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Easing the Learning Assessment with Blackboard

The Blackboard online environment offers many ways to incorporate both formative and summative assessment techniques in your courses. Consider the following ideas.

Create online tests for frequent self-assessment

Although this type of assessment activity requires a bit of up-front work, it pays off over the long term for you and your learners. The idea is to create pools of questions that can be presented to learners in practice tests based on the text, classroom presentations, discussions, and supplemental readings. By taking these self-tests, learners are exposed again to the important concepts in the course; they get to see what kinds of questions you write; and they get important feedback about areas in which they're weak. Consider these more as a learning tool for learners than as a grade-assigning tool for you, but they do need to carry some weight if you want learners to take them seriously.

Post assignments to the discussion forums

When a learner submits an assignment, you can have him post that assignment to the Discussion Forums also. Obviously, this technique works only if the assignments are all unique, such as reports, term papers, projects, and stories. (There's not much point in having 34 copies of the same thing posted.) The advantage of this suggestion is that learners are more likely to reflect on their own work if they see other examples of the assignment from their peers. Most instructors who have tried this suggestion claim that the quality of the work improves when learners know that their peers will see it.

Use a virtual classroom or chat for "oral exams"

Just as you would meet individually and face-to-face with learners during office hours, you can use the synchronous communication tools in Blackboard to do it. What areas are good for oral exams? Any foreign language works well, as do fields in which a learner might be expected to have a reasonable amount of factual material "off the top of her head" for quick retrieval. To use the Chat functions for assessing learner progress, have learners sign up for specific times to meet with you online, and then generate a variety of questions from which you can select to pose to them. Just remember that not all learners are equal when it comes to typing ability, so you have to be clear that you're grading on quality, not quantity.

Use a rubric for discussion forum postings

Rubrics are scoring guidelines that allow instructors to assess student work. If you're concerned about requiring learners to participate in discussions because of the subjective nature of the activity, create a rubric to use for scoring. It gives learners a better sense of what you expect and helps set the tone for messages within the forum. Some examples of criteria might be how well organized the posting is, whether it includes original thinking, whether claims have supporting evidence, and whether all parts of the question are answered. Points can then be assigned in each category for excellent, good, fair, poor, and unacceptable, with a final score that totals all these numbers. With a large class, this process can quickly become overwhelming, however, so you might consider scoring only a randomly selected set of responses for each learner, instead of rating every posting for every learner. Learners will appreciate knowing how they're being graded, and you'll feel better knowing that you're following the same criteria for everyone.

Set up learner groups for projects

With Blackboard, the group members can have their own discussion forum, their own file-sharing environment, their own chat area, and they can easily send and receive e-mail within the group. Getting together in person becomes suddenly less important than it was before. In addition, the problem of a learner not pulling his weight in a group (the "lazy" problem) can be minimized because the teacher is, by default, a member of every group. As the instructor, you can readily determine who is doing what by simply reviewing the group's discussion forum, identifying who's writing, and participating in real-time chats.

Gather "Muddiest Point" or "One-Minute" papers with messaging or e-mail

This terrific assessment technique, which is used in face-to-face classes, can be adapted to online use. A muddiest-point paper is a way for you to learn, in a nonthreatening manner, what learners are struggling with. In a face-to-face class, learners write down and turn in one topic that they find difficult to understand in class. In Blackboard, learners can do this same exercise by using the messaging function or e-mail. You can set a specific time for learners to submit their muddiest-point papers, have them turned in weekly (but whenever the learner chooses to submit them), or issue an open-ended invitation to submit them whenever a topic seems confusing. One successful strategy is to require learners to submit a muddy point on a regular basis, simply to overcome the habit many learners have of merely gliding along without understanding important concepts and assuming that they'll understand it eventually. By prompting learners to identify where they're struggling, you engender in them a greater sense of ownership of their own learning.

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