Assessing Student Outcomes Online

When I planned my online class “Introduction to Human Rights” a few years ago, I started like most of us these days with the student outcomes. What did I want students to take from my class and in what way might this differ from a face-to-face class? Then, I thought about how to assess these outcomes and as a third step what material might prepare students to succeed in the assessment. The biggest difference, and at the same time challenge, between an online and a face-to-face class is the way in which we can or cannot test knowledge. How do we make sure that the students do not just use the internet or the reading material to answer test or quiz questions? I don’t think we can, and I also think the more important question is: do we need to? This leads me back to the first thought: what do I actually want my students to take from this class?

I identified five interrelated course objectives. By the end of the semester, students should be able to (1) recognize key terms and major institutions in the Human Rights field, (2) critically interpret news and scholarly articles on Human Rights issues by questioning assumptions and theses, (3) analyze Human Rights issues from different disciplinary perspectives, (4) justify personal Human Rights standpoints with supporting evidence from course readings and materials, and (5) analyze a political situation, or cultural product, in terms of human rights. Only the first objective is a knowledge based one, all others use the information given to train specific skills; skills that will enable the students to succeed in other human rights classes if they choose to continue on.

To test for the first objective, I opted for self-graded quizzes within the course management system (blackboard in my case). Students could take these quizzes twice and needed to achieve a score of 80% or higher to receive full credit. I provided hints on where to find the answer to the question for those that students got wrong the first time and thereby actually encouraged the students to use the material and look up the answers. Instead of creating a test situation based on the assumption that student might or might not “cheat,” I welcomed the use of sources. The modules explicitly stated: “During the quiz, you may refer to your readings.” One reason for this was that I find this approach more authentic: I wanted students to be able to identify relevant information to answer the questions correctly. The second reason was that I actually wanted students to learn about key institutions and issues. By providing hints and second chances, students were more motivated to engage with the reading material and find the correct answers, gaining knowledge in the process.

All other objectives center on grappling with human rights issues as students encounter them in the news, in popular culture and in their daily lives. Associative writing, discussions, as well as short papers addressed these objectives and showed skills and increasingly self-reflection.

Each module began with a blog activity which asked students to write about their initial thoughts regarding the module’s topic. This activity was to be done without referencing outside sources and was meant to activate the students’ previous knowledge as well as their ability to associate. Since I wanted this first activity to be low stakes, it was graded for completion only. Most modules also ended with a blog activity in which students revisited their initial thoughts. Here, they included the module’s material to reflect on what they had learned over the course of the module. These posts were graded on the level of reflection, use of sources and appropriateness of the response. Not everyone had to change their initial thoughts, but they still backed up those first blog posts with quotes from the reading and thereby showed the integration of new information into their original argument.

Some blog posts led to direct discussion within the blog area of blackboard. When I asked for a definition of human rights in the first module for instance, students read blog posts of at least five peers, commented on their takes and integrated what they learned from reading into their own definitions. At the end of the module, we settled on a few course definitions that we revisited at the end of the course.

Discussions were at the heart of the course. They are the closest we get to face-to-face interaction where we can learn from each other, listen to each other’s arguments, formulate an opinion, revise or defend our standpoints and come to deeper understandings of human rights issues. Discussions worked in two stages. Students came up with an initial response to one of the questions asked (I usually provided three to four questions per discussion). These answers should be original and thoughtful, clearly drawing on the module’s readings and possibly outside sources. After this first step, students had two to three days to read the other entries and respond to at least three of them, engaging in a discussion that would enhance or expand the responses. Sometimes, I assigned additional reading after the first response to introduce new arguments that could become part of the expansion of the issue and argument (see lesson plan on torture and previous blog post).

In contrast to the blog activity, discussions only work when students participate. Blog posts can be graded as single items, discussions, however, need discussants to lead to results. This challenge became apparent during the first time I taught the course when I had formed groups of five. If only one or two people posted their initial entries, a limited discussion followed. I, therefore, recommend discussion groups of eight. Even then not all eight will post, but it ensures enough participants to get lively discussions and productive back and forth exchanges. More than eight participants could lead to confusing threads but it is possible to have some questions discussed by the whole class (I do this for group projects only as I will discuss in a future blog post).

The last objective and assessment take students’ different interests and disciplines in account. Often, students in intro classes are freshmen or sophomores who have not settled on a discipline yet. For them, I wanted to offer different disciplinary approaches to explore their options going forward. For those who have already settled on a discipline, I provided challenges to go beyond their disciplinary comfort zones. What this meant in practice is that I asked students to write a more social science oriented paper and a more humanities centered paper. This is a change I have made from first teaching the class, when students chose one or the other. While I still like that students have the choice, I also value experimenting with different genres and wanted to provide this opportunity for all students. Instead of one longer paper in the end, I therefore asked students to write two shorter papers, one for each approach. Additional choice became available since the two papers could refer to any of three modules. Students decided which two of the three modules they were most interested in to write their papers. At the same time, this meant that I didn’t have to grade all 25 papers at once which is a benefit not only in accelerated summer classes.

In their short papers (2-3 pages), students related the module’s content to a popular film, book, or to current events, demonstrating an analysis of a (political) situation or a cultural product in terms of human rights. Students incorporated three secondary sources. When students chose films or books, I encouraged them to think outside of the box and to elect a film that is not already obviously about human rights: Harry Potter instead of Hotel Rwanda, The Lord of the Rings instead of Braveheart, The Hunger Games instead of 1984 for instance. I like when students choose these kind of popular films particularly because they develop a critical eye for underlying ideological stances, parallels to historical events and human rights issues that go beyond what the news discuss. Ideally, students will continue to watch the world around them critically when they leave my class, which I value much more than the concrete, testable knowledge they could ever gain in an online or face-to-face class.

What kind of assessment have you used in online classes? What were your challenges? What worked well? I am interested in hearing about your experiences!