How You'll Be Graded in an Online Course

online gradingAs you’re exploring the option of an online degree, you might wonder how online students are graded. And while there’s no single formula for online grading, most online instructors test and grade students just like traditional classroom teachers. Exams, quizzes, papers, and group projects are all par for the (online) course.

That said, some subjects lend themselves better to sit down exams. Other subject knowledge is better evaluated through presentations and papers. Your area of study and your degree level will probably affect the types of assignments you receive in online courses.

If you’re concerned about grades and grading, take a moment to review the following assessment methods. Once you’re familiar with the possibilities, you may want to ask several college enrollment advisors which methods are most commonly used within their programs.

Proctored Exams

Some online courses require you to go to a testing center in your area, when it’s time to take tests. At the testing center, students need to present photo identification, so test proctors can ensure that no one is cheating. Proctors then oversee the exam for its entire duration. This process, along with a monitored testing environment, can make some students nervous. And the nearest testing center may a considerable distance from your home.

You can avoid proctored tests by checking with online programs, before you enroll, to determine if any on-site testing is required. If you do wind up selecting a school that requires proctored exams, make sure you prepare for them with “test runs”. Try driving to the site a day or two in advance; note how long the commute takes, so you won’t be late or lost on test day. Ask your instructor if it’s possible to try a practice exam at home. Tests are always easier when you’re familiar with the format.

Timed Quizzes and Exams

Timed, at-home exams are more common than proctored tests. You’ll be asked to log in to a site where you’ll gain access to a quiz or exam, which is usually in a multiple choice format. As soon as you log in, the clock starts, so be sure to log in only when you’re ready to begin. Many times, you’ll have the option of trying practice exams that will help you prepare for the material and the test format. Remember that one cause of test anxiety is a lack of familiarity with the process. If you want to get rid of test nerves, a great way to do so is to practice test at least twice.

Discussion Board Posts

Some instructors evaluate your performance based on the quality of your interaction with others in the discussion board forum. If you’re a quiet person, you’ll have to push yourself to vocalize thoughts and questions. Start a habit of reading with a pen in hand. Jot down your reactions and questions, so you’ll have comments to post. Keep in mind that quantity and quality are important. Five posts a day won’t do you any good if you’re not expressing anything worthwhile. Try responding to your classmates’ questions; pose your own questions; reference outside readings and websites that relate to the class topic. If you agree or disagree with points being made, offer examples that support your position.

Collaborative Activities

Group projects challenge you to work together with your classmates. Whether you’re creating a paper, a presentation, or a portfolio, your group will need to divide roles and responsibilities in a clear and effective way. You may wish to use the space that’s provided by your college or university (like a group discussion board), or you may prefer to work via email and/or conference call. The key is to understand your instructor’s expectations, and to develop a checklist that corresponds with the grading rubric.

Don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re concerned about the project’s direction, or if some group members aren’t pulling their weight. Remember that group assignments are intended to prepare you for the working world and for the everyday collaboration that business professionals must accomplish. Get in the habit of taking your work seriously. Read our article on how to survive group work for additional help.


Project assignments vary a great deal. They are usually assigned to showcase the practical skills you are learning. So, depending on your major, projects may involve writing a new computer program, designing a new website, or inventing a new recipe. It’s okay to get creative with your class projects. After all, you should be enjoying the things you’re learning. But be careful not to stray too far from the assignment parameters. As your project evolves, check in with your instructor to make sure that you are on track.


Essays are formal papers that are required in many different courses. Essays are shorter than research papers, but their requirements can vary. Some essays are opinion papers; you can write them in the first person (using “I”), and base your arguments on your own beliefs and experiences. Other essays are comparison papers, summaries, or critiques that require scholarly references.

Before you start writing, make sure you understand the assignment and all of its required components. Draft an outline. Have a classmate review your first draft, and take advantage of your college writing center if one is available. Most importantly, do not wait until the last minute to start writing. Teachers can tell when a paper has been thrown together. Read our tips for college essays for additional help.

Research Papers

Research papers are a common form of assessment at the college level. Most research papers will require you to identify a research question, develop an outline, do research in online libraries, and write a paper that answers your original question. Some of the most common pitfalls are selecting a topic that is too broad, and becoming over-reliant on Wikipedia or online sources that are not peer-reviewed.

It is a good idea to let someone review your research paper at each stage of its development. In fact, some instructors will grade you on your research process (not just the end result.) Work through multiple drafts, and clearly document your research, so you can cite your sources in the final paper. Read our article on how to write a research paper for more information.


Electronic portfolios, also called e-portfolios, are like academic scrap books. E-portfolios are often assigned as capstone projects, towards the end of a degree program. They can contain a series of projects – including research reports, presentations, video clips of your work in action, or links to websites where your work has been featured.

Education majors often create e-portfolios to encompass all of their lesson plans, student teaching videos, teaching research, and more. Business majors and other graduate students might also complete portfolios in lieu of a senior thesis or dissertation.






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