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The Value of Now

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A teacher assists a student on an assignment
The Value of Now

This week I spent some time researching online assessments. If you grew up in the time of Scantron tests you might think a transition to online teaching and learning would be as simple as transferring a bunch of multiple choice exams to a digital format. Assessing student learning is a bit more complicated than that in general, but especially in an online environment.

For starters, gauging student engagement and understanding is more complex in an online setting. In a face-to-face course, the instructor can see student reactions to new content. They can immediately ask students questions. In online courses, especially those that are asynchronous, the instructor needs to find other ways to confirm their students are mastering the content, such as using interactive quizzes, discussion forums, and virtual office hours.

Next, in the classroom an instructor can control most of the testing conditions. They can control the physical environment, such as the seating arrangements and spacing, access to visual cues or resources, and even the temperature or lighting in the room. They can control access to the test and the allotted timing. They can monitor for cheating. In contrast, in an online exam, the instructor has almost no control of testing conditions. They have no influence over the physical space or distractions and it's a challenge to prevent cheating. And since they can't control internet stability or access, enforcing time restrictions can be problematic and even unfair.

Students at desks taking an exam in a traditional classroom
Testing with controls

Because of these and other issues, and because of a growing body of research that points to a need for and benefit from authentic assessments, the solution many course designers and instructors have embraced is using more project-based assignments. On the surface, this seems like the perfect answer. Students get to show understanding through direct application of their knowledge in a practical way that can often directly be applied to real world situations or examples. This approach also solves for cultural and racial inequities that are common issues with traditional exam formats.

If you're like me, this solution sounds like a win for students and teachers, alike. So, what's the problem?

Objective evaluation of traditional exam results can be as quick as instantaneous, reducing or eliminating instructor grading time. A student can select an answer and receive immediate feedback. This can, in and of itself, be a powerful reinforcer or corrector of acquired knowledge. At the least, the immediacy can prevent the student from carrying inaccurate knowledge forward to other lessons and assignments. It's a gauge that lets the student know how they are doing right now.

Projects often require subjective evaluation and require a great deal of instructor time to grade. This means not only are instructors busier with grading leaving them less time for instruction or support, the students are also not getting quick feedback. It may be days or weeks before they get feedback on their projects. They may have several other assignments or projects to do in the meantime. This delay can serve to reinforce the incorrect information, which makes it that much more difficult to unlearn later.

The value of feedback for learning can be high or low depending on a number of factors. Obviously, the instructor and their knowledge of the subject matter and the student's capabilities are a factor. But the greatest feedback can be lessened the more delayed it is from the moment of performance. Imagine getting a critique for something you did a year ago. Sure, it might be interesting. It might even be helpful. But it won't be as powerful as it would have been a year ago when all the decisions about your work were fresh in your mind.

An alarm clock
Timing matters

Imagine you're given a box with two buttons, one red, and one blue. You press the red button and nothing happens. You press the blue button and you hear a bell ring. You'd probably deduce that the red button was broken and the blue button makes a bell ring. So, you press the blue button again, and nothing happens. You press the red button and nothing happens. A few moments later, you hear three rings of a bell. Now, you likely have no certainty about the function of the buttons or what's causing the bell to ring.

This example illustrates what it's like to get delayed feedback. It makes it very difficult to connect actions to results. And it does little to reinforce accurate from inaccurate beliefs.

This highlights the value of now for learning. If you watch a child playing with a new toy, you'll get the best example of this value. They typically start with a thorough inspection. They look at every part, touch every part, and they may even taste every part. Then they start to test every part. They may poke, hit, throw, or move the toy. They learn what it can and can't do as they observe the reactions of their tests. They learn what they can do with the toy through these tests. When we learn naturally, we explore something in our world, we wonder about what might happen, we test it by altering the conditions, and then we get instant feedback. The feedback is the point of learning. It's the point where our beliefs are either confirmed or rejected. It's the point where we run excitedly to someone else to show them what we now know.

A toddler playing with toys
Feedback is our teacher

So, what's the answer when it comes to online assessment? How can we give students the value of quick and quality feedback? Miller (2020) suggests splitting bigger projects into smaller tasks, which makes it easier to grade and also less stressful to students. Mueller (n.d.) suggests using a combination of traditional assessments and more innovative project-based assessments. I think these are good strategies, but I think we can do even better. As designers, we must consider grading time for projects and create as many objective measures as meaningful for project rubrics to help instructors with evaluations. As instructors, we must manage our time effectively and stagger due dates as much as possible between our courses to ensure we have adequate time to provide timely feedback.

Above all, as educators, we need to understand the value immediate feedback brings to learning and do what we can to serve our students in their moments of engagement.


Miller, A. (2020, April 28). Summative Assessment in Distance Learning. Edutopia.

Mueller, J. (n.d.). The Authentic Assessment Toolbox: Enhancing Student Learning through Online Faculty Development.


All images contained within this post are courtesy of Media from Wix.

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