Online Testing: Pros and Cons

September 30, 2014

By Wayne Nelson

Hanging around in the SIUE equivalent of the “teachers’ lounge” over the years (every department has one), I’ve overheard many comments about testing that have included things like:

  • “Well, we have to give tests to make sure our programs have rigor.”
  • “I’m so worried about giving an online test because I know the students will cheat.”
  • “It takes so long for me to grade my essay tests.”
  • “I don’t give objective tests because I’m more interested in what a student can do, rather than low-level bits of information that they might be able to recognize or recall.”
  • “Isn’t testing supposed to help students learn? If it is, then why base their grades on test performance and nothing else?”

Evidence from many research studies of testing, online or face-to-face, can support all of the comments from our hypothetical teachers’ lounge, and more. For example, one study found that regular online testing enhanced student learning (Angus & Watson, 2009). Another study found no differences in student performance between online and face-to-face testing (Karkee, Kim, & Fatica, 2010). There’s really no right answer to be found in the research literature. All of us need to make our own plans about how and when to measure student learning. Hopefully, these plans are based in sound educational principles and result in effective assessment practices. Read on to learn more about some of the issues related to online testing.

Misconceptions about online testing
A recent post to a listserv focused on tools for online teaching lamented the common misconceptions that at least one Blackboard staff member shared about online testing. We would do well to consider the “misconceptions” that were described, and ask ourselves if we believe any of the following:

  • Online testing is the same as paper-based testing in class (According to the person posting the comments, it’s not. Cheating is harder to detect with online tests).
  • It is valid to use objective test questions to “sample” student retention/understanding of a small portion the entire content of the course (the listserv post referred to this as the “I’ve Got a Secret” method of assessment).
  • Test performance is an indicator of real-world abilities (Again, the opinion of the person responding on the listserv was that it’s not an indicator in the case of online objective tests. Those are tests of information recall, information that can be readily accessed via Google, so why test it? And why give students a time limit to respond?).
  • Testing knowledge (facts, information, recall) is essential for skilled performance (It’s not. According to the post, all online tests should be open-book tests. To quote: “Life is open-book. Work is open-book”.

Types of Online Assessments
 One of the issues to consider in designing and creating assessments of student learning is the choice of assessment type. A quick, informal survey of a few colleagues ranked various types of assessments as follows in terms of instructor time commitment (simplest to most complex):

  1. Demonstrating knowledge (written exam with local proctors, quick feedback through multiple choice, true/false matching, short answer tests)
  2. Self-management (journal, autobiography, portfolio, learning contract)
  3. Communicating (debate, role play, PowerPoint presentation, report journal, essay)
  4. Demonstrating techniques (videoconferencing, verification by workplace mentor, site monitor)
  5. Teamwork and collaboration (e-mail, listserv, or conferencing discussions/debates)
  6. Problem solving (multimedia or text-based scenarios, simulations using CD-ROM, videoconferencing)
  7. Information access/management (database development, bibliography, problem solving)
  8. Critical thinking (essays, reports, reflective journals)
  9. Designing, creating (portfolios, projects using video or the Web)

What do you think? Which of these types of assessments would provide the best evidence of student learning?

Principles for online testing
One of the first principles of online testing is that assessment instruments and activities need to be congruent with learning goals. It is best if the instructional and assessment activities are comparable, requiring similar kinds of behaviors and performances. Online assessments should capitalize on the characteristics and situations available in online learning environments rather than trying to duplicate traditional classroom settings and activities.

It is also important to design assessment and measurement strategies that are integrated with the entire learning experience, allowing learners to assess and review progress, and to reestablish learning goals. Low stakes assessment strategies work better in such situations, allowing students to gauge progress without affecting their course grade. Assessment is particularly effective when it is interactive, and when it involves mentoring, coaching and facilitation (Kerka & Wonacott, 2000). In determining your approach to online testing, it may be useful to consider the various pros and cons gleaned from our recent search of the literature. Further information is available through the reference cited below (Hovland, 2005).

Alternatives to online objective testing
Deeper learning occurs when learning activities involve peer work and authentic assessment. Many “checks for understanding” can be employed in creative ways. Tools such as bulletin board discussions, blog entries, portfolios and self/peer assessment are affective approaches for authentic assessment. Authentic learning tasks (and the corresponding assessments) tend to feature contextualized, meaningful, ill-defined tasks that require collaboration, that are self-directed (by individuals and groups), and that encourage reflection and feedback (McLoughlin & Luca, 2006).

Continuous, formative assessment is very effective in developing learning outcomes when assessment activities are effectively interwoven within the learning environment Gikandi, Morrow & Davis, 2011). Determining course grades is not the goal of these forms of assessment. Rather, the learning environment features feedback that is embedded in materials and activities, along with numerous self-assessment opportunities, and informal dialogues with peers, professional coaches and mentors, and the instructor.

In the increasingly test-oriented culture of higher education (not to mention K-12 education), assessment remains a powerful factor in judging student achievement, program accreditation, and ultimately the future careers of students. What we do to assess our students is important and requires careful thought and preparation. We need to make choices that are appropriate for the learning outcomes we seek for our students, and that reflect the pedagogical choices we make for our courses. There is no best answer, but some choices are better than others. We encourage you to discuss your ideas about assessment, and online assessment in particular, by commenting on this post using the text box below.

Angus, S. D., & Watson, J. (2009). Does regular online testing enhance student learning in the numerical sciences? Robust evidence from a large data set. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(2), pp. 255–272. Retrieved from:

Gikandi, J. W., Morrow, D. &  Davis, N. E. (2011). Online formative assessment in higher education: A review of the literature, Computers & Education, 57(4), pp. 2333-2351

Hovland, E. (2005, March-April). Online testing - a look into the near future. Media & Methods, 41 (5), p. 13.

Karkee, T., Kim, D.-I., & Fatica, K. (2010, April-May). Comparability study of online and paper and pencil tests using modified internally and externally matched criteria. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Denver, CO.

Kerka, S., & Wonacott, M. E. (2000). Assessing learners online. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education: Practitioner File. Center on Education and Training for Employment, Columbus, OH. Retrieved from:

McLoughlin, C. & Luca, J. (2006). Best Practice in Online Assessment: Principles, Processes and Outcomes. In E. Pearson & P. Bohman (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2006 (pp. 2375-2382). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

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