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Assessment refers to the way in which learner performance in a course or programme of study is evaluated. It is a significant part of the teaching-learning process and is often perceived as a way to provide feedback to learners. Traditionally, educational institutions have relied largely on ‘paper and pen’ tests and examinations for evaluating student performance. Instructors in traditional face-to-face situations often use interaction as an opportunity for providing feedback to learners, and to frequently communicate messages about learners’ strengths and weaknesses.

However, in the case of ODL, there is limited opportunity for interaction and traditional examination- or test-based assessment methods fall short of the ideals of distance education. For these reasons, assessment methods in ODL are usually more varied and used to provide as much feedback to the learner as possible.

Policy makers may wish to use a combination of two forms of assessment:

  1. formative assessment or coursework, which is may be used as a learning tool, and/or to give and gain feedback on learner ability and performance; and

  2. summative assessment or end-of term examination, which is often used as an evaluative method for grading and making a judgment about the participant's achievement in a course.

The weightage given to each form varies according to the learning outcomes of a course and the skills and knowledge that are the foci of each course. Besides written output, ODL learners may be asked to show evidence of learning using different artefacts, such as:

  • audio or video recordings of performances;

  • graphs, charts, diagrams or designs in print or digital form;

  • online databases, courseware or presentations; and

  • executable computer programmes.

The following are some types of assignments that may be used for formative assessment in an ODL programme.

  • Portfolios are a collection of a student’s work over a period of time, e.g. an action plan and outcomes at the various stages of implementation; a series of paintings on a number of different subjects or of different genre, followed by student self-reflection or self-evaluation; or a collection of readings accompanied by an annotated bibliography and a critique. Portfolios often require self-management skills and a large amount of learner autonomy. At the beginning of a semester, learners are usually assigned a project or broad-based activity that requires some degree of research as well as implementation of a procedure or plan.

  • Reports, essays and journals are done over time and based on a specific area of interest. These forms assessment are aimed at developing critical thinking skills and to make judgements about various actions, plans, ideology, movements in history or a discipline-specific collection of readings. Reports, in particular, often have a specific format and may be based on what learners have experienced or implemented at work or on a series of experiments carried out by learners.

  • Case studies and scenarios may be used for developing analytical skills based on a specific area of knowledge. Students may be asked to solve a problem related to a workplace situation, or to develop a plan for improving the living conditions of a community, but the process often requires some amount of interpretation, identification and articulation of a problem and presentation of a solution(s).

  • Online (asynchronous) conference discussions and synchronous oral examinations are assessment techniques that favour learners who are skilled in presenting their thoughts and ideas through inter-personal interaction. These techniques are useful for courses that assess communicative ability, demonstration of knowledge and understanding of a topic as well as demonstration of aesthetic on-the-spot problem-solving skills.

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