Formative Assessments in Online Courses
Because I teach in northeastern Connecticut, I sometimes have to accommodate occasional interruptions in my classes due to snow-related closures. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had some experience in facilitating my classes online. Now that we’re likely going to be in our “new normal” — conducting classes online — for the remainder of the school year, I find I need to reevaluate how I’m conducting my classes, particularly how I’ve been assessing my students. I’ve taken this shift from in-person to online classes as an opportunity to consider how I’m assessing students and for what purpose. I’ve incorporated using BioInteractive resources into how I’m assessing my students in a number of ways.
My online classes meet synchronously four days a week for 45 minutes with a 15-minute extra help session at the end, and then students have asynchronous work on Friday. During my synchronous online classes, which are conducted through Microsoft Teams video conferencing, I use a variety of tools, including Edpuzzle, Canvas, and Pear Deck, to assess my students’ understanding of the material.
First, I want to distinguish how I’m using activities and assessments. I typically let students complete activities at their own pace, then use their answers as jumping-off points for discussions. I then use assessments to check for students’ understanding of the concepts. Instructors often have questions about how to have students engage with BioInteractive activities when some have the answer keys publicly available in the “Educator Materials.” Because I don’t use the activities as assessments — that is, I don’t want to assess the process of learning during the activity, but instead use students’ answers to spark discussions — I don’t incentivize students using answers copied from the “Educator Materials.”
The following sections provide more information about how I implement both activities and assessments online.
I allow for time in my online synchronous classes for students to begin working on activities, including BioInteractive activities — which could be examining a Data Point figure, completing a Click & Learn, or doing a modified version of a BioInteractive lesson that would typically be done in class.
Some of my activities also integrate BioInteractive videos. I’ve been using Edpuzzle, a tool for making interactive videos that is free for educators, for a number of years. Edpuzzle allows me to build self-guided work centered around BioInteractive videos and activities that students can work through at their own pace. For instance, I used the BioInteractive short film Serengeti: Nature’s Living Laboratory and the “Wildebeest Populations” Phenomenal Image activity to make an Edpuzzle video that asks students to make observations, generate predictions, and ask questions about what regulates the wildebeest population size on the Serengeti. Edpuzzle allows me to see my students’ responses, and therefore I’m able to see what concepts they’ve mastered and where we need to clarify and discuss as a class.
Because my normal class time for in-person classes was 84 minutes — and my online classes are only 45 minutes — I need to give students time outside of our live sessions to complete activities. Additionally, I teach in a rural area, so I need to also account for some students having limited or slow internet access, which can affect the pace at which they work. As a result, I often have my students begin activities during class time following some direct instruction and discussion of whatever activities we’ve worked on in the previous class.
Allowing students to begin working on activities during our time together also gives me the chance to be on hand to answer questions and clarify directions, so that I avoid students defaulting to “I don’t understand” when they aren’t sure what to do. I find that the shift from an in-person setting to an online one means that I need to be careful in distinguishing students struggling with concepts and students struggling with directions, particularly at a time in which students are likely to be emotionally distressed. I find I need to make what to do very clear and be overly organized in how I present materials to students, both in class and on our learning management system (LMS).
When we finish the activity and come back together as a class, I use short assessments to gauge students’ understanding and address misconceptions. For example, using this presentation, I asked students interactive questions related to Chapter 1 of Serengeti: Nature’s Living Laboratory. (I use the Premium version of Pear Deck to add interactive questions to slides, but there is also a free version. Nearpod is another similar product available for free to educators.) The slides incorporate two Data Point activities, “Serengeti Wildebeest Population Regulation” and “Patterns of Predation.” Using interactive assessments in class engages students in the lesson and allows me to see their thinking in real time. Because I do not let students see one another’s answers, this assessment method surfaces which students are struggling with particular concepts, as well as where the class is as a whole.
We finished this lesson by watching Chapter 3 of the film in short segments I linked in the daily agenda posted in our LMS. After each segment, the students had a question to answer that asked them to make a prediction or verify their understanding of a concept in the film. As a final activity, we used Pear Deck to collaboratively build a system model of the Serengeti ecosystem by looking at direct and indirect effects of the components of the system.
In addition to the formative assessments discussed previously, I use short quizzes to assess students’ understanding of concepts. These quizzes are similar to what I gave in in-person classes: they generally have only a few questions and are performance tasks, so students cannot just look up the answers. Additionally, I emphasize to students that these quizzes are their opportunities to assess their own understanding of the material, which further disincentivizes academic dishonesty. For instance, I had my students complete the CSI Wildlife Click & Learn and accompanying worksheets at their own pace, then assessed their understanding of the concepts by asking them to do several tasks similar to what they did in the Click & Learn. For example, I had them identify homozygous individuals on an electrophoresis gel, determine which elephant certain seized tusks belonged to, and justify their claims.
I also find BioInteractive activities to be a rich source of assessment questions. I can go to the “Explore Related Content” section at the bottom of an activity’s BioInteractive webpage to see related resources. Students who just look at the answer key in the “Educator Materials” for a particular activity usually do not explore other similar resources — or make the connections with content that might use a different example from the ones given in the activity. For instance, students are unlikely to go beyond an activity looking at population size (such as the “Wildebeest Populations” Phenomenal Image) to a graph interpretation question from the student worksheet associated with the Population Dynamics Click & Learn without being instructed to do so. Therefore, I would encourage instructors to look at the related content for a particular resource as a source of potential assessment items.
Lastly, I find that, as I consider when and how to assess students, this transition to online teaching has given me the opportunity to think deeply about why I’m assessing students: to understand what they know and what they're struggling with, and to give them the opportunities to do the same. Although I made changes to my courses out of necessity because of the rapid transition to online teaching, I will likely retain some of these structures and approaches when we transition back to in-person classes.
Valerie May teaches at the Woodstock Academy, a “town” school in rural Connecticut that serves students from six school districts. In non-pandemic times, Valerie enjoys working with teachers around the country in professional development workshops, sharing what works in her classroom, and learning from their experiences. She also loves traveling the world with her husband and son. During the pandemic, she likes to work on jigsaw puzzles and stay connected to students, friends, and family.
Tim Guilfoyle describes how he uses the BioInteractive short film Some Animals Are More Equal than Others and a claim-evidence-reasoning activity to have his students examine Robert Paine's starfish exclusion experiment.
Sheila Smith explains how she uses the "Creating Chains and Webs" BioInteractive activity to teach her students about the direction of energy flow in food chains and webs. She also uses the short film The Guide to introduce the topic.