Assessments and Exams in Online Courses

Adapting assessments for a remote teaching environment often requires some new approaches to thinking about assignments:

  • How do I maintain academic integrity and sufficient rigor online, where most exams will be unproctored, and hence need to be open-book, and students are in varied environments?
  • In this situation, does it make more sense to revise my exams or replace them with other assignments?
  • How should I use frequent assessments to help students stay on track with the course? How can I do so without overwhelming them -- and myself?


What follows are suggestions for revising exams for teaching online, ideas for alternative assignments and for regular, low-stakes assessments, and guidance for using the tools to make these possible.


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Online Exams and Assessments: Promoting Academic Integrity


Exams and Quizzes

Please visit adapting your exam for the online teaching environment, for an in-depth look at strucuring exams for online courses


If your students need to take an exam, test or quiz, you can use Canvas Quizzes. As you think about assignments and assessments, focus on the types of rigorous thinking that you expect of students and then how you can have them demonstrate their thinking across different formats, such as:

  • Give students open-ended exam questions or questions that connect to students’ experiences to test higher-order thinking and frustrate cheating. 
  • Write multiple-choice questions that measure critical thinking and ask students to show the type of thinking or skills that you want them to learn.
  • Assign problems sets and prompts that get students to bring their own knowledge and experience into their work.

Using timed tests, shuffled answer choices or more open-ended questions (all of which Canvas can do) and considering open-book formats may mitigate academic integrity issues but will not fully alleviate them. It can also be helpful to remind students of the Code of Academic Integrity prior to any online exam and to be clear about your expectations.

For more ideas, visit exams and quizzes when teaching remotely.

Paper, Presentations, Projects, and More

If you will assign your students papers, essays, homework, images, or audio/visuals use Canvas Assignments. Instructors and TAs can grade using Speedgrader.

Papers and Essays:

  • Students can submit papers through a Canvas Assignment. You have the option of allowing file uploads, and can specify while file types are permissible, or direct text entry into the assignment.
  • The plagarism detection software TurnItIn is also available for all written Canvas Assignments.
  • Students can also turn in essays as a part of a Canvas Quiz.
  • If finding source material is challenging due to COVID-19 restrictions or a student's location, you may wish to modify your assignment. For example, for research papers, focus on elements (like literature review) that students can complete online or help students find a few sources that are available online and do a deep dive project into them rather than trying to synthesize a range of sources.

Video and Audio Assignments, Such as Presentations:

  • The easiest approach is to use the video recording capability in Canvas, which is built into the text submission for assignments (and also allows students to upload a video from their own devices). Students may also record audio only.
  • Students may also create videos in the recording space of their choice, and upload that file to a Canvas Assignment
  • Please be aware, it is possible some of your students may not have access to tools for recording video or high-bandwidth wifi, so be sure to offer alternatives if they are unable to create and upload a video. Also, keep in mind the length of videos. Canvas is not recommended for recordings longer than 15 minutes. If the presentation goes longer than that, suggest that students record in small chunks or use an alternative means for recording a video.
  • If you have concerns about file size limits in Canvas, Penn+Box is available to all instructors and students at Penn, and allows unlimited storage. Students can upload their files and share them with you.

Equations, formulas, charts, or other visual representations:

  • Canvas assignments allow students to submit audio and video media files and images, which can be viewed and graded in the same way as written assignments.
  • For handwritten work, ask students to take pictures of their work and upload that to Canvas. You can suggest they use the free Canvas mobile app which makes this process simple. If you would like to see students handwritten work live, consider some of the low-tech whiteboarding options for students.

Regular, Low-stakes Assessments

Small, regular assignments can break down your goals into parts so that students can take intermediate steps toward complicated goals and stay on track through the course. These smaller assignments take some of the grade and performance pressure off of larger assessments such as final exams, promoting academic integrity. They do require students to be regularly engaged with your course, which may add a new demand, though. You can use a variety of different tools and methods to help students develop the skills and thinking they need.  Consider:

  • Regular, low-stakes quizzes following recorded lectures or required readings that will help students pay attention and focus their attention on the most important parts of the material.  (You can also automate feedback too so that students learn from their mistakes.)
  • Discussion boards or other tools for asynchronous engagement, such as Perusall or Piazza, that can give students opportunities to practice using new vocabulary and ways of thinking and to respond to each other.
  • Video and audio tools that ask students to demonstrate a process or to role play tasks that they might need to do.
  • Synchronous sessions where students practice working on problems or case studies. For more information on leading synchronous sessions, refer to meeting synchronously.
  • Short focused assignments (due weekly or every other week) that build toward a longer project or assignment.

Providing Feedback and Grades

Feedback is one of the most valuable things you can do as an instructor in an online class.

Considering the questions below as you think about designing your course can help you find ways to make your feedback more useful to students and less burdensome for you.  Make sure you give students feedback that helps your students learn in time for them to improve. And make sure you focus your feedback on your goals for your students: that will save you time and help students understand what you want them to learn. Canvas Speedgrader allows you to grade and provide feedback on assignments, discussions, and quizzes.

There are lots of ways to give feedback online and in person.  Consider:

Will audio and video tools be effective? Leaving students audio or video comments can seem less formal and give students a sense of instructor presence that text comments sometimes don't convey.

How might I provide feedback for the whole class? Sending out an answer key can often help students get the feedback they need on their work without you having to communicate one-on-one.  Features in Canvas like the Announcements tool can allow you to give this sort of feedback to all students at once. You can also reply to discussion boards and provide summaries of, or connections between, multiple students' contributions rather than respond to a lot of students individually. You can also provide feedback in a recorded lecture or in a synchronous class session.

When might it be useful to provide automated feedback? Quizzes have features that allow you to give students automatic feedback on questions with set answers. This way you can cheer students who get the right answers and give hints to students who don’t.  While these features take time to set up, they save time later on and can be reused.

When might peer review be useful? You may not need to comment on every draft of every assignment. In some cases peer review can be useful for giving students some useful early feedback on their work and giving the reviewers the chance to reflect on the standards you provide.

What should get a grade?  What should I just mark as complete?

Canvas lets you pick the types of grades you want to give, including point values, complete/incomplete.  Different assignments call for different sorts of grades.  Some might just need to be marked as complete/incomplete and others you may need to mark for quality of thinking and other higher order skills. Grades can indicate to students what you value. If you value the process of learning, make sure your grading policy values process. If you value students’ thinking, be sure to show that in what gets graded as well. 

For better or for worse, grades also motivate students to complete work. For this reason, online courses usually include some sort of graded activity each week to keep students engaged and on track. There are many strategies to use for these weekly activities, such as discussions, comprehension quizzes, problem sets, and/or reflective journal entries. Sometimes  instructors include regular, lower-stakes activities (like quizzes or discussion boards) in calculating students' participation grades while others give these activities more weight since they are indicators of students' development.