How To Effectively Assess Online Learning

From online to long distance, it’s hard to keep up with all the various avenues for learning and professional development. But before you attempt to adapt an online learning course, learn how to test how you’re performing.

How do you assess the outcomes of online courses? How can you measure how well online learning prepares students for real-world academic success?

One of the greatest challenges in online education is the risk of ineffective assessment and evaluation. As a professor and college president, I see firsthand the challenges that teachers, students, and college administration face in managing student learning in the face of so many variables and other pressures. With unique access to information, creative online tools, and a higher failure rate than traditional classroom teaching, it is difficult to conduct effective assessment. However, online learning is advancing rapidly, and now technology can help better address the challenges students face in this evolving field.

With this in mind, I’ve created an assessment framework that ensures online learning is both accountable for and measured against the “leverage data” that matter most in education. Leverage data is a set of measures based on academic outcomes that add up to a final “accountability score.” These data include, but are not limited to, the number of college credits earned; the percentage of students who start a semester with a perfect standardized test score; and the number of credits earned by students who repeat a term or a sequence of grades.

Understanding Leverage Data

Online learning needs to be valued in the context of the massive improvements in technology and student achievement. Yet, for many institutions of higher education, online learning is viewed as just another, not as an instructional, mode of instruction. For online learning to be successful, it must be better than the previous modes of instruction. In my work with higher education, I have developed a framework for examining online learning outcomes and evaluating the success of the learner.

To conduct effective assessments, it is imperative that colleges and universities adopt the “holistic understanding” of student learning. This comprehensive understanding helps to characterize learning outcomes and measure a learning outcome. Through its holistic understanding, the academic institution determines and achieves different learning outcomes than when it has merely built a new mode of delivery.

This holistic understanding includes understanding the difference between linear and nonlinear learning outcomes. The “nonlinear learning” represents the more nuanced nature of learning. Nonlinear learning means that for some students, the basic algebraic concept of multiplication will be more natural when learned in multiple-choice assessment than in, say, a unit system or algebra IV. Nonlinear learning is achieved through non-solo cognitive processes. It is easier to learn through these processes, which account for the infinite problems that are never solved but that may be ever-solving through adaptive processes. Nonlinear learning is not dependent on mastery of a course or the knowledge acquired from even the most rigorous course content.

What does this mean for learning outcomes? This comprehensive understanding of student learning is necessary to assess and positively track the achievement of many aspects of the learning experience. For example, it is important to understand the impact of online learning on support for self-directed learning or with respect to assessment. It is critical to consider the length of a course experience—and the changes to the program or style of instruction itself—as well as the contextual factors of the learning experience (such as time of day, climate, and distance) as part of the student experience. A course program might include from five to ten individual and class time assessments. Nonlinear learning methods also serve to measure short-term mastery of material and assessment in non-solo, cognitive ways.

To measure the impact of online learning with traditional assessment methods would be to waste a good deal of time and money in preparing test-based testing procedures. Evaluating learning outcomes requires carefully considering the ways in which learning is being delivered, the communication and feedback to students, and learning outcomes based on nonlinear models of learning and learning by doing.

Online learning efforts should be evaluated based on both traditional and nonlinear approaches to assessment. Nonlinear assessment measures student engagement and engagement has a significant impact on a learning outcome. The completeness and validity of these nonlinear learning factors provides an indicator of student learning. Not only does it provide a better understanding of the general learner, it also translates to more rigorous learning outcomes.

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