Assessments: Balancing Learning, Feedback and Workload

While there are challenges when assessing student work in the remote environment, there are advantages as well: improved accessibility, improved flexibility, and the ability to provide responsive, detailed feedback in a variety of formats. Here we present some considerations as you revise and develop assessments for your courses.

Determining Assessment Needs

Preparation of assessments starts with the course learning outcomes and evaluation scheme in a course syllabus. An assessment must align to one or more well-constructed course learning outcomes. Assignments that do not align can be removed from the course without impacting student learning.

The course design will help determine when, how often, and by what means learning is assessed – whether course concepts stand alone and can have separate assessments or are cumulative and requires assessments as checkpoints on progress.

Selecting Assessment Types

Consider the types of assessments that best align with your course learning outcomes. Use a pedagogical wheel to help determine the types of assessments, and if summative or formative assessments better support your outcomes.

Summative Assessment

Determines degree to which educational goals are met. Assesses what students know, value and what they can do. Assesses knowledge acquisition, application, or transferrable skills. Assesses evidence of a product/process to determine if outcomes are achieved. Often perceived as higher stakes to students.

Formative Assessment

Provides feedback more frequently to help students continually improve their learning. Informs students regarding their achievement of learning outcomes, and their progress as they work towards achieving learning outcomes. Often perceived as lower stakes to students.

General Rule of Thumb

Aim for a balance between formative and summative assessments, with marks weighted towards the summative assessment (e.g., major assignments or exams) to avoid students focusing on “learning for the test”.1

Deciding the Number and Timing

What is the best balance between formative (and frequent assessments) and (higher-stakes) summative assessments?

Benefits of frequent assessment:

  • Encourages students to learn on an ongoing basis 2
  • Allows students to get feedback on their learning 3
  • Increases academic achievement 4,5

Challenges of frequent assessment:

  • Increases assessment workload and student anxiety 6
  • If summative, may have adverse effects on academic achievement 7

Use a workload estimator tool to estimate how much student effort assessments require with your course activities.

Determining the correct number of assessments is a blend of need, type, and course design. Consider one assessment a week as a benchmark that balances frequency and workload during remote instruction. If more are required, we suggest using strategies to reduce students’ perceived workload and stress.

Reducing Perceived Workload and Stress Levels

Decrease Number of Stressors:

  • Keep student workload < 10 hrs/week. Note that media workload is often twice as much as non-media workload (e.g.: a 30-minute video = one hour of work) 8,9
  • Teach students to use necessary technology for assessments at start of course 10
  • Provide clear descriptions of assessments including types, number, timing, instructions, rubrics, and expectations 11
  • Use various assessment types and choice of assessments when possible 12
  • Discuss efforts to keep fairness and academic integrity13
  • Design assessments to be open-book / open-web 14

Increase Ability to Cope with Stress:

  • Create opportunities for students to build positive relationships with peers and instructors 15,16
  • Allow space for student questions during assessments 10
  • Discuss contingency plans with students regarding technical issues that may arise during assignments 17

This resource is also available as a downloadable PDF.


  1. Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (2nd ed.). Buckingham; Philadelphia, PA: Society for Research into Higher Education: Open University Press, p. 141.
  2. Trotter, E. (2006). Student perceptions of continuous summative assessment. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(5), 505-521.
  3. Isaksson, S. (2008). Assess as you go: The effect of continuous assessment on student learning during a short course in archaeology. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(1), 1-7.
  4. Sulun, Erkan, Sulun, Erkan, Nalbantoglu, Ertem, Nalbantoglu, Ertem, Oztug, Emine Kivanc, & Oztug, Emine Kivanc. (2018). The effect of exam frequency on academic success of undergraduate music students and comparison of students performance anxiety levels. Quality & Quantity, 52(S1), 737-752.
  5. Lyle, Keith B, & Crawford, Nicole A. (2011). Retrieving Essential Material at the End of Lectures Improves Performance on Statistics Exams. Teaching of Psychology, 38(2), 94-97.
  6. Hernández, R. (2012). Does continuous assessment in higher education support student learning? Higher Education, 64(4), 489-502.
  7. Leeming, F. C. (2002). The Exam-A-Day Procedure Improves Performance in Psychology Classes. Teaching of Psychology, 29(3), 210-212.
  8. Beer, N. (2019). Estimating Student Workload During the Learning Design of Online Courses: Creating a Student Workload Calculator. European Conference on E-Learning, 629-XI.
  9. Moozeh, Kimia, Farmer, Jennifer, Tihanyi, Deborah, Nadar, Tristan, & Evans, Greg J. (2019). A Prelaboratory Framework Toward Integrating Theory and Utility Value with Laboratories: Student Perceptions on Learning and Motivation. Journal of Chemical Education, 96(8), 1548-1557.
  10. Alzahem, Abdullah, Van der Molen, Alaujan, & De Boer. (2014). Stress management in dental students: A systematic review. Advances in Medical Education and Practice, 5(Default), 167-176.
  11. Ardid, Miguel, Gómez-Tejedor, José A, Meseguer-Dueñas, José M, Riera, Jaime, & Vidaurre, Ana. (2015). Online exams for blended assessment. Study of different application methodologies. Computers and Education, 81, 296-303.
  12. Sato, Takahiro, & Haegele, Justin A. (2018). Undergraduate Kinesiology Students’ Experiences in Online Motor Development Course. Online Learning (Newburyport, Mass.), 22(2).
  13. Levine, Joy, & Pazdernik, Vanessa. (2018). Evaluation of a four-prong anti-plagiarism program and the incidence of plagiarism: A fiveyear retrospective study. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(7), 1094- 1105.
  14. Myyry, Liisa, & Joutsenvirta, Taina. (2015). Open-book, open-web online examinations: Developing examination practices to support university students’ learning and self-efficacy. Active Learning in Higher Education, 16(2), 119-132.
  15. Kember, David, & Leung, Doris Y. P. (2006). Characterising a teaching and learning environment conducive to making demands on students while not making their workload excessive. Studies in Higher Education (Dorchester-on-Thames), 31(2), 185-198.
  16. Segers, Mien, Nijhuis, Jan, & Gijselaers, Wim. (2006). Redesigning a learning and assessment environment: The influence on students’ perceptions of assessment demands and their learning strategies. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 32(3), 223-242.
  17. Bennett, Sue, Dawson, Phillip, Bearman, Margaret, Molloy, Elizabeth, & Boud, David. (2017). How technology shapes assessment design: Findings from a study of university teachers. British Journal of Educational Technology, 48(2), 672-682.