pile of paper

Paper can’t always match

I’ve been a student, a teacher and an educational designer so I’ve engaged with online assessments from a few different angles.  The question I’ve asked myself is – from each of these perspectives – do I fit the mould of eagerly anticipating the prospect of online assessments becoming the default in higher education … or do I need a bit more convincing?

I’m a ‘print-outta’, no question, I prefer to read from paper than on the screen … but I never buy a newspaper – why would I – I’ve got all the news I want at my fingertips (my clean non-inked fingertips) online – I may prefer paper but I can’t deny or ignore the benefits of reading online – and it’s not just about the convenience or efficiencies the technology affords – it’s a great deal more about the door that the technology opens – the advantages that paper simply can’t deliver – things like direct linking to other relevant stories, embedded videos and real time updates.

So beyond the conveniences and efficiencies afforded by online assessments – what about the more important aspect – what can online assessments offer in terms of educational benefits that perhaps paper can’t match? Below are some of the areas that left an impression on me about the potentials of further integration of online assessments in higher education.

Authentic assessments

A comprehensive JISC report highlights that online assessments can provide new authentic ways for students to demonstrate understanding and skills far more so than more traditional written exams.  Well designed online assessments can “replicate an authentic context through simulations, virtual worlds (or more simply with the use of audio and image files), so that the activity seems more real and purposeful” for the student.

Embracing collaboration and connectivism

Faculty Focus lays down the gauntlet that online open-book tests deserve a place in your course, not least for the reason of embracing more collaboration between students to complete those tests.  Working together online to navigate stored notes or access current events to answer questions which involve the application or analysis of course concepts whereby answers are negotiated between one another – certainly suggests more pedagogical benefit than that of memorisation and recall.


Studies in Australia and the UK highlight the value students put on feedback, which has been described as “the most powerful single influence on students’ learning”.  Online assessments provide opportunities for “extensive, immediate and quality feedback” particularly in terms of formative assessments which allow students to identify weaknesses they need to work on.  To provide this amount of feedback in written form just simply isn’t achievable.

The hidden talents of MCQs

Online multiple choice questions (MCQs) can often be questioned as to their educational value but with research into ‘using multiple-choice tests to good effect’ the potential of MCQs can be realised. Adding the element of ‘confidence-based marking’ to online MCQs helps students engage more deeply, as students’ actual answers are combined with how confident they were about their choices.  Also, building upon the feedback comments above, MCQs can contribute to a more adaptive, personalised learning approach where, for example, an incorrect choice provides feedback on the considerations needed to select the right answer.   (Note. A recurring theme in studies about MCQs, is the assurance of question banks and the randomisation of questions required to ensure fair testing.)


The employability factor is paramount in institutions across Australia and research has shown that mastering reflective practice promotes lifelong learning and professional work skills.  The use of online daily blogs while on work placements in a recent study was unanimous in its positivity towards the use of such tasks for this reflective purpose. The submission of daily electronic reflections for timely feedback would not be possible were it not for the affordances of online tools.  Additionally,  the sharing of these blogs also allowed the learner to become “a proactive creator of their learning environment”, a further educational gain to using this method.

So that’s where my brief exploration into online assessments took me – beyond the obvious conveniences and efficiencies afforded by online assessments – the more important aspect – online assessments can offer improved learning outcomes that perhaps paper can’t always match.

One thought on “Paper can’t always match”

  1. Hi Victoria

    I’m not a teacher or a student (in the formal sense!) – just an administrator….but I wanted to say I loved this article for bringing some of the very relevant issues together (with back up evidence) in one space. Congrats 🙂

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