Part of eadtu white

Pros and cons of online learning and assessment methods in higher education


Institutes offering online distance learning in higher education, such as open universities, have long tackled issues and challenges related to online distance learning and assessment, presently relevant for most education during the COVID-19 lockdown era. These issues and challenges include those of academic integrity – for example student authentication and plagiarism detection – assessment, and designing appropriate student supporting distance learning environments. In this paper, we introduce a few most common online distance learning and assessment practices adopted in basic and bachelor studies in psychology at Open University of the University of Jyväskylä (henceforth, ‘OUJYU’), Finland. We have selected these methods to familiarize students with a variety of learning and assessment methods: diverse online exams, written assignments, as well as visual presentations including peer review. These also correspond to the wide range of work life skills required in the lifelong learning in contemporary academic and other areas of work life, as outlined by the European education policy (EU, 2019). We briefly review these methods and enumerate in our view the main pros and cons related to each. Moreover, we propose some good practices developed to meet the related online distance learning challenges. Blended or hybrid models involving both online and traditional face-to-face learning and assessment have not been used, but we will consider the applicability of the methods for hybrid education and assessment as well.

Main methods in online distance assessment

Online exams

Probably the most used distance learning assessment method may be the online exam, and at OUJYU it has replaced traditional and electronic exams requiring physical presence from the part of the students. Online exams can take various forms, employing open questions assessed by educators to diverse computerized short questions. Basically, students are required to participate in the exam during a given time frame, and submit or type their answers online. Despite obvious advantages for student protection during the COVID-19 situation, threats to academic integrity are diverse due to lack of proper proctoring. The most acute challenges are student authentication, and plagiarism. Exam design becomes of paramount importance. For example, it is preferrable to use open book exams with open questions to promote reflection and applied discussion of the material rather than reproducing it. Computerized questions should be systematically varied to prevent dissemination of the questions among students. This assessment method works relatively well for many, but not so for the more exact sciences.

Another form of online exam is the online oral exam. It is readily compatible with online and hybrid learning environments, and largely resolves the student identification issue. The obvious downside is the limited time and technological resources from the part of both students and educators required for this assessment mode. Each session needs to be arranged separately. Requiring face-to-face online connection is, however, prohibited by the national legislation in Finland, which limits using this as an all students encompassing practice. Moreover, individual, or situational, differences related extraversion of students may confound academic skill assessment (Thomas et al., 1993).

Written assignments

The main alternative for exams has been some form of written assignment. Students are instructed to produce and submit essays, study diaries and the like in a more flexible time frame than with exams, for example during a few months. Based on student feedback at OUJYU, compared to exams, this method not only promotes a more holistic, critical and applied type of learning, but also students’ academic writing skills. Students also feel less performance related anxiety and pressure than with exams, as they can more efficiently manage their schedules, and control their writing process. Requiring advanced academic writing skills, this learning method requires a lot of student support. At the least, the task should be thoroughly instructed in terms of both format and content. For assessment, spelling out the criteria as comprehensively as possible has become particularly essential. Students find written assignments typically laborious but highly instructive. Due to the typical length of the essays, their assessment can be highly tedious and time consuming compared to exams, especially with formative feedback. The main drawbacks of this learning and assessment method are ethical: students are easily persuaded to use other students’ works, or as a worst case, revert to plagiarism or inappropriately using other people’s work (Rowe, 2004). Therefore, student authentication and plagiarism detection are necessary especially with this method.

Online presentation and peer assessment

As contemporary academic dissemination of ideas largely exploits visual presentation technologies, and modern learning environments provide tools for presentation and peer assessment, we have made use of this as a form of learning and assessment in higher education. Students submit presentations with pre-recorded slides and narration, and assess each other’s works in an online workshop environment in this learning method. Many learning environments incorporate tools for this. In addition to self-assessment skills, students require assessment skills of their peers’ work, and gain experience in the use of presentation methods and tools. The assessment needs be structured, students instructed well to give positive and constructed feedback. Student presentations also contribute to learning and processing of central course topics. According to feedback, students find this refreshing and effective as a learning method, upholding communality, and a more social type of learning. This method improves students’ work life skills more efficiently than other learning and assessment methods.

Peer assessment can also be exploited as part of final assessment. As with oral exams, video presentations do not suffer from student authentication issues. However, plagiarism identification does not apply optimally for video presentations. Student support and instructions are even more important than with written assignments, although at best this may contribute to the feeling of communality and contacts between students, much appreciated by students during lockdown.


The reviewed online distance learning and assessment practices have brought about a novel, flexible and technological perspective on assessment. Online exams and written assignments call for more support and supervision from the part of the educators, and insufficient student support with these methods may be a risk factor for cessation of studies in online higher education (Maunula, Maunumäki, & Anttonen, 2021). Comprehensive instructions and spelling out assessment criteria have gained a new practical meaning. Although majority of the students are able to work independently, some enjoy support from teachers and other students in forums and online meetings. Formative evaluation and feedback before final examination works not only as support but also as a way of reducing the motivation for cheating. Learning environments and various meeting applications allow group study and peer support. They also help educators arrange a social and communal aspect to learning. It is more than probable that many of these practices will remain in use after the COVID-19 era also at our institute.

However, there are still a few student support and ethical challenges to meet. For online exams and written assignments, we have used a plagiarism detection (Turnitin) but practically no other student authentication at OUJYU. The extent of other forms of cheating is largely unknown but undoubtedly present, and difficult to counteract because of limitations imposed by local legislation. Nevertheless, our university participated in the Horizon 2020 project TeSLA, (Trust-Based E-Assessment System for Learning) as a pilot institute (Ladonlahti, Laamanen, & Uotinen, 2020). The system is developed and found to successfully address many academic integrity issues, particularly student authentication (Mellar et al., 2018). Incorporating TeSLA in the distance learning environments is set to be launched during the year 2022 at our institute. Another presently not identifiable form of cheating is the unwanted use of online material by students using translation software (e.g., Winch, 2018). This form of cheating is typically used in language studies, but it is equally applicable in studies in other languages than English, in which most of the applicable source material is available. Developing for example trust based (Baneres et al., 2016) or machine learning measures (Chitra & Rajkumar, 2016) to detect this type plagiarism will also be a major challenge for higher education institutes in non-English speaking countries. 

Logo European Commission 'co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.