Assessing Online Courses is Key to a High-Quality Learning Experience

Dr. Richard Parent, Director of Assessment, UNE Online

Dr. Richard Parent, Director of Assessment, UNE Online

How do you know that the online courses that you are taking are high-quality and appropriately rigorous? Through Assessment.

Recently I spoke with Dr. Richard Parent, UNE Online’s Director of Assessment, about the role of Assessment as an integral part of instruction, and how assessment helps determine whether or not a school or program delivers on the promise of a high-quality education. You can read the blog post about assessing students to guarantee a high-quality education, right here.

In this post, Dr. Parent shares his perspective on the role of Assessment in higher education.

Can you talk about Assessments within courses?

In every course, and in each of our programs, we have what we call key assessments. Those are significant projects within a course that measure a student’s ability to master a body of knowledge and to apply that knowledge. Each of those key assessments is where we do spot checks on how well a course is functioning. Each of those assessments is supported by what we call scaffolding assignments, that help to build up the knowledge and skills of the students – so that by the time they reach that key assessment, which is usually a project – they’re ready for it.

How do you know a course is well put together?

All of the key assessments integrated into each course and each program are the product of a subject matter expert who knows that field inside and out. To build out the course, they work with one or more of the instructional designers, who are pedagogy (learning) experts. Together they consider what key competencies need to be achieved in each subject area, and they look at questions such as ‘What does this course need to accomplish?’ and ‘What skill and knowledge does it needs to give our students?’ And, ‘Are we accurately measuring that?’

Where do rubrics come into the picture?

One way we measure, or assess, is through rubrics. Each assignment has a rubric that is specific to that assignment, that is designed to help the faculty see which elements are essential for the student to grasp, and to help the students focus on the mastery of those elements. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the instructions for a big project. A rubric is a tool for students to use to ensure that they are addressing all of the areas that they are required to address.

Can you talk about mining course data for course redesigns?

When we redesign a course, which is a regularly scheduled event, we take into consideration the data coming out of the existing course. With online courses, the Learning Management System (LMS) that we use makes it easier to extract data than from an on-ground program.

So, if a particular assessment isn’t doing really well in the course, we’ll circle back and determine whether it’s the assessment itself, or the scaffolding, or both. It could be that the instructions are not clear, or the project isn’t really tied as closely to the course content as we originally intended, or any number of other things causing the project to not function well. Or, it could be a good project, but we’re just not preparing students well enough. That’s the beauty of an online LMS – we’re continually pulling data and monitoring the assessments.

How frequently do you redesign or rebuild courses?

At UNE Online, the majority of our courses run in eight-week sessions. At the end of each eight-week course period, we take a look at the student evaluations of the course, the collective student performance in the course, and faculty feedback on the course.

All of these data points, in turn, inform the course redevelopment cycle. Detailed course data helps the Program administrators and the Instructional Design team identify where the hotspots in the course may be, and where we need to focus our attention. Readily-available data also helps us identify our successes within each course, so we can replicate those successes across the Program, and across the College.

One of the things that’s unique about what we are able to do here at CGPS, because we are a fully online College, is that we have a lot of data in the learning management system. The more data we have, the more we can spot and fine-tune challenges and success stories.

How do you build the ideal online course?

It’s extremely challenging to identify elements of a course that are working fantastically. We don’t just want to eliminate the “squeaky wheels” of a course. We want every assignment to be a home run. But what makes an assignment a success? An example of pedagogical perfection would be a project that tests the students’ abilities to the limit, and yet 90% of the students who go through the course are able to master it.

That’s gold.

Mastery of a subject area is a sign that we as educators have achieved the rigor we want and that our students demand, and that we have built up the learning scaffolding appropriately, so that when the students start a project we’ve adequately prepared them for everything they need in order to complete that project, and the course, successfully.

If you are interested in pursuing an online graduate degree or if you’re simply interested in discussing your options, please reach out to an Enrollment Counselor at (855) 325-0896 or via email at

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