You Are a Highly Effective Tool: How To Do Online Assessment Right During The COVID-19 Crisis

As schools either continue or begin remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers are looking for ways to not only teach their students, but also ways to assess their learning. It’s all well and good that you’re delivering great learning experiences online, but how can we find out if they’re actually learning the stuff?

Note: This blogpost inspired by a question Bradley Ryall posed to me on twitter.

It’s a great question. And there are so many options out there right now. Thanks to the generosity/marketing team of almost every EdTech company out there, Many online learning platforms are being offered for free during the current crisis. (Feel free to click here for a spreadsheet that appears to list 100’s)

But… I don’t like them. I hate them.

Why I hate Online Assessment Tools

Over the course of a few years now, I’ve been a Technology Coach, Head of Mathematics, Blogger, Tweeter and Minor YouTuber. All of these things have made me a prime target for… “The Edtech Sales Person”ᵀᴹ.

The sales pitch is something along the lines of…

  • “Create classes”
  • “Assign students a Pre-Test”
  • “The platform will diagnose weaknesses and assign remedial tasks/videos”
  • “Students can now do another Test”

And with 15 minutes left in the meeting…

  • “But what we’re really excited about is the “Learning Analytics”. Now you’ll just need to go into the “analytics” screen and you’ll know everything you need to know about your students learning”.


This is always a bad idea

I really wanted these things to work. I really did. I wanted to logon every day, see at a glance what students were understanding and what they weren’t and then respond.

I wanted to differentiate my class based on what these learning analytics were telling me. I wanted to have more knowledge of what my students did and didn’t know.

But… it didn’t. It doesn’t work.

Garbage in, Garbage out

GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) is a pretty common phrase in tech circles. If you put poor quality data IN your system, you will get poor quality data OUT of your system. Every single online learning platform promising learning analytics does exactly this.

Generally, students are inputting multiple choice answers and getting it right or wrong.

  • I can’t see what they were thinking when they chose option “C”
  • How much did the student really care when they were clicking A-D on an online test?

In hindsight, this was never going to work in a classroom. All of our teacher brains are highly attuned to assessing student understanding on the fly. We gather all sorts of evidence all of the time. We are all calculating our own learning analytics constantly.

  • The way they look at you when you are explaining a new concept
  • The scribbles you see in their book as you walk around the room
  • The way they keep looking at the person next to them for answers
  • Their participation in the 5 minute “quick quiz” at the start of the lesson
  • The short diagnostic test you gave them in week 4.

You are a teacher super computer, storing and analysing these learning analytics on the fly. You never needed learning analytics. You ARE learning analytics.


But What About Online Learning

I have said previously that you shouldn’t be reinventing your teaching practice to accommodate online learning in these extraordinary circumstances. I stand by that. That teacher super brain you have needs to be allowed to keep functioning, even if the students aren’t in front of you.

Do not go looking for high tech solutions. They will still fall short. You want to go much more Lo-Fi than that.

Just Tell Me What To Do.

The most lo-fi version looks something like this.
Step 1. Send a diagnostic test/writing task via Snail Mail to the students house.
Step 2. Students does the test at home in their own time and Snail Mails it back to you.
Step 3. Mark it and give feedback (Snail Mail it back)

Now just take that super lo-tech version and adapt it for your context.

  • Replace snail mail with email
  • Replace email with google classroom/microsoft teams/onenote/see saw/whateverLMS
  • Replace writing on paper with writing with a stylus on their laptop.

What’s non-negotiable here?

You can do it how you want, but here’s what I think you need to have.

  • The students need to write things down or type things out. If you’re thinking multi-guess is the way to assess student understanding during this time, you’re wrong.
  • The teacher needs to view, assess and provide feedback on this work. This process kicks the teacher learning analytic big brain into action. It can’t be skipped.

Too long, didn’t read? Here’s the executive summary:

There is only one truly effective online learning tool for formative assessment.



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