Educators generally agree that there is not enough classroom contact time available to cover all relevant course material effectively. A U.S. Department of Education report (1993) indicated that, in 1992, full-time postsecondary faculty averaged only 11 hours per week in the classroom for all courses combined. This limited time leaves many instructors with the challenge of actively engaging students with instructional material outside of the classroom. Time-on-task research (Chickering & Gamson, 1987) has shown a strong correlation between the amount of time students spend with instructional resources and consequent learning. Thus, anything an instructor can do to promote interaction with course material is likely to improve students' understanding. Indeed, learning is not the result of what the instructor does during class but what the student does outside of class (McKeachie, 1999). Numerous studies on independent studying have shown that structured, well-planned activities outside of the classroom promote greater problem solving and comprehension than conventional classroom lectures alone. Online assessment provides an efficient and effective means of promoting this out-of-class interaction through the use of course-specific study questions. Using online assessment, students may complete automatically generated and scored study questions from which they are provided immediate feedback concerning the accuracy of their responses. This immediate feedback is essential in correcting initial errors in understanding and helps ensure that valuable study time is not wasted with basic conceptual errors.
In addition, online study questions serve to guide students' focus and attention within the course material. Specifically, many students lack the metacognitive ability to accurately judge the importance and significance of concepts embedded within written text. Thus, students become overloaded with the daunting task of "learning everything." This overload is one of the main factors leading students to approach learning as a shallow memorization task rather than studying for deep understanding. Online study questions provide a means by which instructors can focus students' attention and highlight areas of emphasis. This focus helps to decrease overreliance on text vocabulary and factual information by reducing the cognitive demands placed on the student.
The goal of many out-of-class activities is to challenge students to think critically about course material; the problem lies in balancing this challenge with the frustration that often accompanies learning new concepts. This issue becomes especially important when students are working independently (as is the case with virtually all online learning environments) as they do not have support readily available to assist them when they become "stuck." The value of online study questions is that it allows students to monitor their own level of understanding and seek additional instructional resources when necessary. Utilizing these online assessment resources, instructors can provide additional assistance with concepts that have proven to be especially challenging or confusing. The study questions serve a valuable role in encouraging students to actively problem-solve, which consequently enhances deep understanding and retention; while the incorporation of immediate online feedback may prevent students from getting frustrated when learning new or difficult concepts.
A key feature of online assessment is the asynchronous learning environment that it creates. In this sense, it provides educators with the means to offer instructional assistance and learning activities that meet the demands of individual students. While a professor is limited to the traditional workday, the assessment program can be accessed by students twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. A recent examination of student use of web-based resources indicates that the majority of students elected to study between 9:00 p.m. and midnight, times when typical instructional resources are not available. This potential of unlimited availability has important implications for keeping students actively involved with the material, as students are more likely to utilize resources that are convenient and easily accessible.
An equally valuable benefit of online assessment is the ability to enhance students' preparation for class. Most educators support the idea that active learning strategies promote enhanced understanding and retention when compared to more passive approaches to instruction. As evidence of this perspective, a considerable amount of research (Kulik & Kulik, 1979; McKeachie et al., 1990) has found that conventional lectures are ineffective and inefficient means of promoting deep understanding due to the passive stance taken by students. In response to these criticisms, many educators have adopted more interactive methods of instruction based on class discussions. Discussion-based teaching has shown dramatic increases in students' ability to evaluate empirical positions, apply relevant principles, and formulate logical arguments. The educational benefits of a class discussion rely on two main factors: student participation and preparation. The main reason that students cite for not participating in discussions is a lack of knowledge or preparation; thus the essential problem facing instructors is ensuring that students have completed the prerequisite learning activities and are adequately prepared to discuss the material. Despite assignments to read course material prior to class, instructors continuously struggle getting students to complete readings in a timely manner. As a consequence, many educators spend large amounts of valuable classroom time reviewing basic concepts and are not left with adequate time to conduct interactive discussions. To maximize the educational impact of class discussions, it is vital that students possess a basic understanding of key concepts prior to class time.
In the past, this problem was addressed through pop quizzes and other standard assessments. While these types of activities are effective in addressing the educational goal, they waste limited contact time and provide additional time-consuming work for the instructor. Online assessment provides a means by which instructors can efficiently motivate and monitor students' interaction with course material. Specifically, online assessment programs can administer preparation quizzes that record student use, provide feedback to correct basic conceptual errors, and, most importantly, provide an external motivation for students to complete reading assignments prior to class. Thus, online assessment enables instructors to motivate student interaction with the material prior to class without spending valuable classroom time on quizzing and grading.
Check the website of your textbook publisher; many provide instructional supplements including online quizzing tools:
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 39, 3-7.
Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1979). College teaching. In P. L. Peterson & H. J. Walberg (Eds.), Research on teaching: Concepts, findings, and implications, pp. 70-93. Berkley, California: McCutcheon.
McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
McKeachie, W. J., Pintrich, P. R., Lin, Y., Smith, D. A. F., & Sharman, R. (1990). Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of the research literature (2nd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: NCRIPTAL, University of Michigan.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics. (1993). National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, 1988 and 1993
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