Preparing students for (online) assessment

preparing students online assessment

At the end of Study period 3, we had to change our assessment methods because of the Covid-19 crisis. It wasn’t possible anymore to administer exams face to face, so we had to redesign them for online use. Not only the teachers but also our students had to get used to this new situation. How can teachers prepare their students for new (and often unfamiliar) online assessment methods? Frans Prins provides several suggestions.

For many teachers, redesigning their assessment was not easy, for instance because they had limited time, and because it required a different view on assessment. For some teachers it was tempting to try to just administer the original multiple-choice exam online, with only a few minor modifications like asking students to declare that they would not cheat, or limiting the test time, hoping wishfully that students did not have enough time to cheat during the exam (which they always have; in fact, finding and formulating the answer yourself may even be more time consuming).

Fortunately, many teachers chose to redesign their assessments and changed their original assessment methods (often knowledge tests with multiple choice items), into for instance take-home exams with open-ended questions or oral exams, thereby assessing the learning objectives of the course in a different but suitable way.

Many students are not used to online exams, take-home exams or oral exams

Not only the teachers but also our students had to get used to the new situation of online education and, consequently, the new online assessment methods. Many students are not used to online exams, take-home exams or oral exams. Whichever choice teachers made for the alternative assessment method, if it is new to the student and expectations are not clear, it can cause concern or even test anxiety (e.g., Yucel et al., 2014).

I noticed this, for example, during a course I was teaching, when during an online tutorial one of my students stated that she was quite nervous about the new way of assessment (a take-home exam with open-ended question, administered between 2 and 4.30 pm next week). Indeed, we have to prepare our students for the new online assessment methods. Moreover, it is even a nice opportunity to guide and foster student learning, because, as Brown (1997, p. 7) puts it: “Assessment defines what students regard as important, how they spend their time and how they come to see themselves as students (…) If you want to change student learning then change the method of assessment.”

So how can teachers prepare students for altered often unfamiliar online assessment?

First, teachers should be transparent about what is expected during exams, and thus provide information about the content of the exam, the administration process, and the way the scoring will be done and decisions (pass/fail) will be taken. In other words, transparency about every step of the assessment cycle is important.

Second, teachers can design assignments and instruction in order to let students engage with the new online assessment method.

Third, teachers can design formative assessments in order to help students to get to know where they stand. Below, we will provide suggestions for specific learning activities to prepare students for the new online assessment methods:

1. Provide transparency

Transparency about the assessment redesign:

  • Explain (at the beginning of the course and maybe also halfway) how the redesigned assessment task is related to the course objectives and to the instruction, the literature and assignments of the course (constructive alignment); This will allow students to adopt appropriate learning strategies and will ensure students that if they do their work, attend lectures, do the assignments, read the literature, they will be able to pass the exam;
  • Indicate how many questions students can expect, what kind of questions the exam will contain, and what kind of answers will be expected; This can be done by providing worked examples of questions and answers and/or a mock exam a few weeks before the exam will take place; Provide opportunities for students to ask questions about the worked examples and/or discuss the mock exam.

Transparency about the administration of the assessment task

  • Provide information about the administration process;
    - How much time is available for the exam and why will that be sufficient?
    - Which programme or software will be used, and if it is new to them, where and how they can practice, where can they find information about it?
    - Are students allowed to use sources like articles and books?
    - Are students allowed to collaborate?
  • Some teachers already provide scoring sheets a few days before the exam, which can be downloaded beforehand so that students can already put their name on it, to not have to lose precious time for this during the exam.

Transparency of scoring and decision

  • Provide information about the scoring for each question (on the exam);
  • Provide information about the assessors (e.g., are multiple assessors involved, what is their exact role; preferably explained in the course manual);
  • Let students know what the cut-off score will be (on the exam).

2. Engage with the new assessment method

Communicating and clarifying is necessary but probably not sufficient. Active engagement with the new online assessment method (e.g., with criteria and standards, see Rust, 2002) can have added value. Here are some suggestions for assignments:

  • Organise a detailed discussion with students about marking procedures and criteria (Francis, 2008);
  • Prepare students for the assessment through the use of marking exercises and self and peer-assessment (Rust, 2002);
  • Let students design questions for the new online exam, and discuss the quality of it with them.

3. Design formative assessments

The better students know what the gap is between the desired goal (where the learner is going) and the current understanding (where the learner is right now), the better they know what they have to do to prepare for the exam (how to get there, see Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Consequently, teachers have to ensure that there are sufficient formative assessment tasks, providing more feedback and inform students about their progress (Rust, 2002). Here are some suggestions:

  • As a teacher you could use the MC-exam, originally designed for summative purposes, online for formative purposes. Students will then be engaged in self-assessment activities; If they are not doing well, they know they have to work harder; Students could also work in pairs and check the formative test results of fellow students and explain correct answers to each other;
  • Use the online tutorials to process and discuss the content of the lectures and literature, in a way that reveals how much progress students are making each week;
  • According to Boud (2000), “A belief that all students can succeed is needed. Unless staff have expectations that students will succeed, it is difficult for students to believe this themselves. Students must always be treated as if they will succeed.” Show this during lectures and tutorials and supervision.

We hope that these suggestions are useful for teachers to prepare students for new online assessment methods. To the student who was nervous about the new exam I said: “If you made all the assignments, if you did them all by yourself, if you attended the lectures, and read the literature, then you will certainly pass.” And she did.

Authors (O&T, team Toetsing & Feedback)


Boud, D. 2000. Sustainable assessment: Rethinking assessment for the learning society. Studies in Continuing Education 22, 151–67.

Brown, G. (1997). Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. London, Routledge.

Francis, R. A. (2008) An investigation into the receptivity of undergraduate students to assessment empowerment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33, 547-557. DOI: 10.1080/02602930701698991

Hattie, J., and H. Timperley. 2007. The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81–112. DOI: 10.3102/003465430298487

Rust, C. 2002. The impact of assessment on student learning. Active Learning in Higher Education, 3, 145–58.

Yucel, R., Bird, F. L., Young, J., & Blanksby, T. (2014). The Road to Self-Assessment: Exemplar Marking before Peer Review Develops First-Year Students’ Capacity to Judge the Quality of a Scientific Report. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39, 971–986. DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2014.880400