In developing a WebCT based Precalculus course, we gave an important place to assessment of student learning and understanding. WebCT has a friendly "Quiz" environment -- a program for generating online quizzes, tests, and surveys that students can take on their own computers, a computer network on campus, or anywhere else with Internet access. Features of the WebCT Quiz program include
developing and using a large database of questions;
randomly selecting or ordering questions from the database;
timing or not timing tests;
allowing or not allowing tests to be re-taken;
restricting test access to specific students.
The program offers immediate score feedback to the student, with a "flag" feature showing the status of each question (answered, unanswered). A report to the instructor of an individual or class performance can be downloaded and converted to Microsoft Excel.
Among various assessment tools, traditional formats play important roles. For example, if the teacher's goal is to evaluate students' recollection of facts, understanding of algorithmic processes such as mathematical computation, or ability to retell a story in a written narrative, then traditional assessments are most appropriate (Resnick and Resnick, 1996). In these cases, traditional assessment formats might have greater validity because of the opportunity to sample student learning with more items and a broader range of questions than alternative assessments allow.
We agree with Kulm (1990) in believing that assessment should be a continuous, ongoing process that involves examining and observing students’ behaviors and developing questions to promote their conceptual understanding. When assessment is integrated with instruction, it informs teachers about what activities and assignments are the most useful and what level of teaching is most appropriate (Shepard, 2000; Black and William, 1998). For instance, during instruction, informal and formative assessment helps teachers know when to move on, when to ask more questions, when to give more examples, and what responses to student questions are most appropriate.
We developed online assessment items with two objectives: to inform and guide students’ learning, and to inform and guide our teaching practice. Our intention was to minimize the use of online assessment for the purpose of computing a "grade." For that reason, in our practice, students' performances on the online assessments count for only a small percentage of their final course grades. Rather, we use this information as a vehicle to empower our students to be self-reflective learners who monitor and evaluate their own progress. This claim is supported by numerous anecdotal reports from class meetings following the quizzes, by e-mail dialogs between instructor and students, by conversations in office hours, and by questions on the WebCT bulletin board. Additionally, a doctoral student in mathematics education is currently studying aspects of WebCT that support students' active, self-reflective learning. Her preliminary findings provide evidence of students as being reflective learners in the experimental sections. At the same time, we use information obtained through online assessments to evaluate our teaching strategies and to modify and develop our curriculum and classroom activities. This kind of assessment is known as a formative assessment (Black and William, 1998).
Guiding assumptions for the changes in assessment procedures contrast "instruction focused on learning to name concepts and follow specific procedures" with higher order thinking, which is non-algorithmic and complex (Assessment Reform Group, 1999). Traditional assessment items emphasize computing a numerical result or simplifying an algebraic expression. Often the alternatives in multiple-choice and matching questions are simply numbers or algebraic expressions reflecting this emphasis. We wished to continue using these question formats since, among other advantages, they are easily graded by an automated process. To move beyond the previous emphasis on computation, we made every effort to design questions in these formats with varied lists of alternatives (Angelo and Cross, 1993). As a result, we have questions in which the list of alternatives consists of parts of various diagrams or graphs, parts of a proof, or justifications of steps of a proof. The following sections will focus on the types of cognitive tasks we used as a guide when creating multiple-choice, matching, short answer, and essay types of questions in our online testing tools.
The NCTM Standards emphasize the importance of comprehensive and continuous assessment of students’ learning. They also emphasize the importance of "essay" (or free response) questions, without neglecting the advantages of multiple-choice, true/false, short answer, and matching formats. We believe that providing students with the opportunity to gauge how much they understood from each lesson may serve as a guide for their studies. The WebCT quizzes fulfill this role and also supplement other testing and assessment tools. So far, there are 35 WebCT quizzes (one for every lesson), two WebCT tests, and one WebCT survey.