Initial Publication Date: October 19, 2017

Employ Effective Management and Assessment Strategies

Classroom management and assessment pose challenges to instructors in every context. Online courses present a new mix of positives and negatives in this arena.

Manage Multiple Sections Consistently

Consistency is important between multiple sections of the same course, regardless of format, but especially when there are both face-to-face and online sections. No two sections are going to be exactly the same, but the same structure and framework should underpin all of the various sections. Some factors to consider to increase consistency between sections include:

  • Consistent expectations for students
  • Consistent expectations for instructors
  • The same rubrics used for evaluating student work
  • Consistent student management strategies and practices
  • A shared quiz/test question bank for all sections

At the same time, while consistency is important, maintaining the flexibility of individual faculty to make the course their own is too. It is possible for faculty with different pedagogical styles and personalities to meet the same structural requirements of a class in very different ways. Providing all the instructors for a course the same framework (topics to be covered, number and style of assignments, past exams) but allowing them latitude to riff on those themes in their own ways preserves the quality of the course as well as the academic interest of the faculty member.

Communicate Expectations Clearly

Some students opt for online sections of a course, at least in part, because they think it will be easier to complete. Be clear with students from the beginning about expectations and the amount of time that will be necessary over the course of the term to successfully complete assignments and prepare for exams. Setting these expectations early and explicitly can help students decide if the course is right for them.

Erica Barrow, Ivy Tech Community College
"Many of our students have the perception that online science is going to be "easier" than taking a science course face-to-face. This incorrect perception leads to a harsh reality check during the semester, where students are unprepared for the additional rigors and self-motivation needed to succeed in the online environment."

One powerful strategy to set and reinforce these expectations from assignment to assignment is the use of rubrics. Rubrics are of great value, for a multitude of reasons. They communicate to students exactly how they will be scored; they raise the quality of work students do; and it is difficult for a student to argue about the scoring of a clearly-written rubric. Rubrics are also an effective way to highlight the important features of a large assignment, or to communicate target performance to students, and (of course) to simplify grading for the instructor.

Scaffold the Use of Technology

Clear instructions are always the right call, but for activities that students complete asynchronously they are critical. Students in online courses are already navigating one layer of technology simply to participate, so if their assignments call for the use of other applications or technology, it is important not to layer on too many new things too fast. Make a screencast of the process they will need to follow to successfully accomplish the task, along with a check list of instructions. Screen capture images with text and arrows added are another great way to convey how to succeed.

Especially if students need to use some novel application to work with data, particularly messy real-world data, they need enough practice to gain confidence and get past simply learning the tool they are using to using the tool to learn the content. Many opportunities to practice in a low-stakes environment and lots of scaffolding can prepare them for success when asked to perform those tasks on their own later on in a higher-stakes context.

Let Student Creativity Drive Some Assessments

Consider building in opportunities for students to come up with creative ways to complete some of the course activities. Annotated pictures, videos, music, and other creative projects can help students engage with course content, can be easier to grade, and present less temptation for students to cheat. Even a few of these opportunities per term can help capture and keep student interest.

There is also room for creativity in regular class activities. Having students contribute to discussions by taking a selfie in front of a geographic feature or holding an object that represents the correct answer to a question doesn't take any special preparation on the instructor's part and can help build the sense of community between the students in the course.

Mitigate the Risk of Cheating

While it may seem counter-intuitive, there is research suggesting that students cheat more in face-to-face classes than in online classes (Watson and Sottile, 2010). But there are also new tools available online (such as We Take Your Class) that make it easier than ever for students to make poor choices, so it makes sense to remove temptations and incentives for students to cheat while taking classes in an online context. There are no silver bullets, of course, but there are strategies that can make cheating a less attractive option for students.

First and foremost, clear expectations should be communicated about proper academic behavior. Be explicit about what cheating and plagiarism are. There can be cultural differences in how students see various practices, so be clear about what is and is not acceptable behavior. Also, be explicit that there are technological tools to discover plagiarism online (Course Hero, TurnItIn, tracking student IP addresses when connected to the LMS, etc.) that will be used in the course. Simply being aware that the instructor knows about such tools can put a damper on their use.

Inside the LMS, there are often options for creating dynamic assessments where the questions are different for each student taking the course, making it harder for students to share answers. Common options include drawing a different set of questions for each student from a large bank of possibilities, using numerical base questions and having the computer choose from a range of possible inputs creating answers in a range of possible outputs, or adapting the difficulty of the questions asked based on how a student is performing. Explore what is possible inside the LMS that you use.

There are also ways of structuring the class itself to make cheating less attractive.

  • Short answer questions and lab reports are a time tested way of making it difficult to cheat and not get caught, but they carry a higher overhead of grading. A possible solution to this might be to only grade a random selection of reports that are handed in, making sure that everyone will have the same number of assignments contributing to their grade.
  • If rock and mineral kits are sent out to students in the course for identification, send different sets of samples out to students. Or have the kits simply be a common reference for helping identify online examples.
  • When returning work to students or displaying grades for particular assignments, instead of providing feedback on right and wrong answers consider only giving out guidance about where to find correct answers for questions where students were incorrect. This helps prevent correct answers from being distributed and finding their way into students' hands. Bear in mind, that there are good pedagogical reasons for returning correct answers (allowing students to see where they went wrong, helping them prepare a study guide for future exams, etc.) but there are good logistical reasons for refraining.
  • Have quizzes and exams be timed events that open and close at prescribed times. That way, if students attempt to look up the answer to every question, they will run out of time and not be able to finish. Note that there will be students with accommodation needs for whom these time limits will need to be extended or waived.
  • Proctoring for exams is possible for remote students at institutions local to them or through services (e.g. ProctorU) but relationships with those faculty and/or resources will be necessary to enable such options.
Mary-Helen Armour, York University
"For reasons of academic honesty, our departments normal practice with all online courses is to have invigilated on campus midterms and/or final exams which constitute generally 50% of the grade. (students at out of town locations can arrange to write at a recognized invigilation center if they are more than 3 hours from the university)."

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