Having gone through years of schooling, most of us are used to taking and passing tests during or at the end of our learning process. Some of these tests are major milestones and others may determine whether our learning is deemed ‘completed’ or ‘successful’. Some teachers may find constructing and administering tests more straight forward than developing other types of assessment. Often these tests get created at the end of a course development process, driven by the subject matter rather than by expected performance outcomes.
For workplace learning or soft skills training in which application is more important than memorizing facts, tests may not be the most appropriate assessment method. Most test questions are not designed to allow students to engage in critical thinking and reflection or a deeper analysis of the learning material.
There are alternatives to tests, such as writing assignments, collaborative projects, and case studies, that can avoid the problems often associated with tests and quizzes. The key is to design authentic assessments that simulate real-life situations so students can actually learn from the process (Palloff & Pratt, 2013)1. Although group projects can be harder to manage online, they allow your learners to create and be part of a community of practice. After all, if the application of skills doesn’t occur in isolation, why should learning of such skills take place in a vacuum?
There are, of course, benefits to tests. Here are some of the occasions when tests are not only appropriate but good strategies to enhance learning:
- Use pre-tests to introduce new material: A quiz, when used as a pre-test, can provide your learners with a preview of what they are about to learn. The intention of the test is to get your learners to realize what they don’t know and make them want to know more. These questions can also help students focus on the most important knowledge and skills addressed by your course.
- Use post-tests to reinforce main points and check understanding: After a lesson is concluded, consider using a self-assessment to review the material covered. A well designed post-test provides learners with personalized feedback tied to what they just completed. It helps them self-evaluate whether they have a good grasp of the material. These frequent, low-stakes assessments can also help students gain proficiency before they attempt the final assessment2.
- Use formal tests to validate competency: At a logical break point, use a formal test to help learners synthesize their learning. Align test questions to the learning objectives. As much as possible, include application questions (e.g., case scenarios) in this type of tests to help learners apply what they learned in simulated situations.
To quiz or not to quiz? Perhaps there isn’t a straight-forward answer, but ask yourself what the intended learning outcome is before you make it the primary choice for assessment.
1 Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2013). Lessons from the virtual classroom: The realities of online teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2 Weise, M. R., & Christensen, C. M. (2014). Hired education: Mastery, modularization, and the workforce revolution. Redwood City, CA: Clayton Christensen Institute.