CW from top left: Kessler, Tomasik, Carter, Hughey

3 Tips for Better Online Assessments & Assignments

Amelia Crespo

Could more tests actually make students less stressed? Could a science-fair style poster session really go virtual? Could YouTube videos replace final exams? These MIT professors seem to think so!

With the pandemic causing widespread adoption of online learning, it’s important for educators to consider alternative assessments and assignments that are better-suited for remote learning. During the Jan 14, 2021 Talk co-hosted by Dr. Janet Rankin, Director of MIT’s Teaching & Learning Lab and Open Learning, Dr. Aaron Kessler encouraged educators to limit their use of high-stakes testing and shared three principles for designing effective alternative assessments:

  • Regular low-stakes testing encourages retrieval learning.
  • Regular feedback that is actionable by the learner is critical.
  • Authentic assignments & assessments promote deeper understanding and help students learn more.

Here’s how three MIT professors are putting these principles to the test:

1.) More tests can help students to stress less.
Dr. Michelle Tomasik made two major changes to her Physics course assessments when adapting them for the online format. First, she increased the number of assessments from two midterms and one final to more frequent quizzes– about one quiz every two weeks– and a final. Next, she reduced the weighted value of all assessments from 70% to 50% of students’ final grades. She also built flexibility into the exams with extended time limits to balance the effects of unstable internet connections or time-zone differences.

As a result, students reported lower levels of stress around frequent quizzes than had been reported around midterm exams in previous semesters. Dr. Tomasik was also happy to report that students’ assessments scores were equal to or better than that of previous semesters, and says she plans to maintain this new model of frequent online quizzing even after students return to campus.

2. Virtual poster sessions can be a success.
In Dr. Barbara Hughey’s undergraduate Mechanical Engineering course, students conduct research, design posters, and present their findings during a science-fair-style final symposium. Dr. Hughey says she loves to situate students next to each other who have never seen one another’s research before because students not only learn from the process of presenting their own work, but from the opportunity to visit their classmate’s posters as well.

Unfortunately, when the event first moved online, students presented their posters to guests from the isolation of individual breakout rooms, and missed the opportunity to visit the posters of their peers. However, with the help of tools like Gather and Virtual Chair, the second iteration of the virtual poster session was a huge success.


Image: An interactive, virtual poster session made possible by Gather and Virtual Chair.

3. Making videos can replace taking exams.
In Professor W. Craig Carter’s course on computational thinking for material scientists, student’s don’t take an ordinary final exam. Instead they make two 4-minute videos. The first video asks students to illustrate a complex concept from the course as they would explain it to one of their peers. In the second video, students are asked to explain the code that they used to create the visual representations for their first video.

The video assessment is similar to an oral exam in that it allows students to demonstrate just how much they have learned. At the end of the semester, students also have the opportunity to show their video during a class movie night and receive feedback from peers. Professor Carter says that although the process of creating 8 minutes worth of video content takes a lot longer than an average exam, his students say they enjoy the learning process and often write to him years later to tell him how useful this alternative assessment was to them. 

Watch the video of the event.


Amelia Crespo



   Amelia Crespo is a Sloan graduate student


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