Defining Computer Based Assessment


Computer based assessment is not a new idea—in fact, it has been around in some form since 1959, when the very first computer based training (CBT) system was built. However, like CBT, computer based assessment didn’t get much recognition until a few decades ago, and it only started becoming really influential in the past few years, as online technologies have greatly advanced what is possible.

Because computer based assessment has changed so much since its inception, it isn’t always clear what people are talking about when they use the term. Here, we’ll attempt to provide a clear computer based assessment definition, drawing from current technologies and practice.

Computer based assessment definition

At its broadest, the definition of computer based assessment is this: “the use of digital tools for assessment-related activity.” Notice the use of the term “digital tools” rather than “computers”—this is because today computer based assessment can also be both created and taken using laptops, tablets, and even smartphones. Any type of testing that involves the use of these technologies, as opposed to paper and pencils, can be considered under the umbrella of computer based assessment.

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Types of computer based assessment

Our definition is very broad, and within it are several subcategories. Here are two of the most common types of computer based assessment:

  • Assessments embedded within e-learning modules. This type is most similar to the original computer based training. Here, online assessments are embedded within larger e-learning modules so that all of a students’ learning activities take place on the computer. For example, a student might watch a video that has comprehension questions contained within it. Or, a student may complete a full e-learning module that culminates in a final test.
  • Standalone online assessments. This type is relatively new, and it is being used in all kinds of learning environments, including in-person courses. Here, an instructor uses an online assessment creator to develop quizzes and tests, which students then take using an online platform. Online assessments have many possible applications, from traditional chapter quizzes to final exams. They can also be used to boost student engagement and measure retention on an ongoing basis. For example, an educator could start every class with a short quiz that students take on their smartphones.

What you can do with computer based assessment tools

Finally, a key element of our computer based assessment definition is what can be done with these tools. In the early days, the types of questions that could be handled by digital tools was limited to simple forced-choice items like multiple choice and true or false. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, as computer based assessment tools can now be used for even complex items like essay questions and concept maps. To see the wide variety of questions and tasks that are now available, explore this taxonomy of 28 item types that can be used with computer based assessment, developed by Kathleen Scalise of the University of Oregon.

So, what does all of this add up to? Our original computer based assessment definition, “the use of digital tools for assessment-related activity,” turns out to be pretty accurate. Hopefully, you now have a better idea of the range of digital tools and assessment-related activity that computer based assessment encompasses.

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