnCourse and some ways that you may want to use them in your own courses. To dive deeper into the topic of Assessments, visit the Remote Learning Roadmap Landing Page in OnCourse.

Accessing the Remote Learning Roadmap Modules in OnCourse

  1. Visit the Remote Learning Roadmap Landing Page in OnCourse. 
  2. The Fredonia eServices login screen will appear.
  3. Login using your eServices username and password.
  4. Press the orange “Enroll Me” button.
  5. The course will be added to your Course block on the Dashboard page in the Groups category.

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