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“Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.”: Assessment and the pivot online

Assistant Professor; Chair - DCU Connected Humanities, National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University

On the 20th of April I gave a presentation at a webinar organised by European Distance and Elearning Network (EDEN) about how to design and manage assessments for online learning which was part of a webinar series called Education in time of a pandemic. The webinar contributors included Prof. Mark Brown from the National Institute for Digital Learning at DCU, Dr. Lisa Marie Blaschke from the University of Oldenburg and Dr. Alfredo Soeiro from the University of Porto.

“Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge”

I started my presentation with a quotation from Winston Churchill “Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.” I felt this quote was appropriate for the current educational context because although it is a very uncertain time, there could be potential to reimagine our approaches to assessment. For example we could take this opportunity to clear out some of the deadwood or kill a few sacred cows in the educational system. The sacred cow I focused on was the campus based examination system.

In the literature on assessment, exams are considered to be a poor measure of student learning which emphasizes knowledge reproduction rather than critical thinking.

“they tend to measure lower order thinking skills in a decontextualized manner at a time when the literature frequently argues for the benefits of a richer, authentic approach to assessment” (Villarroel, Boud, Bloxham, Bruna, 2020, p. 38)

If the literature indicates that richer authentic approaches to assessment can benefit student learning, why are higher education institutions so attached to exams?

Face to face campus based exams are surrounded by ritual, bureaucracy and awe in higher education. I think we should take advantage of the opportunity that the pivot online created by the Coronavirus pandemic and kill the sacred cow of closed book campus based exams permanently.

Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

Replicating campus based exams online through timed proctored online exams is not the solution. In her recent presentation at #Gastagoesglobal, Sheila McNeill talked about how online proctored exams promote a culture of distrust and surveillance and how we should instead be creating a culture of support, trust and development for our students.

Student Engagement and Covid-19

When designing alternative emergency assessments for our students we need to think about student engagement in the context of Covid-19 pandemic. Adapting Kahu’s (2013) model of student engagement to encompass the Covid19 pandemic context is a useful lense to help us understand how our students can engage and learn successfully during this crisis.

Farrell (2020) adapted from Kahu (2013)

Important factors that we should consider are lifeload, course and assessment design, access to adequate broadband and computing equipment, the availability and accessibility of institutional remote online supports. Kahu (2013, p. 767) describes lifeload as “the sum of all the pressures a student has in their life, including university”, and is described as being a critical factor influencing student engagement. Everyone including students and staff are experiencing increased lifeload pressures due to the pandemic such as illness, caring responsibilities, home schooling, and remote working. Time management and organisational skills are key skills for student success (Farrell & Brunton, 2020). In addition, students are experiencing difficulties with broadband, access to computers, finding quiet study space and sufficient time to study. These pressures are impacting on our students well-being, their time, and their ability to learn successfully.

Our approach to crisis assessment

In Dublin City University (DCU), the institution created four key principles for crisis assessment:

  1. Validity

  2. Equivalence

  3. Proportionality

  4. Academic Integrity

These principles were applied across the university to adapt exams into alternative assessments. In our DCU Connected Humanities programmes which are modular online degrees we applied these four principles and adapted our exams into openbook take home assessments. Openbook take home assessments adhered to these principles and were a flexible, low bandwidth asynchronous assessment approach.

Alternative assessment ideas

In the webinar, we discussed a number of alternative assessment ideas, such as:

  • Eportfolio

  • Collaborative wiki

  • Asynchronous online debate

  • Vlog

  • Blog

  • Podcast

  • Online presentation

  • Asynchronous group project-Gdocs

  • Video creation

  • Reflective journal

  • Peer assessment

My colleagues from the NIDL, DCU, Suzanne Stone and Rob Lowney have created an edited open access resource called Exemplars and Case Studies of Technology Enhanced Assessment in HE and FE which has more details on these alternative assessment ideas.

For more resources on alternative assessment and the pivot online, check out the NIDL Swiftly Moving to Teaching Online resource bank.

Academic Integrity

The issue of academic integrity came up frequently in the discussion at the webinar. Our approach to academic integrity involves creative design of authentic assessment, moderation of marking, text matching software, clear guidelines to students about our expectations around referencing and the use of vivas to verify student academic work. These are detailed further in the resource below.

DCU (2018) Academic Integrity Principles

Final thoughts

In these unprecedented times, it is important that we support the well-being of our students, while addressing the need to have quality assessment. In the context of student engagement and Covid-19, using low bandwidth, flexible and asynchronous assessments may enable our students to succeed at completing their studies and #keeplearning.


DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit (2018). Academic Integrity Principles. Retrieved from Academic Integrity for Quality Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (INTEGRITY Project):

Farrell, O., Brunton, J.(2020). A balancing act: a window into online student engagement experiences. Int J Educ Technol High Educ 17, 25.

Kahu, E. R. (2013). Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), 758–773.

Villarroel, V., Boud, D., Bloxham, S., Bruna, D., & Bruna, C. (2020;2019). Using principles of authentic assessment to redesign written examinations and tests. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57(1), 38-49. doi:10.1080/14703297.2018.1564882

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