Rio Salado College: Testing for Distance Learning


When it comes to online learning, Rio Salado College is recognized as one of the nation’s premier e-learning colleges. The college’s headquarters, located in Tempe, Arizona, offers more than 435 online courses, serving more than 60,000 students annually worldwide, of which more than 25,000 take courses online.

Every assessment and exam in Rio Salado’s online courses is conducted via Questionmark. When Rio Salado began using Questionmark in 2000, it was only used for the 80 distance learning courses the college provided for the Army. Dana Reid, the associate dean of course production and support, explains that the college came to realize the magnitude of what Questionmark was capable of while creating assessments and exams for those courses.

Today, Rio Salado has nearly 10,000 assessments and more than 87,000 items in its item bank.

Delivering Tests Where and When They’re Needed

When a course is created at Rio Salado, the course production staff formats all the assessments, quizzes or exams that faculty write. These assessments can then be taken whenever the student is ready. However, high-stakes exams like midterm or final exams are monitored, either by staff at one of Rio Salado’s testing centers (for local students) or by proctors (for out-of-county distance learning students).

According to Penny Freuler, director of instructional technology and course production at Rio Salado, the use of Questionmark has revolutionized the way the testing center does its work. “We used to have to fax paper exams to thousands of proctors across the state and the nation,” Freuler says. Now, all assessments, whether or not they need to be monitored, are scheduled automatically in Questionmark, eliminating the need for faxing paper exams.

Questionmark also delivers the right test to the right student at the right time. The college uses the scheduling tool heavily because students at Rio Salado start courses at different times, which means they take exams and complete assessments at different times as well. Questionmark's Enterprise Manager allows each assessment to be delivered the day students are ready to take it.

Additionally, reports generated by Questionmark help instructional designers and faculty chairs to improve assessment items when a course is revised. “By generating an item analysis report, we can see how questions are performing and determine whether they need to be adjusted,” Reid says.

Upgrading to Questionmark

In January, 2006, Rio Salado upgraded to Questionmark. Reid says that before the upgrade, the course production department was using a development environment to format and then publish items to a shared repository. With the new version, all items can now be stored in one repository without the need for publishing. “That’s a big deal in terms of time-saving and efficiency,” Reid says.

Revising assessments has become easier as well. Assessments already in Questionmark can be exported as Word files and delivered to faculty to revise. That way, if more than one person is reviewing the assessment, changes can be tracked and checked for correct spelling and grammar.

Faculty members use Questionmark's scoring tool frequently to grade assessments that cannot be automatically graded. Rubrics are used for subjective assignments to describe the dimensions of performance expected, to explain how the assignment will be graded, and to list how many points each level of performance earns. Rubrics also serve as a learning tool for students, helping them to self-evaluate their work prior to submitting it. Faculty members are excited about the new user-friendly capabilities of the scoring tool, such as the ability to use bolding and underlining or to change fonts and colors when giving feedback on an assessment. According to Freuler, enhancements such as annotation, in-line comments and spell-checking were extra feedback capabilities that Rio Salado requested and received from Questionmark.

Freuler suggests that users who are considering upgrading to Questionmark should do their homework beforehand, and consult the online documentation, white papers, and other resources available at Questionmark’s Web site that discuss best practices for upgrading to version 4. Freuler also attended the training Questionmark offers about version 4, but believes it is more helpful to attend the training after planning for conversion: “What we learned at the training changed some of our plans for implementation, especially related to changes we were making on the back end,” she says. “However, if we hadn’t started planning for the conversion, there are things we wouldn’t have considered.”

The Future of Assessments

Reid explains that the college is now ready to evolve its use of Questionmark in creating assessments. The instructional design team at Rio Salado is moving toward more interactive and randomized types of assessments.

“Questionmark is a key component of the RioLearn system, and the difference it makes to students (and staff) is amazing,” Freuler says.