Module 2: Quality activities and assessments

2.4 Eliciting learner performance (Event 6)

Gagné’s Events 6, 7, and 8 highlight important principles about learner-centred assessment. Event 6 is about giving your learners the opportunity to practice newly acquired skills and self-assess their understanding of new concepts.

Event 6 of the design and develop phase: Elicit Performance.
Caption: In Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction framework, Event 6 focuses on eliciting performance from your learners.
Credit: University of Waterloo | Image Description (PDF)

Closely related in practice, Event 7 asks you to think about how you can provide timely and relevant feedback to learners, to help them identify gaps in their knowledge and understanding, and keep them on track. Providing feedback will be discussed in detail in Section 2.5, alongside Event 8, assessing performance.

Event 7 and 8 of the deliver phase: Provide Feedback and Assess Performance.
Caption: In Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction framework, Event 7 focuses on providing feedback and Event 8 focuses on assessing performance.
Credit: University of Waterloo | Image Description (PDF)

Use a variety of assessment types

Online teaching provides opportunities to introduce new types of assessments into your course. Tools like discussion boards and course chats, which allow for synchronous and asynchronous engagement, help to build a learning community in the course. Active learning, where learners are engaged in the learning process to think critically about course content, leads to greater understanding. Providing options for assessment, which offer learners agency over how they want to be assessed and allow them to tap into their own goals and interests, has been shown to increase learner engagement and persistence (Nilson & Goodson, 2018) and is an important part of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). These strategies all reflect a learner-centred approach to teaching and learning, which helps to build learner investment in the course.

Provide multiple means of action and expression

As CAST describes, “Learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know.” To account for these differences, they recommend providing learners with options for action and expression (CAST, 2018). When thinking about assessments, consider

Examples of each of these strategies and more are available on CAST’s UDL Guidelines site on the Provide Multiple Means of Action & Expression page.

For more ideas about how to increase the accessibility of assessments, see An EDII Perspective: Quick Tips for More Accessible Assessments below.

An EDII perspective: Quick tips for more accessible assessments

  • Offer a variety of assessment types: This provides opportunities for learners to use a range of skills, tap into their own goals and interests, and demonstrate learning in different ways.
  • Focus on small lower-stakes assignments rather than one large high-stakes assignment: This reduces learner anxiety and provides multiple opportunities for learners to demonstrate their learning over time rather than at one finite point (during which time they may have competing responsibilities).
  • Use built-in accessibility features in Word and PowerPoint to improve the accessibility of your assignment documents (or course content):
  • Make the “hidden curriculum” explicit: There may be many behaviours, attitudes, and approaches you are expecting learners to take in their assessments. Instead of assuming the learners already “know” these expectations, provide clear assignment instructions that outline the expectations and criteria for success; use rubrics, checklists, and if appropriate, provide a model/exemplar assignment for learners to reference.
  • Provide learners with the choice to submit their assignment in various formats (e.g., text, audio recording, video recording) to accommodate different ways of learning and expressing knowledge.

Strategies for choosing activities and assessments that develop specific skills

A useful approach for determining which types of assessment to include in your course is to think about the skills you want your learners to develop by the end of your course. Be sure to choose assessments that are a good match for the skills outlined in your learning outcomes (Barber et al., 2020). The following table lists skill areas and example assessments that would be appropriate for assessing those skills:

Skill Summative assessment
Communication Essay, oral presentation, podcast, blog/vlog, article, report, advocacy piece (presentation, visual, essay, report, etc.)
Creative abilities Work of art, performance, model, writing, storytelling
Critical thinking and problem-solving Text analysis, evaluation of sources, critical literature review, finding a solution to a novel scenario, case study
Inquiry and analysis Research summary, lab/experimental findings, deconstructing and analyzing an existing method/product/object/idea using course concepts, case study
Personal development Learning, professional, or reflection portfolio; self-disclosed summary of learning in the course; reflexive analysis
Quantitative reasoning Problem set, data presentation, data analysis
Teamwork Team education campaign, written dialogue, peer review form, team report on a simulation experience
Technical skill Design project, prototype, algorithm

In addition to ensuring that your assessments are effective at evaluating skills targeted in your learning outcomes, think about whether they are at the appropriate level of cognition for your course. Bloom’s taxonomy includes the following levels of cognitive domain assessment:

Illustration showing the three levels of cognitive skills from Bloom’s Taxonomy, arranged from higher to lower levels of cognitive skill: High, Mid and Basic
Credit: University of Waterloo
    • high levels of comprehension: These questions typically ask learners to evaluate (make judgements based on evidence found) or create (compile information to create new solutions).
    • mid levels of comprehension: These questions typically ask learners to apply and/or analyze items/scenarios.
    • basic comprehension: These questions typically ask learners to be able to identify, describe, or translate knowledge (compare, classify, etc.).

Connection to prior learning

Refer to Module 1.6 Writing Effective Learning Outcomes for more ideas from Bloom’s taxonomy about the types and depth of skills and knowledge you might ask your learners to demonstrate at the end of your course; these will inform your choices about what types of assessments are appropriate for measuring those skills.

Next, we turn our attention to a key strategy in designing learner-centred activities and assessments: scaffolding.

Use scaffolded assessments

an illustration that shows 3 steps. 1st step is Part 1, 2nd step is Part 2 and 3rd step is Final
(“stairs” icon by Chintuza, from the Noun Project. Used under CC BY 3.0 license.)

Scaffolding activities and assessments involves breaking up complicated tasks and content into more manageable parts of gradually increasing complexity, with feedback provided at each step.

Why scaffolding matters

Scaffolding engages learners at deeper levels of learning (Sotiriadou et al., 2020; Clark and Graves, 2005) and helps to reduce their anxiety about higher-stakes assessments. Learners benefit from instructor feedback at each stage of the assignment or task, helping them better understand expectations, while instructors can see what part of the process might be challenging for learners and adjust accordingly. By breaking down tasks into discrete parts, scaffolding helps to lower the stakes of an assessment—which is one way to reduce cheating behaviours.

Strategies for scaffolding

Consider how smaller assessments (or components of the final assignment) may be incorporated into your grading scheme so that learners can receive and respond to feedback throughout the course.

For example:

Scaffolding research papers

If your final assessment is a research paper or longer report, you can scaffold it using staged activities and assessments to help learners develop the skills they need to improve their writing skills.

  • You might begin with a topic selection and bibliography assignment, which asks learners to define their topic.
  • A critical review assignment builds on the previous assignment by having learners engage with a scholarly article or book on their proposed topic.
  • Finally, the final paper allows learners to strengthen their academic writing skills and demonstrate what they’ve learned from the first two assignments.
  • In addition to scaffolded assessments, low-stakes activities, like exploratory writing, can help learners get comfortable with writing and revising.

Scaffolding final exams

If your final assessment is an end-of-term exam, scaffold other lower-stakes activities, like weekly quizzes, practice tests, and midterm exams. Low- to moderate-stake activities can help learners develop effective strategies for studying and test-taking, such as note-taking and time management.

Where testing technologies are concerned, scaffolding testing also acclimatizes learners to the exam-taking procedure and identifies any technical issues.

Scaffolding also allows you to model the format or types of questions learners might expect to see in a final exam. While the relative difficulty of questions may be more challenging or complex for final exams, learners will become familiar with the approach during low- to moderate-stake activities.

Examples of how scaffolding could work

Quality Essential

Example 1: Scaffolded group assignment – A climate change plan for real-world community

For this Geography and Environmental Management group assignment, students prepare a climate change plan for a real-world community that does not yet have a plan in place through a scaffolded process.

Stages include

  • team contract,
  • selection of case study community,
  • outline of proposal and references,
  • proposal and references, and
  • presentation and discussion

Climate Change Plan Assignment Example (PDF)

Quality Essential

Example 2: Scaffolded capstone project – Biodiversity & conservation science

From the Assignments Across Disciplines assignment repository:

This assignment was created as a capstone project for a course that focuses on biodiversity and conservation science. Specifically, the paper spotlights a threatened species in its ecosystem, evaluating the threats the species faces and the conservation efforts proposed or in place.

Throughout the course, students engage a number of debates about both sides of a conservation issue and articulate arguments in defense of one side or the other in small groups. After a semester of practice building arguments, the final paper includes this sense of presenting evidence to support one’s position. The assignment invites students to choose a species that has been federally proposed for a change in its conservation status. Students then not only profile the species and its ecosystem but also argue on behalf or against the proposed change in status. Built into this assignment is a rough draft writing workshop in which students participate in creating a concept map for their papers and in the peer review process.

This assignment gives students flexibility in choosing a species that piques their interest. The scaffolding of the assignment through the semester helps students structure their work on the assignment over time and allows them to get feedback and experience critiquing each other’s work.

Scaffolded Final Paper

Activity: Scaffolded assessment scheme

Learning outcomes

This activity is directly aligned with Course Learning Outcome (CLO) 1: Recognize and implement key features of quality in learner-centred online course design; CLO 3: Create a varied assessment scheme that scaffolds and supports the learning outcomes of the course and promotes academic integrity; and CLO 5: Apply principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and accessibility into your course design to ensure a more equitable learning experience.


Using principles of backward design, and equipped with the examples in this module to guide you, create your own varied, scaffolded assessment scheme, aligned with your course learning outcomes. Use the guiding questions to think about your scaffolded assessment scheme and how they relate to your course.

Option 1: Download the Scaffolded Assessment Scheme Worksheet (DOCX) to complete offline.

Option 2: Complete the activity in-line below. If you wish to save your in-line results, be sure to download your work by clicking the Export tab at the bottom of the left-hand navigation bar in the activity before moving on.

Please note, this activity is intended for your own reflection and learning. Your responses are private and are deleted when you refresh or navigate away from this page.

Use authentic assessments

Authentic assessments resemble real-life, application-based tasks. This assessment method is often contrasted with traditional assessments like tests, which may not have real-life application. Authentic assessments ask learners to apply discipline-specific skills and knowledge to solve real-world scenarios and/or case studies involving higher-order thinking skills, judgement, and innovation.

Why authentic assessment matters

Authentic assessments have emerged alongside other career-focused learning, like work placements, in an effort to “improve graduate employability” (James & Casidy, 2018; Sotiriadou et al., 2020). As Sotiriadou et al. (2020) note, “university educators have responded by placing a bigger focus on authentic learning activities and authentic assessment, so that students develop the skills and practices that they will need in their future careers.”

By requiring that learners “do” the subject, authentic assessments not only assess learning, but also help learners to improve their understanding of course content and their skills in applying what they’ve learned.

When considering your assessments, think of ways to build in application-based assignments. Research shows that learners respond well to authentic assessments, and these types of assignments tend to decrease academic misconduct in courses (Sotiriadou et al., 2020; Way et al., 2020).

Academic integrity and authentic assessment

Authentic-assessment design can minimize opportunities to cheat. Unlike traditional tests that require memorization and recall, authentic assessments ask learners to integrate various concepts learned in the course to “construct unique responses” to problems they will encounter in their future careers, and these unique responses are more difficult to contract out to a third party or find online (Sotiriadou et al., 2020; Ellis et al., 2020).

A (meta)example of authentic assessment

How we did this in this course

One of the goals in the activities we have created for this course is to make sure that you are actively building your own online course as you complete this one—the activities we have provided are intended to be applied to your course directly, allowing you to both build your skills and come away with specific and useful take-aways for your own course.

Strategies for authentic assessment

Design authentic assessments by using application-based questions, case studies, and industry-specific scenarios. Consider the following:

  • real-world scenarios / problem-solving
    • provide learners with real-world problems where they need to demonstrate mastery of course principles and concepts in solving the issue presented (e.g., “How would you solve…”, “Propose a solution to…”, “Indicate how you would design…”);
    • provide learners with assessments linked to the “external world” (Villarroel et al., 2019, p. 44), including allowing for open-book tests, collaborative answers for complex tests, and assessments that simulate realistic professional environments.
  • response requirements
    • direct learners to provide their solution and indicate the concepts/principles they used to formulate their solutions (i.e., “why” they are proposing the solution).
  • build varying levels of difficulty
    • obtain a more accurate representation of the different levels of mastery amongst your learners by including questions with varying levels of complexity. Including questions at different levels for the various learning outcomes of your course will help ensure your assessment provides the most accurate evaluation possible.

Examples of how authentic assessment could work

Quality Essential

Example 3: Advocating for the arts

Dr. Colleen Renihan is interested in affect-related questions pertaining to learning and specifically in exploring the benefits but also the ethics of asking learners to express or perform personal investment. To inspire, engage, and motivate her learners, and to achieve her course goal of promoting learner agency and advocacy for the arts, she challenged them to compose an impassioned monologue or COVID-19–inspired performance as though they “were making an impassioned plea to someone in power.”

In the following video, Dr. Renihan explains and reflects on many of the scaffolding elements that made up the course design and assessment structure to ensure learner success.

Quality Essential

Example 4: Authentic assessment in mathematics

Dr. Giuseppe Zurlo brings the teaching of applied math to life by using stories (Mechanics Tales) describing how a concept was born, evolved, and can be used to clarify and inform real-world problem-solving.

Read more about his approach in his summary document Authentic Assessment Example in Mathematics (.DOCX) hosted on Kay Sambell and Sally Brown: Covid-19 Assessment Collection.

Quality Essential

Example 5: Ethical arguments in a real-world context

In this third-year Creative Expression & Society course, learners write an essay on a recent piece of news related to ethical choices made by an enterprise, including start-up companies, nonprofits, arts institutions, community-outreach organizations, and social-activism organizations. In their essay, learners must either explain why the enterprise’s choices (course of action) were ethical or not. Learners should use both course readings and at least four other sources (such as information on what others did in similar real-world situations) to justify their arguments.

Quality Advanced

Example 6: E-book project on sustainable cities for the future

In the COVID-19 era virtual offerings of a sustainability course, there were many chances to create new learning opportunities not only from the course content but also from the world around us, the media and news, and from each other. Learners in the Spring 2020 offering of CIVE230: Engineering and Sustainable Development were tasked with making a contribution to sustainability efforts. Their efforts were compiled in an e-book The Sustainability Contribution Project, which showcases their ideas that cover all course topics as they apply to cities around the world. This activity encouraged learners to explore sustainable cities, infrastructure, solutions, and technologies globally to generate an enriched learning experience and create an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning. Together, they cocreated an e-book, which serves as a contribution by the class for the class, and for the wider engineering education and sustainability community. In Spring 2021 students created another e-book for the course with a slightly different focus named “Connecting Sustainability Cities for the Future”. These e-books are hosted on the OER Commons:

The e-books are also hosted by Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Waterloo:

In the video below, Dr. Ibrahim describes the e-book project, and discusses the pedagogical, motivational, and community-building benefits of it for both learners and the instructional team. In the Notes PDF, she shares the template she provided to learners to guide them as they created their part of the e-book. The e-book project instructions and template (DOCX) is also available in Word format.

An EDII perspective: Authentic assessment as part of Universal Design for Learning

A well-designed authentic assessment activates the core principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

An authentic assessment provides multiple means of engagement. When learners have the opportunity to activate their prior knowledge, leverage their cultural capital or lived experience in the context of an assessment, they are likely to be more motivated and find creative ways to engage. The contextual learning provided by authentic assessment can allow learners to apply a critical/academic lens to “nascent” knowledge they already have or consider a perspective or concept they have not yet thought much about. This flexibility then can easily extend into multiple means of action and expression of these ideas, and by allowing for different types of assessment products (or even if the product is the same for everyone), there will be multiple means of representation of the final product because everyone’s starting point will be different.

These differences in final products can also be the springboard for further learner–learner interactions, knowledge building, and integration of various related concepts. These approaches create a more engaged classroom, but also a more equitable one as accommodations due to disability can naturally emerge from such a flexible formatting, allowing everyone equal access and participation in the learning community.

For more learning about UDL and assessment, visit the UDL and Assessment resource.

Activity: Assessment outline

Learning outcomes 

This activity is directly aligned with Course Learning Outcome (CLO) 3: Create a varied assessment scheme that scaffolds and supports the learning outcomes of the course and promotes academic integrity and CLO 5: Apply principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and accessibility into your course design to ensure a more equitable learning experience.


For this activity, you will create an assessment using the template provided. This template can be applied to any assessment. However, drawing upon the content discussing authentic assessment in this module, you may wish to think of an activity or assessment that you could use in your course that follows these practices.

Option 1: Download the Assessment Outline Worksheet (DOCX) to complete offline.

Option 2: Complete the activity in-line below. If you wish to save your in-line results, be sure to download your work by clicking the Export tab at the bottom of the left-hand navigation bar in the activity before moving on.

Please note, this activity is intended for your own reflection and learning. Your responses are private and are deleted when you refresh or navigate away from this page.

Key take-aways:

  • Use a variety of assessment types and submission options to provide learners with multiple means of action and expression.
  • Build assignments and assessments that use scaffolding, breaking up complicated tasks and content into smaller parts of increasing complexity.
  • Consider creating authentic assessments for your course, which ask learners to apply discipline-specific skills and knowledge to solve real-world scenarios and/or case studies.


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