Access, Barriers, and Student Strategies to Online Formative Assessments in Introductory Biology

Kathleen Brazeal
Assistant Professor of Practice
University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Need: Formative assessments (FAs), such as homework assignments, can improve learning by providing structure and feedback, which can help to close achievement gaps for underserved students. FAs are often delivered online outside of class time and this context may create disproportionate challenges for certain students. While other work has identified barriers for online courses in general, less is known about specific challenges associated with access and engagement for online FAs and how such barriers impact course performance. Further, little is known about the specific ways in which students use internet searches while they are completing online FAs. As course environments increasingly rely on asynchronous formats, improving student access to and interactions with online assignments represents a critical step to ensuring that students have equitable opportunities for learning and success.

Guiding Questions: We sought to address the connections between student demographics, barriers that may hinder engagement with online FAs, and course performance. We also wanted to characterize how students utilize internet searches while completing online FA questions.

Outcomes: We developed a survey and administered it to over 1250 students (92% response rate) in 7 introductory biology courses at two 2-year community colleges and a 4-year research university. The survey addresses five categories related to potential barriers students may face in the course: technology, social interactions, instructor organization, personal engagement, and learning environment. Linear mixed model analyses revealed that certain demographics such as GPA and primary language significantly predicted technical and personal engagement barriers, while race/ethnicity predicted social and personal engagement. We also found that after controlling for demographics, greater access with respect to the social and their personal engagement categories predicted higher performance in the course. To address how students use internet searches while completing online FAs, we recorded zoom think-aloud interviews with students as they worked on answering different types of plausible assignment questions. Qualitative analysis is ongoing to characterize students’ internet searches, their use of search results, and their formulation of written answers from those searches. We have found that students have high self-efficacy in performing online searches but exhibit a wide range of strategies with respect to how they search and utilize search results.

Broader Impacts: Taken together, this research will inform instructors about how to best support students in their access and use of online assignments. By better predicting which students are most affected by certain types of barriers in certain categories and illuminating student internet search strategies, instructors can be equipped to take a more proactive approach toward alleviating barriers, increasing inclusive instructional approaches, and instructing students about how to appropriately use the internet to promote engagement and learning. We are in an ongoing process of using our findings to design and implement institutional supports, such as faculty workshops, to help instructors develop strategies to improve student access and engagement with online FAs.


Kathleen Brazeal, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE; Gabrielle Johnson, Southeast Community College, Lincoln, NE; Brian Couch, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE; Dana Kirkwood-Watts, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE; Allison Upchurch, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE; Sarah Spier, Southeast Community College, Lincoln, NE; Lorey Wheeler, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE