Assessing Learning when Teaching Online

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

Assessment in teaching and learning is the process of obtaining information to gain insights into what students know and understand. Assessment helps teachers to identify whether students are ready to move to the next stage in the learning process, the areas on which students need to focus, and where teaching and learning has been most and least successful. Teaching online raises challenges for assessment. This post provides an overview of some assessment options available in an online setting.

The following is framed around the advice given by Stuart Kime and Jamie Scott of Evidence-Based Education, from their excellent podcast on assessment in an online context, and the guides produced by Evidence-Based Education for the Chartered College of Teaching’s series of guides to support teachers during the crisis. Two forms of assessment they recommend as especially useful in an online context are peer assessment and self-assessment.    

Peer assessment

Peer assessment is where students assess one another’s work. This need not mean that students just mark the work of their peers. Students can review the work of their peers to learn from one another. This could involve students looking through one another’s work in relation to assessment criteria and discussing where and how improvements could be made. This helps students become more familiar with assessment requirements. The teacher can then check the improvements identified by students to make corrections and identify additional areas where improvement is needed. Students can also test and offer feedback to one another.

Peer-to-peer feedback can be provide through collaborative documents (Microsoft OneNote is good for this) or through group discussions, either via videoconferencing or a forum (Microsoft Teams offers a good platform for online forum-style discussion). Google Docs and Dropbox are also good for collaborative work and are freely available online.

Peer assessment can be conducted when students work collaboratively – for example, to solve a problem, complete a piece of writing or prepare for a presentation. Students take a variety of approaches towards work, even when they’re in the same class and have been taught by the same teacher. By working together, students can see the different ways that their peers approach problems and tasks, which can help them to learn new approaches or develop existing approaches.

If a student has made a mistake that another has not, the former may be able to learn from the latter how to avoid making that mistake in the future. If students have made similar mistakes, they can work through the problem together to try to identify where they’ve gone wrong. Students could also complete activities such as designing questions to test one another, which could later be sent to the teacher to mark and share with other students.

An important form of modelling is ‘thinking aloud’: where teachers explicitly narrate their thought processes when completing a task, such as problem-solving or essay writing.[1] Thinking aloud can be performed by teachers to students but also among students. Thinking aloud among peers can help students learn alternative approaches to tasks and activities from one another, some of which can support the completion of tasks or engagement in skills to a greater degree of proficiency.

Thinking aloud in an online setting is performed most effectively through videoconferencing, where students can discuss one another’s thought processes in real-time and use visual aids to support explanations, such as the screen-share function in Zoom, which is freely available online. If videoconferencing is unavailable, phone conversations between students and sharing documents that illustrate their methods and thought processes can serve the same function. Thinking aloud can also be expressed just through digital documents, by making explicit the methods used and the steps followed to complete a task or figure something out (consider ‘showing your working’ in mathematics, for example).

Thinking aloud is only effective for teaching and learning if the student thinking aloud employs effective methods and their knowledge and understanding are accurate. So, the teacher will need to regularly check on students working with one another to ensure that mistakes are avoided.

Peer assessment supports the development of an online community. This is important when teaching online because student engagement is one of the most important factors in effective teaching and learning – both between teacher and students and among students. Engagement is usually provided within the intellectual and social community developed among the members of a class. Such bonds and the kinds of interaction facilitated in the classroom can also be facilitated online, by fostering an online community, imitative of the classroom community.

For advice on fostering an online community, see our previous blog post. For further reading on collaborative work online, see Cathy Lewin’s recent guide on ‘Online group work/collaboration’.


The lack of classroom time necessitated by the move to distance learning requires students to do more work independently. While this poses many challenges it also creates an opportunity to explore methods of independent learning. Kime observes that online teaching provides an opportunity to develop students’ independent learning skills. Connected with these skills is a form of assessment known as self-assessment. This is where a student makes assessments of their own learning to identify areas they should review, revise and focus on. It also helps students identify which stage they are at in the learning process and which study methods have been more or less effective. All of this is extremely useful information for the teacher.

Revision is an excellent example of self-assessment. Students prepare for tests by identifying areas on which they need to focus, develop and practise. This can be supported by a teacher – for example, a student can complete practice papers which can be compared against exemplars and submitted to the teacher to check – but it can also be done independently by students. While many students are not sitting exams this term, they can be set low-stakes tests to assess their learning. Revision also supports retrieval practice: the process of recalling and applying what we have learned to develop our long-term retention of knowledge and level of understanding, and to become more fluent at recalling what we have learned.

Students performing self-assessment can be supported by models of excellent practice. Models could consist of exemplar work or ‘worked examples’, the latter of which is a form of modelling where a teacher provides, as Barak Rosenshine describes it, ‘a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem’.[2] Rosenshine and Tom Sherrington recommend that teachers provide many worked examples and then leave students to finish problems by themselves. The extent to which students complete tasks by themselves depends how far along they are in the process of mastery over the task or skill in question.[3] One of Rosenshine’s influential ‘principles of instruction’ is to ‘provide models’, because ‘providing students with models and worked examples can help them learn to solve problems faster’.[4] (For more on modelling, see an earlier blog post.)

Kime makes the point that self-assessment relies on a student’s ability to self-regulate. A student needs to feel motivation to self-assess, which involves seeing the value in self-assessment and possessing a willingness to self-assess. So, we should make it clear to students why there is value in them independently assessing their learning progress.

When working independently and self-assessing, it’s important that students understand what the steps are along the way towards mastering the skill or area of knowledge in question. It’s also important to provide opportunities for students to independently identify where they have made progress and where they haven’t, so they can assess their work for themselves, at least to some degree.

An important aim of learning is long-term retention. Regularly reviewing material with students supports retrieval practice and helps develop long-term retention. Students can also review material independently. (For more on Rosenshine and Sherrington on retrieval practice and on reviewing strategies that support retrieval practice, see an earlier blog post.)

Assessment through independent projects

Related to independent learning is assessment through independent projects. This is a common method of assessment where students are set projects to be completed independently, with little or no instruction beyond initial guidance. A standard format for independent projects is that the teacher provides instruction or guidance at the start on what is required and provides resources for students (e.g., research resources); the teacher is then available throughout the project’s duration to check on student progress and provide support to students if required. Independent projects can be assessed online, through written or verbal feedback.

A teacher could run an independent project online by providing initial instruction and guidance, and thereafter being available throughout the project’s duration through specified virtual ‘office hours’. During these hours, a teacher could be available via email, on videoconference or via the chat function on digital platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

A teaching and learning approach and method of assessment that has become increasingly popular over the past decade is project-based learning (‘PBL’). This is a student-centred, dynamic pedagogical method, where students actively explore real-world problems and challenges, and the teacher inputs little more than guidance. Usually it culminates in the production of a project, such as a written assignment, a performance, or a presentation.

A recent development by some schools endorsing PBL has been to conduct all assessment through PBL, rather than in addition to other forms of assessment. This approach has generated some controversy surrounding the use of PBL and has contributed to its mixed reputation. While it has become increasingly popular over the past decade, there is also a lot of hostility towards it. This is largely due to its association with ‘progressivism’ in education, which has been largely out of favour in educational policy and practice for around the past forty years.

An example of PBL is the Extended Project Qualification, which requires students in key stage five to work on an independent project for an extended period with minimal assistance from their supervisor. The supervisor must not be an expert in the student’s chosen area of study and can only offer guidance; supervisors cannot provide detailed comments on drafts.

PBL occupies an important place in the International Baccalaureate (‘IB’), within the ‘capstone’ project, an independent research project in which students are expected to integrate and synthesize their learning. Capstone projects have a service-based aspect, with the aim that students make a positive impact on their community.

For more on PBL, see our blog post on PBL and our blog post on how to conduct PBL effectively.

Oral and dialogical assessment

Some forms of assessment are oral, such as oral language tests and viva voce examinations. Student contributions in class or seminar discussions sometimes also constitute part of their overall mark for a course. Assessed presentations combine an assessment of oral skills such as oratorical skills and clarity in the delivery of a presentation with an assessment of the skills required to research and create the content delivered.

Oral assessment is more difficult online. The challenges of giving a presentation and responding to questions differ when the audience is virtual rather than physically present. The physical presence of a room full of people watching you give a presentation can be extremely intimidating and an important skill developed through public speaking is gradually overcoming the fears such situations engender.

Discussion also takes a different form in a digital setting. It is more difficult to read others because there are far fewer non-verbal cues when we are interpreting one another on the basis of faces on a small screen or through written comments communicated online. While oral assessment can be conducted in online contexts, such caveats need to be taken into account.


In online settings, we don’t have the option of invigilation to ensure students are completing exams without access to materials that might otherwise be prohibited, such as books or the internet. This is not an issue for ‘open book’ tests, though, so teachers could consider whether an open book test is an option for areas of their course.

A way to alleviate the worry that some students might not complete tests without recourse to supporting materials is to lower the stakes of a test. This reduces the pressure to perform well. While the reduction in pressure may result in some students doing less revision than for high-stakes testing, low-stakes testing still provides a highly useful means of assessment. Research also suggests that student motivation and success increases when they’re given low-stakes tests to retrieve existing knowledge.[5]

Kime and Scott recommend low-stakes tests and quizzes, both as forms of assessment and retrieval practice. They recommend free online resources such as Adam Boxer’s ‘Retrieval Roulette’ – an Excel-based tool for generating questions; Diagnostic Questions and Padlet. Other useful programs for creating online quizzes are Kahoot and Google Forms. For more on assessment through online quizzes, see José Picardo’s guide on ‘Checking pupil understanding using online quizzes’.

Ask many questions

It’s important to always ask students lots of questions, to assess their learning in a variety of contexts applied in many ways. Given the lack of non-verbal cues in an online environment, we should sometimes ask students more questions than we might usually do in the classroom, since we will need to rely on their verbal or typed responses more than usual.

Kime recommends that we regularly ask students focused and targeted questions to help gauge whether and to what extent learning has been successful. He suggests setting classes regular questions which you might have asked them during a classroom lesson, or a daily question, communicated online.

For more on the importance of questioning in teaching and learning and some questioning strategies, see an earlier blog post.

Make assessment purposeful and target-focused

Finally, a key recommendation Kime offers for good assessment practice in online and non-online contexts is that it be purposeful and target-focused. We should make clear why we’re assessing students (the purpose) and what exactly we’re aiming to find out through assessment (the target). This should influence the design of an assessment and how we interpret the information we receive from students from the assessments we set.

Recommended further reading and resources

  • Cat Scutt has written an extremely useful article collating some of the best and latest research on best practices for online and distance assessment.
  • The National Education Union (‘NEU’) offers advice for teachers and parents on several areas of education, including assessment.
  • Earwig Academic is a package designed for teachers to support creating assessments, tracking progress, reporting and providing teaching evidence, for pupils of all ages. During the coronavirus crisis, Earwig Lite has been made available for is free for ‘anyone who needs it’.
  • Twinkl offers assessment materials, as well as learning and lesson planning resources, for pupils of all ages. They offer free home learning and school closure packs.

[1] See Tom Sherrington, Rosenshine’s Principles in Action (Woodbridge: John Catt, 2019), pp. 17, 20.

[2] See Barak Rosenshine, ‘Principles of Instruction’ (American Educator, 2012), p. 15.

[3] Sherrington, p. 21.

[4] Rosenshine, p. 15.

[5] See Daniel Muijs and Dominique Sluijsmans, ‘Why this is not the time for large-scale educational experiments’, Schools Week, 4 April 2020.

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