Assessment is a necessary part of any learning experience and potentially a great tool for teachers and learners. Good assessments let learners know how well they've mastered the material, show teachers or coaches how effective their instruction has been, and provide important data that can be used in tweaking current course work and creating future educational content.
This puts a lot of pressure on educators and course designers to come up with assessments that are effective and efficient rather than confusing, disruptive, frustrating or pointless. An educator working in an online environment feels this pressure even more. When a classroom is online, a teacher may not have a sea of clueless faces to respond to. In addition, technology and the size of classes—some online courses have thousands or tens of thousands of learners-- limit the kinds of assessments that can be used.
So, what makes the difference between an effective assessment and an ineffective one? An effective assessment:
Test What is Taught
It seems obvious, but a thoughtlessly put-together quiz might be testing the learner's common sense, skill with vocabulary or another quality that is irrelevant to the course content. Choose content carefully, then read over questions to ensure that the important concepts and information are what is truly being assessed. Keep the grammar of test questions clear and straightforward. Make sure correct answers are neither obvious nor vague and ambiguous.
A good design practice is to create your assessments BEFORE creating your content. This isn't always possible. But when it is possible it helps keep you focus on what content needs to be created. And if you FIRST get client/stakeholder approval for the assessment, you have a better chance at avoiding scope creep during content development.
Provides Useful Feedback (for Student and Educator)
A good test or quiz will provide feedback to the student as quickly as possible, if not instantly. The greater the time between the test and the results, the less likely the student is to remember the correct answer. If possible, wrong answers should be explained. Knowing why an answer is wrong is much more helpful than just knowing it is wrong. Assessments should also be designed to give some specific information to instructors, including which areas students may struggle with, how many students take the quizzes or tests, how long they take, etc.
Another pro tip is to use your favorite tools assessment features to create your content. For example instead of the standard format of a content first and then a multiple choice test, why not use a multiple choice test question feature to create your content page, or module. Use the area where you would normally write a question to add some content, and then ask a related question that encourages your learners to think more deeply. Offer some possible answers, or have them write an answer using a fill-in-the-blank testing feature. Writing the answers not only helps the learner, but reading their answers helps you get into the head of your learners, and then engage more deeply with personal feedback from you.
Is Integrated into the Learning Process
Assessments should be folded into the natural progression of the course and not disrupt the flow or confuse the learner. Short, frequent quizzes are more effective and less disruptive than long tests at the end of several chapters or units. Think of the assessments as ensuring a certain level of mastery of course material before a student moves on. To get a better idea of how best to integrate assessments into learning you should read about spaced repetition. The wikipedia page on space repetition is a great place to start.
Reinforces and Rewards Learning
A good assessment not only tests, but also highlights the most important course material and, via repeating it and testing it, makes that learning stronger. Students are also motivated by rewards. A reward for positive achievement might be as simple as a score, a particular noise or a cheery message, or as involved as a certificate at the end of successful completion of the course. The current trend of the "gamification" of coursework is evidence of students' love of competition and rewards—and their effectiveness.
Whether you choose to incorporate a few simple multiple choice quizzes into your coursework or are designing a more all-encompassing assessment, it's useful to think about assessments as inseparable from the learning process, not something outside of it. And remember: the data you receive is gold when it comes to designing your next course or an update of your current one. You have the data; now use it!