Online Learners Report Short-Text Assignments Allow Greater Variety and Creativity

Tertiary educators and their institutions are turning to technology to help meet increased demands in a changing environment. Assessment is one area where such moves are being made. In her paper entitled ‘Student views on short-text assignment formats in fully online courses,’ Professor of Education Kerry Earl reminds us that assessment is more than a summative check on student knowledge and skills; it is an experience and part of the communication—and therefore relationship—between teachers and students.

With greater frequency than ever before, “educators are being asked to respond to the significant changes in the tertiary education environment,” says Earl. “The turn to economic determinism by Western governments has also permeated the education sector, resulting in an emphasis on meeting ‘market’ demands, based on the belief that competition leads to improvement and the importance of customer choice.”

The tertiary education environment is also influenced by an increasingly competitive climate for public funding and research grants, and increasing administration demands to respond to increased accountability and demands for transparency.

“The environment has changed for tertiary educators at the local level as well,” says Earl. “In New Zealand, tertiary educators work in an environment of increased class numbers and increased diversity of students as the result of more relaxed access provisions. Recognition of new requirements for flexibility in a digital era is another influence on tertiary education workload. An Australian study on tertiary institutions’ workload models proposed the development of models that acknowledge ‘the greater number of tasks associated with a blended pedagogy.’

This is why student experience of assessment should be taken seriously, Earl says. Assessment impacts students’ perceptions of themselves, their teachers, and course quality more than ever before.

In Earl’s study, responses were gathered using an online survey after a 12-week fully online undergraduate course. Earl presented a small case study of student perceptions of four short text (800 words or less) assignment formats.

The survey used a mixture of rating (on a 5 point Likert scale) and short answer questions. Students were asked to rate the degree they ‘liked’, ‘learned from’ and found ‘useful’ each assignment. They also provided comments on what they perceived as positive, negative or interesting about each assignment.

The four assignments (a self-evaluation, magazine article, report, and an animation) were rated highly by these students.  Students reported enjoying the assignment work for its variety and the opportunity to be creative, and that they experienced further learning through the process.

The findings suggest short-text assignments are rated highly by students not because of a shorter word count but because students appreciated the variety and creativity aspects to these assignments. The study highlights the experiential nature of assessment for students, suggesting that teachers (and institutions) take note when targeting assessment for improvements in manageability.

Online educators should take note of findings like these when designing assessment materials. Old notions of what’s good for students may no longer hold in a virtual learning environment.


Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA.

You can reach her on Google+, @sagamilena or saga.briggs @

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