Educators and courseware designers in the higher education sector are currently being challenged by the recent advances in online learning technologies. This paper considers the place of assessment in the teaching and learning context of the modern university, with a particular focus on how the adoption and design of online assessment reflects teachers' pedagogies. The impact on student learning is also considered, especially as the type of assessment task assigned to students can have such an influence on their learning outcomes and developing epistemologies.
The recent trend whereby surface assessment tasks have seemingly dominated assessment choices of curriculum designers in online education is considered. Reasons for this pattern are investigated by reflecting on the role of assessment in both traditionally delivered university courses and courses that incorporate the new computer and online technology.
To redress the perceived current overuse of assessment tools that tend to focus on objectivist knowledge and surface learning, the paper concludes with a recommendation to develop a more balanced approach to student assessment in online environments, one that evaluates a wider range of student learning outcomes and encourages teachers to consider their own epistemologies when designing online assessment tasks. This paper may interest those who are involved in the design and delivery of university courses with online components. It provides insights for educators who are concerned about the pedagogical and epistemological implications of various assessment formats.
As we move into an era where flexibly delivered courses of study are no longer limited to the use of printed and mailed material, lecturers' pedagogies are extending to include a more eclectic range of teaching and learning strategies (Peat, 2000). Instead of comparing the "old" methods of course delivery with the "new", this paper explores how online and computer technology has impacted on the design of assessment tasks. The design of such tasks is often guided by current learning theories, described by Hofer & Pintrich as "current shifts in educational thinking toward a constructivist approach" (1997, p. 133). These constructivist learning theories are derived in many cases from constructivist philosophical tenets, which assume the importance of the learner and aim to create opportunities that enable students to take an active part in the learning process. In such contexts, assessment tasks are described as being authentic in that they are "derived from and simulate 'real life' (or authentic) conditions or situations" (Berns & Erickson, 2001). From such a theoretical foundation, knowledge is viewed more as a process of construction than a collection of facts:
The teacher interacts with the learner in line with the assumption that learning involves active construction of meaning by the student and is not something that is imparted by the teacher. (Biggs & Moore, 1993, p. 25).The author's instructional design experience in developing online assessment tasks, together with an exploration of recent literature on the topic, forms the basis for an investigation into the appraisal of the pedagogy behind the practice of recent online assessment usage. Underpinned by constructivism, this paper begins by considering the place of assessment in tertiary education in light of the recent developments in alternative course delivery techniques and the evolution of various technologically based course components. The discussion then leads into a consideration of recent and current online assessment practices in higher education and how they are indicative of teacher pedagogies and epistemologies. The influence of these pedagogical and epistemological bases are then taken into account in terms of how teachers' beliefs impact not only on learning outcomes but on the very epistemologies being constructed by their students. Schommer's work on how students' epistemological beliefs influence their learning is recognised as a major theoretical basis of this element of the discussion (Schommer, 1990, 1993; Schommer & Walker, 1995) and is extended and contextualised by Hofer and Pintrich's (1997) recent paper which focuses on the development of epistemological theories and how they relate to learning. Various other research in the field of educational and epistemological beliefs is also cited as a theoretical backdrop to this paper.
The paper then presents a position which suggests that current online assessment practice is unbalanced and requires a wider use of assessment techniques to ensure the valid assessment of both qualitative and quantitative aspects of knowledge. This position, it is suggested, may be achieved by considering the pedagogical and epistemological beliefs behind all aspects of online assessment design.
Similarly, other research has shown that students' epistemological beliefs affect their academic performance. Schommer (1993) found that students with a view of knowledge as dualistic often considered learning in terms of factual standards whereas those who held beliefs about knowing as being related to construction of meaning and reasoning were focused more on understanding meaning and applying it. In a much earlier study, Perry (1970) also found that the beliefs of college students varied across a range of positions including dualism, multiplicity, relativism and commitment within relativism. As Hofer and Pintrich (1997) explain, "Perry was the first to suggest that how college students made meaning of their educational experiences was not a reflection of personality but an evolving developmental process. He provided an interactionist model for interpreting students' epistemological responses to the college environment" (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p. 93). In this way, the university teaching and learning environments can be seen to be interdependent in regards to belief development and that students' belief systems develop as a result of contact with such environments. From such research, it seems that the choice and quality of assessment tasks reflect not only the educator's pedagogy and epistemological beliefs, but also influences the construction of the students' epistemology in general and their specialised knowledge base (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: The influence of lecturer's pedagogy and epistemology
on student epistemologies through assessment task design
As well as the actual intentions of online assessment, the style and purpose of the content being taught is of crucial significance when deciding how to design online assessment. Content that is factually based and requires minimal critical thinking or creative response may best be assessed by assessment methods which are more quantitative in nature. In most cases, the content of tertiary education courses is composed of much more than lists of factual information, especially as students progress through their degree courses and move into postgraduate study (Cliff, 1998). University students are expected to think critically, act creatively, solve complex problems and apply their knowledge to new, novel and workplace situations. Evaluating the interpretation and understanding of such content requires more than just quantitative methods of assessment and it is suggested in this paper that a combination of quantitative and qualitative assessment techniques would more adequately assess a wider range of university student learning outcomes. Such assessment would ideally ensure that various approaches to learning, surface and deep (Biggs & Moore, 1993; Entwistle & Tait, 1990), and various conceptions of learning (Marton, Dall'Alba & Beaty, 1993; Samuelowicz & Bain, 1992, 2001) are not only acknowledged but also incorporated and distinguished in assessment practices.
If set against a continuum with learning outcomes and knowledge as comparative scales with an objective-constructive backdrop, deep and surface types of assessment practices can be seen as being especially appropriate for the evaluation of either surface or deep learning outcomes (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Comparison of assessment practices, learning outcomes and knowledge
Of course, there are many variations of assessment types in between the two extremes of surface and deep assessment that represent different degrees of learning quality, as well as a combination of the two types. The basic premise of this paper is that, although both types of assessment are useful, examples that assess surface learning dominate the current online environment. This delineation between surface and deep assessment is based on findings understanding from previous research which has associated a surface approach to learning with a "narrower" approach as compared to the more "holistic" style of the deep approach (Entwistle & Tait, 1990, p. 171).
The inclusion of traditional-style assessment tasks within the structures of an online course is becoming less and less acceptable from both the student and the educators' point of view. Essays and examinations, frequently used as assessment tasks in on-campus or print-based distance education courses, are no longer the most frequently used or appropriate forms of assessment in online courses. What is more, constructivist philosophy and educational theory supports a view of assessment as a procedure that has many purposes. As well as being a means to guiding teachers' instruction and evaluating student outcomes, assessment is now seen as a mechanism by which educational programs can be improved (Raizen et al., 1998, p. 3) and, as a result of this, the online environment has influenced the development of new assessment practices. This transformation of course delivery modes, and its subsequent epistemological and pedagogical consequences, not only has implications for the roles of the major stakeholders in tertiary education, but for the whole process of creating learning materials.
Naidu (1994) suggests that "the entire instructional design process will need to be changed from a serial stage model in which assessment enters and leaves, to a model in which processes that serve as instructional stimuli also serve to provide data to a multivariate model" (Naidu, 1994, p. 8). According to this viewpoint, assessment is viewed as an integral component of the broader teaching-learning process and takes on a more complex role - one that not only entails assessing student outcomes but also includes the provision of feedback and learning opportunities for students. This idea in itself is not new, but the manner in which assessment is designed, assessed and communicated to students in the context of online learning represents the latest challenge to educators. This challenge would ideally involve a situation where the technology is utilised and fashioned in order to achieve specific learning intentions, rather than the situation where the educator is being dictated to by the technology (Clark, 1994). Instead of placing assessment at the end of a learning episode, as has often occurred in traditionally delivered courses, the online environment offers opportunities to integrate assessment tasks throughout the entire learning experience.
Peat (2000) echoes this perception that university learning processes are changing and further acknowledges the student's place within such a transformation by outlining how the university sector is going through a transition process, one in which both student and teacher roles are being revised and redefined. She believes that in the near future we will all be required to adjust our teaching styles to take the new technologies into account. Tam particularly outlines the added benefit of the new online learning environment as being able to "replace the determinist, teacher-controlled model of distance education with contextualised work environments, thinking tools and a conversation media that support the knowledge construction process in different settings" (Tam, 2000, p. 58). In fact, Samuelowicz and Bain (2002) surveyed the beliefs of university staff about the nature and function of their assessments and found that their orientations to assessment were related to their teaching and learning orientations, ranging from an emphasis on knowledge reproduction through to knowledge reconstruction and/or transformation orientations to teaching. The online learning environment clearly requires assessment models that are not only appropriate to the new mode of learning in general but that also provide a balance of methods that are able to assess deep and surface learning, and qualitative and quantitative forms of knowledge.
The educational trend is moving towards more active learning or learner participation in activities where learners communicate and cooperate inside and outside the classroom. Teachers are tending to provide guidance in preference to lectures and are becoming facilitators of learning. They are encouraging student choice in the selection of learning activities and supporting student responsibility to think and research, with attention being directed towards students' higher order thinking skills rather than rote memorisation. (Reushle, 1995, p. 1)
The overuse of quantitative assessment methods may reflect the lack of appropriate models available for the development of online curriculum components. Just as Herrington, Sparrow and Herrington (2000, p. 6) emphasise "the importance of the activity as a central organising device", so too assessment activities can be integral to any learning experience. However, despite all the evidence supporting the value of integrated qualitative assessment and the new affordances of the new technologies, online assessment has remained predominantly summative and frequently isolated from the principal learning material. The opportunities offered by the "inclusive" context of the online environment can create learning sequences that are "structured by the designer/author ... but often in ways determined by the reader" (Burbules, 1997, p. 105). The use of learner-generated (Wittrock, 1991) assessment techniques that assess deep learning outcomes can provide possibilities for students to take greater control, which is preferable to an over reliance on designer-imposed assessment tasks (Naidu & Bernard, 1992).
In general, to become more valid, assessment needs to be changed from traditional multiple choice methods (which focus on recognition, recall and quick, atomistic, measure surface learning, are based on course objectives, and are conducted out of context) to assessment focussed on students' own conceptions, which is holistic, measuring deep learning, and long lasting knowledge, is linked to learning theories, is conducted in context, allows students to express interpretations and is authentic. (Fetherston, 1998, p. 2)The situation described by Fetherston denotes the complex challenge of online assessment design in that it needs to be multifunctional as well as able to meet specific student, lecturer and course requirements. Overall, the pedagogy behind the assessment task design is that which will indicate the quality of the learning and, therefore, is a significant factor in any university learning context from both the teacher's and the student's perspective.
Constructivism emphasises the construction of knowledge while objectivism concerns mainly with the object of knowing. It is the fundamental difference about knowledge and learning that departs the two in terms of both philosophy and implications for the design of instruction. (Tam, 2000, p. 51)The breadth of knowledge is also relevant to our choice of assessment techniques and, again, indicates a direct link between the epistemological beliefs and assessment intentions of the university lecturer or course designer. Whether there is a need to assess explicit knowledge of a specific domain or implicit knowledge of a broad field, such contextual requirements impact on the type of assessment used (Sternberg, 1998, p. 13). Surface style assessment tasks may be more suited to some forms of explicit knowledge, whereas qualitative techniques would definitely suit the evaluation of more implicit knowledge. As tertiary educators, our design and choices of learning activities and assessment tasks clearly reflect our view of the nature of knowledge which in turn may be reflective of or influenced by our own particular field of research or disciplinary background.
Although the value of each form of assessment, deep and surface, is useful for different contexts, examination of the actual epistemological stance of the teachers involved is often neglected. Educators who hold the epistemological view that knowledge is comprised of measurable, provable facts and principles (sometimes known as the positivist view) may favour quantitative assessment tasks, which focus on the objectivity of knowledge. At the other end of the scale, educators who view knowledge as less definite and who recognise the socially negotiated aspects of knowledge (sometimes known as postmodernists or social constructionists), prefer using assessment tools that recognise the complexity of knowledge and its application in social, affective and authentic domains. Although an educator's epistemological beliefs are not always so clear cut that they fall into one of these categories (Geelan, 2001), such epistemological considerations appear to be especially overlooked in the choice of assessment techniques in online tertiary education courses.
Teachers' pedagogical beliefs and theories are ultimately reflected in the types of assessment task they assign to their students and the manner in which such tasks are marked. Mehrens and Lehmann recognised difference in surface and deep assessment design as early as 1973 when they speculated that the development of the objective type test would be a direct response to the criticisms levelled against more qualitative tasks, such as the essay. These criticisms of qualitative assessment included claims based on poor content sampling, unreliable scoring and time required to grade such assessment tasks (Mehrens & Lehmann, 1973, p. 245). Many of these criticisms are still relevant today as well as the extra criticisms regarding the issue of how to maintain consistency across a number of markers when using non-objectivist testing. With these influences in mind, it is understandable to see how online assessment design has been dominated by tasks that are more suited to evaluating a limited range of learning outcomes, namely those which assess quantitative learning outcomes and objective knowledge.
When using assessment tools and practices that focus on the evaluation of factual knowledge and recall of information, the subsequent impact on students' emerging epistemologies must be considered. The manner in which information is presented in university courses has an impact on the quality of knowledge constructed by students, an epistemological influence noted by many researchers (Brownlee, 1998, 2001; Chan, 2000; Jehng, Johnston, & Anderson, 1993; Roche, 2000; Schommer & Walker, 1995). Students who are presented with course information and disciplinary knowledge as a list of clearly defined facts, principles, definitions and theories will develop a different set of epistemological beliefs than a group of students who are encouraged to interact with and evaluate such facts, principles, definitions and theories in a more critical manner which also relates to and integrates with their own background experiences and prior knowledge.
Similarly, and perhaps even more so than the course information, the types of assessment tasks we include in any course has a monumental influence on the student learning outcomes. Many researchers have found that the way in which university teachers teach has an impact on their students' beliefs and learning approaches (Archer, 1999; Bruce & Gerber, 1995; Eklund-Myrskog, 1998; Entwistle & Tait, 1990; Kember & Gow, 1994; Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999). Therefore, the link between teacher-assigned assessment and student learning cannot be ignored. In the particular context of e-learning, the value and appropriateness of correct-incorrect style responses, characteristic of much quantitative style assessment, requires acknowledgement. If this type of assessment dominates, overtakes or replaces more authentic style assessment, less student-centred learning will be promoted:
Assessment focusses on the learning process as well as the learning products. For instance, if learning changes from direct instruction to situated learning the assessment of successful and less successful learners (or experts and novices within a domain) must change from an emphasis on right and wrong responses toward an emphasis on the information that each student perceives in the situations. (Naidu, 1994, p. 8)Hofer and Pintrich (1997) explain that theories about knowledge may be influenced by certain academic tasks and suggest that further research is required in this area. The field of online assessment and the associated academic tasks that such assessment activities include would be a likely area for future investigation. The example they provide in their paper cites an example of how learning task assignments can influence students' epistemologies:
For example, students who are given multiple-choice tests composed of low-level items may come to view knowledge as a collection of facts and learn to study for tests by memorisation and rehearsal strategies. Moving to a class where higher-level processes are expected may require not only a change in strategy use, but a change in epistemological theories. (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p 129)To place this argument into a customer-focused context, we can see that many students are now demanding a type of learning that has a direct link between their study and work environments. Such authenticity is definitely more possible by providing deep assessment tasks, or tasks that are more tailored to specific groups of students and able to reflect the nuances of various fields of study across different disciplines. Assessment tasks that encourage deep learning have the potential to be more open-ended and subjective in nature, catering to a wider range of student needs and able to effect a broader scope of learning outcomes. They may include reflective journals to foster personalised knowledge construction strategies and collaborative projects to reflect real-life workplace processes. Such tasks reflect a qualitative view of learning and value the quality and depth of the learner's understanding and knowledge over and above the amount of knowledge acquired. This view of learning is often seen in opposition to the more traditional objectivist view, which imposes a pre-existing structure onto the learner based on a single objective reality, and allows a process of learning that is characterised by more student generated activities and outcomes (Kourilsky & Wittrock, 1992; Wittrock, 1991).
Instead of just focusing on a limited range of traditionally designed assessment activities, online educators should be encouraged to consider the potential capabilities and functions offered by the new information and communication technologies (McLoughlin & Luca, 2000; Thorpe, 1998). Assessment tasks that address deep learning outcomes allow educators to take advantage of the "pedagogical benefits of hypermedia and multimedia as they allow for a tighter integration of subject material, learning activities and assessment" (Benyon et al., cited in Evans & Edwards, 1999, p. 152). These functions of hypertext and hypermedia are especially complementary to deep assessment as they create opportunities for flexibility and open-endedness of student responses in online assessment tasks (Kommers, Grabinger, & Dunlap, 1996).
To ensure that online assessment techniques become less dominated by the evaluation of surface learning, there is a need to create new online models of qualitative-style assessment that suit and are based on the unique features of the online learning technologies. Such examples should be manageable to mark whilst also providing adequate feedback to students about their own learning and feedback to lecturers about the students' progress. Ideally, deep-learning assessment tasks should integrate the distinctive affordances, or potential benefits, of the new online context such as hypertext and global searching facilities. The present lack of "showcase" examples of assessment tasks that are appropriate for assessing deep learning outcomes may have contributed to the overuse of methods which emphasise objective knowledge. Hopefully, once this pattern reverses, new and more suitable models of design, development and delivery will emerge and be used as models of high quality, qualitative assessment practice.
Finally, for online assessment to be truly viable and valid, a balance of tasks must prevail to assess all levels of deep and surface learning outcomes. From this viewpoint, Fetherston (1998) suggests that the interactive capabilities of computer learning actually provide opportunities for "creative testing strategies" and make use of authentic simulation techniques (Fetherston, 1998, p. 2). Such a balanced use of online and computerised learning environments must be evident within both individual courses and across disciplines. Gone should be the days where only humanities based subjects favour qualitative assessment techniques. Likewise, the science based disciplines should be encouraged to explore the rich opportunities offered by tasks that require qualitative-type responses. We should ensure that neither our enthusiasm for the new online learning environment nor our concern regarding the current lack of resources in the education sector be primary factors in our choice of online assessment techniques. As Taylor and Maor caution, "we must be careful to ensure that technological determinism doesn't overshadow educational judgement" (Taylor & Maor, 2000, p. 3). Rather, the ideal situation may be one where we are guided by our own pedagogical stance, by considering the needs of our students, and by reflecting on the intentions of the content in our courses. Such a balanced outlook can surely lead to a balanced use of varied and high quality online assessment strategies.
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|Author: Maria Northcote is a PhD student and sessional lecturer with the School of Education at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. In her previous position, she worked as an instructional designer at Kurongkurl Katitjin, the School of Indigenous Australian Studies, at Edith Cowan University in Perth. Her research interests include online unit design, online assessment, staff development and the link between teacher pedagogies and practice. She is currently working on her doctorate in education, researching the interplay between the beliefs held by university teachers and students about teaching and learning.|
Maria Northcote, School of Education, Edith Cowan University,
Mount Lawley Campus, Mt Lawley WA 6050, Australia.
Please cite as: Northcote, M. (2003). Online assessment in higher education: The influence of pedagogy on the construction of students' epistemologies. Issues In Educational Research, 13(1), 66-84. http://www.iier.org.au/iier13/northcote.html