There are a number of ways to engage students in discussions around the content and assess their mastery of the course material. 

It’s a good idea to start designing your assessments at the start with these three recommendations in mind:

  • Assessments are aligned with or derived from the learning outcomes.
  • Short and regular assessments throughout the course will help students assess their progress and provide feedback to the faculty
  • Students will want to know how assessments and learning outcomes are connected. You don’t want your students to think that the class activities are not “meaningfully contributing to their learning.” (Fowlin)

Use the course map template to align your activities and assessments with the learning objectives.

Selecting Meaningful and Relevant Alternative Assessments for Online and Face-to-Face Teaching

Designing Successful Online Course Collaborations

Alternatives to Proctored Exams

  • What is your course grading scheme (i.e. “grading scale”)?
  • What are the types/categories of assessments you plan to use in your course (e.g. journals, research paper, etc.)?
  • If you plan to weigh the grades in your course, how should each assignment type/category be weighted?
  • What is the total point value of your course, and how many points should each graded activity be worth?
  • What tools will you be using?  Most assignments can be done using the tools available through the Canvas LMS, while there are some assignment types that would benefit from using a tool outside of Canvas. 
Best Practices
  • Build community!  The first assignment in an online course should be about getting to know the students in the course. But don’t stop there!  Throughout the semester questionnaires and surveys can be a great way to continue to get to know your students and build community.
  • Provide clear criteria for how assignments will be evaluated and graded.  This can be done with rubrics or a simple assignment criteria checklist. 
  • The devil is in the details!  Any assignment or activity should have detailed instructions and prompts so students understand what needs to be done.
  • Offer choice and flexibility.  Allow students to take ownership of their learning by providing multiple options for completing assignments.  For example, give multiple prompts for a written assignment and let students choose which one they want to respond to.
  • Search for a balance between maintaining high standards for learning and a reasonable workload for the students. A clear and consistent course design improves learning more than the number of materials you expose your students. Remember less is more!
  • Provide good and bad examples of the types of work submissions you expect.  Examples create a more inclusive community as it helps students who may not be familiar with certain types of assignments.  Examples are models that can help students develop their thinking or serve as a starting point for more creative ideas.
Common Types of Assessment

Here is a list of common types of assessments used in an online course:

  1. Read / Watch & Respond: This type of assignment includes videos, podcasts, articles, or book chapters that students must read or watch before completing a reading response. Reading responses can take the form of reflections, note-taking summaries, or a set of questions.  Students are able to work at their own pace as long as they submit their responses by the due date.
    • The Social Annotation tool is a good way to ensure students do the required readings as well as encourage conversation and peer-to-peer learning.
  2. Research Papers: This universal assignment type needs a little introduction. The main difference in assigning research papers in an online course versus on-campus is the amount of scaffolding provided by the instructor.  Rather than having one assignment due date for the final paper, there will be multiple assignments throughout the semester related to the paper to facilitate students’ time management.  Related assignments to the research paper may include:
  3. Exams: Exams and quizzes in an online course can take a number of formats.  Traditional multiple-choice or auto-graded questions are best used alongside an open-book test policy.  The Canvas LMS offers a number of auto-graded and manually graded question types to be able to create an exam or quiz that fits the course content.
  4. Discussion Boards: Perhaps the most known online assignment, the discussion board is the workhorse of online courses.  Discussion boards can be used for course FAQs, building community among students, as well as for discussing course content.  Dialog in discussion posts should be varied, instructors should model using text, images, video, and audio for discussion prompts and responses.
  5. Reflections: This meta-cognitive assessment type can take the form of public blogs and podcasts, or private journals.  Regardless of the medium, the goals of reflection may include:
    • Encouraging students to think about how they learn, what they do or do not understand, and what they can do to improve understanding as it relates to the course material.
    • Making personal connections between course content and lived experiences.
  6. Wikis: This is most useful for whole-class projects or group work.  Students can use a shared document to add to, comment on, or edit to collaboratively build their knowledge of course content.
  7. Presentations: When used for an online course, you are not limited to the traditional presentation format.  Types of presentations can take a number of formats, including, but not limited to: podcasts, infographics, live/synchronous presentations, short films, or social media campaigns.
Further reading

Align Assessments, Objectives, Instructional Strategies – Eberly Center – Carnegie Mellon University (

Types of Assessments by Cognitive Level

Assignment Design

Julaine Fowlin, Overcoming the “busywork” dilemma | Center for Teaching | Vanderbilt University

Janet Dyment, Cathy Stone & Naomi Milthorpe (2020) Beyond busy work: rethinking the measurement of online student engagement, Higher Education Research & Development, 39:7, 1440-1453, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1732879