Summative assessments in the time of COVID-19: Balancing anxiety, workload, and integrity

The situation we’re all in this year has meant a complete rethink of not only how we teach, but also how we assess.

Some assessment-related issues with the COVID-19 context include:

  • students not being able to access resources that they would otherwise access,
  • students and staff studying and working under isolating and anxiety-inducing conditions,
  • assessments needing to be delivered, conducted, and returned completely online,
  • the difficulty in restricting students’ access to materials and other people in an off-campus environment, and
  • students’ and teachers’ general unfamiliarity with fully-online learning, teaching, and assessment.

Some existing assessments may not be heavily impacted by off-campus learning, such as research essays, reports, and other forms of written, submitted work. Some other assessments may be fairly straightforward to transpose to an online format, such as individual presentations. On the other hand, many assessment staples like invigilated tests and exams, live performances, and group presentations are much more difficult for students (and teachers) to deliver and complete in a fully online format.

Educational Innovation have prepared a set of resources to help teachers at Sydney re-imagine assessments for online-supported learning. Here, we outline some of the key ideas and approaches in ’emergency conversion’ of some of the trickier assessments into an online format, at speed.

Invigilated tests and exams

Invigilated (supervised) tests and exams, be they in-semester or end-of-semester, aim to measure students’ attainment of learning outcomes in an authenticated (identity-assured) way, which can be important for academic integrity as well as accreditation requirements. They typically test a range of cognitive abilities from recall through to analysis and evaluation. Of course, sitting students in large exam halls in concurrent sessions or even in sequential tutorials is not possible during COVID-19.

Take-home exams

In the online format, this typically involves releasing questions to students at a defined date and time, and giving students from a few hours to a day to complete their responses and submit these to Canvas. These submissions can be in the form of online ‘quizzes’, or text-based work (similar to standard assignments), or another artefact (e.g. technical diagrams, calligraphy, etc). Canvas can help drive and manage the entire process from timed-release secure question delivery, to response submission, to marking and feedback, and grades management.

Ensuring academic integrity is a key factor here because these take-home exams are essentially completely ‘open book’ – students will have access to any resource, including the internet, as well as each other. Redesigning your usual questions will be critical. Changing recall-style questions to address higher-order cognitive skills is important because students can easily look up answers to memorisation-style questions and should instead be asked to apply knowledge to new situations, interpret novel scenarios, and synthesise connections between concepts.

To get started, consider:

  • the goal(s) of each existing question in your test/exam,
  • how students might be able to demonstrate attainment of this goal through answering a higher-order question,
  • whether you can generate question pools so that students receive different sets of questions, and
  • how you will let your students know and provide practice for them.

For more information and a detailed how-to guide including examples, see the ‘take-home exams‘ section of our COVID-19 support page on assessments for online-supported learning.

Online proctored tests and exams

Ensuring academic integrity during online exams is tricky. Various aspects of the virtual and physical environment can interact to potentially compromise integrity, ranging from concealed smartphones and notes to, believe it or not, concealed roommates. On top of this, virtual machines, other software, and internet connectivity pose risks to the exam and, more importantly, to the anxiety of the student sitting it. Because of this, our consistent recommendation is for unit coordinators to redesign assessments to not use proctored tests and exams. However, we recognise that there are good reasons for this, such as around assurance of learning and accreditation.

One of the main considerations for online proctored tests/exams is limitations in the format of student responses. While clicking options, dragging boxes around, and typing text is easy (and potentially faster albeit less familiar) on a computer, writing and drawing with a mouse are incredibly difficult and stressful. This makes it hard for students to, under strict ‘exam conditions’, respond to questions asking for technical diagrams, foreign script, mathematical proofs, etc. This typically limits the form of responses (and therefore the questions that can be asked) to those involving clicking, dragging, and typing. Although there are workarounds (see the ‘Design and delivery options for online tests’ and ”I have handwritten response types that need to be taken online – how can I approach this?’ resources on our COVID-19 proctored tests/exams page), these are nowhere near optimal.

To get started, consider:

  • accreditation and other requirements,
  • whether your test/exam can be converted into a take-home test/exam instead,
  • how you might redesign the questions to suit the limitations of online responses, and
  • the impacts on student anxiety and how to alleviate this with students.

For more information and a detailed how-to guide, see the section of our COVID-19 support site on proctored online tests and exams.


Individual and group presentations

These assessments usually aim to measure students’ conceptual understanding and communication skills, as well as groupwork approaches in the case of group presentations. Students would typically talk to a slidedeck in front of a class and/or industry representatives. If this format is maintained, these could be delivered by students online either asynchronously (i.e. recorded and submitted) or synchronously (i.e. live, such as via Zoom).

Usually, the marking criteria centre around understanding and analysis of unit concepts, which are straightforward to migrate to an online presentation and should require little modification. If the rubric also includes factors around presentation quality, these may need to be adjusted. Keep in mind that students have only had a short period of time to adjust to this mode of assessment and also may not have the optimal equipment available to produce a technically-brilliant artefact, so keep the marking criteria focussed on unit learning outcomes.

To get started, consider:

  • providing clear (and potentially more prescriptive) guidelines and expectations,
  • providing some guides and tips on the technology,
  • academic integrity mitigation (e.g. asking students to submit their script or an automatically-generated set of closed captions to a Turnitin-enabled assignment), and
  • whether peer feedback approaches can be used (e.g. have students submit videos to a discussion board).

For more information and a detailed how-to guide, see the presentations section of our COVID-19 support page on assessments for online-supported learning.


Usually, these might be artistic or other performance-based assessments, where the timing and synchronisation of sound and visuals may be critical. These assessments typically aim to measure students’ mastery of particular physically-expressed skills. In the online (and socially-distanced) format, an accurate representation can be difficult to reproduce for the assessor to experience. This can be due to bandwidth issues, resolution or detection range of capture devices (e.g. webcams, microphones), and limitations of software.

To get started, consider:

  • the acceptable level of acoustic and visual reproduction and synchronicity required for accurate assessment,
  • whether the performance needs to be experienced ‘live’ or can be recorded, and
  • the affordances of various technologies.

For more information and a detailed how-to guide, see the performances section of our COVID-19 support page on assessments for online-supported learning.

Tell me more!

Written By
More from Danny Liu

How Sydney academics are using generative AI this semester in assessments

Our approach to ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligence (AI) at the...
Read More