28 Reeves, “Alternative assessment approaches for online learning environments in higher education”


Reeves, T. (2000). Alternative assessment approaches for online learning environments in higher education. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 23(1), 101–111. https://doi.org/10.2190/GYMQ-78FA-WMTX-J06C.


What is assessment? How does this differ from evaluation? Reeves (2000) defines it “as the activity of measuring student learning and other human characteristics such as aptitude and motivation whereas evaluation is focused on judging the effectiveness and worth of educational programs and products” (p. 102). The current American Association of Higher Education guidelines for good practice tries to combine its protocol for assessing student learning by combining these with guidelines for evaluation of the validity of the delivery of the learning process. Many are starting to defy the typical testing structure, moving away from standardized testing and exploring new forms of cognitive, performance, and/or portfolio based assessments. As Libman (2010) states, “The point of alternative assessments, however they are labeled, is not that they are ends in themselves but that they are designed to foster powerful, productive learning for students” (p. 63).

Key points

  • Purposes and Practices
    • Assessments can serve to provide both formative and summative objectives, either providing information and feedback to help a student’s learning (formative), or determining a student’s level of performance at the conclusion of instruction. The scope of assessment can vary greatly, covering a relatively small amount of information or a very large amount. It is also important to determine what levels skills will be assessed, whether it is the basic knowledge, critical thinking/application, or something in between. Training teachers in assessment is vital to enhancing their implementation of both traditional and alternative forms of assessment.
  • Improving Assessment in Online Learning
    • Online assessments have a challenge of alignment, especially when the educators are not involved in the centralized assessment process. Even when educators do have control over assessment, it is vital that online resources and activities are aligned with the assessment in order to prevent students from just sifting through the course to get to the only items aligned with objectives in order to get their desired grade. Alignment has also come to the forefront as more businesses are expecting online learning and assessment to improve their employees’ skills.
  • Three New Directions
    • Cognitive Assessment—Higher order thinking is assessed (e.g. concept mapping, simulation)
    • Performance Assessment—Learners apply knowledge to create something or participate in an activity. These usually require large amounts of time and effort. Sometimes performance assessments can be integrated into the learning process itself, with simulations tracking student performance to give the instructor feedback, then providing additional customized instruction to help improve student learning.
    • Portfolio Assessment—Portfolios are a collection of works, with the e-portfolio gaining in popularity. These allow the student to select and reflect upon what best represents their learning journey.


  • The Future
    • Online learning will continue to grow in popularity as students look to more flexible and affordable higher education options, and the modes of alternative assessment must also improve to reflect this online, technology driven, learner-centered environment. It is quite possible that online campuses could be the norm in the future, but only if the quality of learning provided by this environment is checked and affirmed through quality assessment.

Discussion questions

  1. Reflect on your experiences with traditional assessment as both a student and an educator. What are the strengths of traditional assessment? Weaknesses?
  2. What are the benefits of alternative assessment? Challenges?
  3. If you were to one of your traditional assessments to an alternative format, what format do you think you would be most interested to try?

Additional resources



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