Assessments and Reflections in Online Courses
As an in-person and online faculty member at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, I’ve been fortunate to teach a wide variety of mixed majors and nonmajors courses, including our general biology sequence, which includes ecology, botany, environmental science, and Earth science. I have nearly two decades of online teaching behind me. Even with this prior experience, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was very jarring to suddenly stop seeing my in-person students after all of higher education moved to fully online education. In order to give my students the best learning experience possible for the remainder of the semester, I am relying on the techniques that already work well in my fully online courses.
In any course, I use class discussions, active learning, and course-based projects as formative assessments. One of the first decisions I made years ago in my online courses was to give less weight to traditional summative assessments. Quizzes and exams do not necessarily give me or students a full picture of their learning. Instead, I use untimed assignments to summatively assess my students’ conceptual learning, critical thinking progress, and skill transfer. Because of the transition to an online setting, even for my classes that were previously in person, I am emphasizing the formative and untimed summative assessments even more over these final weeks and using them as summative assessments as well.
Reflection questions that help students probe deeply into the material work well in both my online and in-person courses. I use these as part of critical thinking discussions and short reflective writings. Pedagogically, reflection questions encourage students’ metacognition and also provide structure for deeper conversations. These conversations are not generally organic in online courses and therefore require specific prompting by the instructor. Additionally, they provide a valuable opportunity to hear from students what they found most important or most problematic. This is missed when assessments are solely content-based.
As an example, I use BioInteractive’s Gorongosa resources in a number of my courses. In my in-person environmental science course, we use two powerful resources: the Gorongosa Timeline Click & Learn and the short film The Guide.
In addition to having my students answer low-stakes formative questions about the content of the resources, I asked them to write responses in our learning management system (LMS) to several critical thinking/reflection questions as part of their summative assessment. Below are some of the questions I used, as well as example student responses:
- How is the process of science helping guide restoration efforts in Gorongosa, and how may restoration benefit not only the wildlife but also human communities near the park and beyond?
- “Through building clinics, schools, and rebuilding infrastructure, they have been able to train the park rangers and reintroduce species to the area. These efforts have been able to help the park guides to better educate the local farmers.”
- What were your reactions to the provided resources?
- “I found the unit on biodiversity very insightful. Through the videos I watched, I have seen how a species or an organism can impact everything else in that habitat. It showed me how important everything in a single habitat is. They all have impacts on one another, and there are certain human activities that could ruin a habitat. These activities include deforestation and even war.”
- What did you discover about biodiversity and ecosystem preservation using the Gorongosa case study?
- “Biodiversity is one of the most important aspects of the environment. There are millions of different species on this planet, each with a different role in, and different effect on, the ecosystems around them. Every species is affected by the other species they interact with, and without the diversity within each ecosystem, these relationships cannot play out how they are meant to. This can result in a loss of many more species and resources.”
- “Biodiversity is the basis of all life on earth. Each distinct species is connected to another separate species in some way, whether it be a trophic hierarchy or symbiotic/mutual relationships. This diversity is the foundation of our own sustainability.”
- What could you, or I, have done to improve your learning process?
- “I found it very helpful that we focused on one area, Gorongosa National Park, as a real life example of ecological relationships. The short film The Guide and the activity also helped put these relationships in perspective related to a specific real-world example. Overall, I found that covering the basics of ecology was helpful and made me appreciate that every living organism plays an important role in their ecosystem.”
Formative assessments in my online courses have previously incorporated these reflective and metacognitive strategies to guide students. In person, these same questions would often lead to deep and critical discussions. Now, with all courses online, student reflection responses are crucial for me to find areas of misunderstanding, confusion, conflict, or disengagement. They also allow me to see students’ “aha” moments that I would otherwise miss through standard formative and summative assessments. Their formative assessments give me a sense of their content mastery, while the summative assessments focus on a macroview of our content and science practices, including connections between, and applications of, course topics and the world outside our course.
Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
Merriam, Sharan B., Rosemary S. Caffarella, and Lisa M. Baumgartner. Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007.
Tanner, Kimberly D. “Promoting student metacognition.” CBE – Life Sciences Education 11, 2 (2012): 113–120. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.12-03-0033.
Tara Jo (TJ) Holmberg is Professor of Environmental Science and Biology at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, a small rural institution. She is completing her 18th year of teaching and mentoring in higher ed and is ABD in environmental studies. TJ spends her downtime with her two dogs, gardening with native plants, and enjoying local wildlife.
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