Rethinking Assessment of Hands-On Learning

While you rethink the delivery of your classroom assessments, some of what you are assessing might be more practical or hands-on in nature. Whether you are looking into alternatives for assessing laboratories, studio classes, performances, or capstone projects, you might need to get creative on how you assess students’ learning. There is no way to replace the valuable experience that students get in a live hands-on course environment. However, there are ways to teach students basic principles and theories that underlie those learning opportunities. Throughout this process, we can ask ourselves, does a virtual lab exist for my topic? Can I record lab experiments and have students do calculations on their own? Can I record a performance and ask students to reflect and discuss it on Canvas? Are there less-ideal approaches that would still allow me to meet my courses’ learning goals?

Guiding Principles

When reflecting on moving from hands on to remote learning consider how learning can happen for your students and how that learning can be assessed. Make it less about transforming hands-on activities to remote activities and more about how you accomplish your learning goals. Play to the strengths of remote learning and consider some of the benefits. Make it equitable by avoiding real-time class meetings as much as possible. Students who have access to asynchronous learning are able to access the information more readily and at any time of the day. Tools such as Canvas chat, discussion boards, groups, and conferences provide students with a direct channel of communication where they can interact with you and their peers with flexibility and more frequency. Students who may have had difficulty participating in a face-to-face class may now feel comfortable interacting with the course work and classroom community. A primary guiding principle for assessing hands-on learning is determining avenues for providing feedback. In our Assessment Guide, we discuss the importance of giving students some flexibility when submitting assignments and final projects. Flexibility, open communication, and empathy are key to your students’ success.


For most science courses, labs are an essential part of learning how to practice the scientific method. Labs are always very hands-on, so it can be difficult to envision teaching such a course remotely. Before trying to restructure labs to fit a remote learning environment, it is important to first determine the intended learning outcomes of the lab activities. Often, we include more in our activities than is necessary to accomplish the explicit goals of each individual lab. Outlined in the following sections are examples of different lab objectives and potential assessments that may be used to support them. Note that most labs are intended to accomplish multiple of these goals at the same time, so you may want to think about how to combine some of these ideas together.

Conducting experiments: When the focus of the lab is on learning specific techniques and conducting experiments, consider having the students collect data using a virtual lab. The following is a list of repositories of such labs across a variety of disciplines.

The Professional and Organizational Development organization (POD) compiled a list of Online Resources for Science Laboratories that includes many virtual labs suitable for remote teaching.

If you have a required textbook for the course, it may have labs or simulations in the online resources. Contact your textbook representative to see if there are any lab resources available, as well as whether they can provide free or reduced cost access to any students that may have been relying on library resources.

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: When the focus of the lab is on analyzing and interpreting data that are collected from an experiment, you may be able to provide students with data from previous semesters or open sources and ask them to do data analysis and write up results.

  • Free data analysis and visualization software:
  • Reading and interpreting published Case Studies can be an excellent way for students to learn about specific situations. Having students work in groups to discuss different Case Studies then report back to the full class can teach students to interpret information and communicate the results.

Project-based learning: When the focus of the lab is on project-based learning that culminates in sharing the information collected during the semester, students are often required to give final presentations or poster sessions. While it will not be possible to meet in-person for these activities, the sharing of knowledge is still a vital part of the scientific process. Consider these alternative formats for these presentations.

  • Recording presentations using VidGrid, then posting the video to a discussion board in Canvas to get feedback
  • Saving the poster as a PDF file, then posting to a Canvas discussion board
  • Recording short, informal summaries of their project using FlipGrid


The capstone experience is an invaluable learning opportunity for undergraduate students nearing graduation. In this stage of their academic career, students are often asked to rely on the entirety of their coursework to create, evaluate, integrate, and conclude their learning in the form of a capstone project. Students have the opportunity to connect meaningful academic experiences with their potential career trajectory. Before trying to restructure all of these components into a remote learning environment, determine the intended learning outcomes. Outlined in the following sections are examples of different objectives and potential assessments that may be used.

Projects requiring equipment or machine shops: We recognize that students’ inability to use machine shop equipment and space might create some challenges. Students may no longer have access to the materials or supplies they need to complete a project started earlier in the semester. Consider having students design memos or manuals, or complete the project using tools already available to them.

  • Have students create a manual or collection of memos for designing and implementing the project. Being able to create instructions for other people to complete a project is an essential part of the capstone experience, so it can be a useful way of replacing the creation of projects that would otherwise be infeasible.
  • Consider having students fulfil the design requirements using only materials available in their home. This can teach flexibility and creative problem solving.

Student Collaboration: It can be more difficult to keep track of student collaboration in an online environment when you do not regularly see your students face-to-face. However, there are many online tools that can be effective at maintaining group cohesiveness.

  • Have students write weekly reports documenting their team progress. This can be accomplished using a collaborative Google Doc or a Canvas discussion board.
  • Consider having teams take a Canvas survey to determine the contribution level of each team member. This can help ensure that all students are adequately participating in the team project.
  • Remain connected with each student team using Slack or Microsoft Teams. These platforms allow groups to communicate using text or video chat.

Group presentations: It is expected that many capstone courses might require teams presenting in collaboration. Consider using the following programs to record a presentation that other students can view asynchronously.

Studio and Performance Courses


For most Fine and Performing Arts courses, a primary goal is teaching students how to develop and refine skills. Hands-on activities, high interaction, access to space, shared supplies, and equipment can pose a challenge when moving to remote learning. Before trying to restructure all of these components into a remote learning environment, determine the intended learning outcomes. Outlined in the following sections are examples of different objectives and potential assessments that may be used.

Theory: When the focus of the lesson is on teaching theory consider using recorded lectures and narrated powerpoints along with active learning activities for your students. Quizzes, reflections, and short writing assignments can help ensure that students remain engaged with the material and also give formative feedback so that students can assess their own level of understanding.
  • Record narrated powerpoints using VidGrid and embed quiz questions. This keeps students accountable for interacting with the learning material, much like required in class attendance and participation.
  • Use the VidGrid Analytics feature to track students' participation. If you notice that student engagement with videos drops over time, consider breaking your lectures into multiple shorter videos.
  • Have students work individually or in a group to come up with novel application ideas for the theory to a new situation
  • Have students take a virtual tour of galleries, structures, or studios that they would otherwise be experiencing in-person. Many tours are available as 3D experiences and 3D viewers can be purchased online inexpensively. You can then have them write about how they would design a similar experience to fit particular parameters of an assignment.

Demonstration: When the focus of the activity is on showing students how to complete a task, you can use video capture technology to show the students what they would have seen in class. A benefit to doing this in an online environment is that everyone will be able to see a close-up view of what you are showing.

  • Providing recorded demonstrations invites students to be a participant in their learning, giving them access to tools not available in a face-to-face environment. Some of the benefits include better visibility, sound, access to captioning and transcripts and control over the speed and repetition of their learning experience.
  • Consider finding a guest artist that is willing to record a video demonstration then engage in a live chat with your students to answer questions.

Skill Application and Development: When your focus is on students applying and building skills, low stake feedback exchange can be an essential part of learning. A remote learning environment can be advantageous here because students have more time to give detailed feedback to one another.

  • Canvas Announcements can be used for overviews, reviews, motivation, and an area for additional resources.
  • Consider having your students take video of themselves completing the required activity. You can then use Discussion Boards or the peer review tool in Canvas for students to give feedback to one another before submitting the final version of their video.
  • Some activities may require specific equipment or materials. Consider coming up with a ‘build this using what you have available at home’ assignment. This will teach students to be flexible and will help them realize that there are often many ways to solve any particular problem.
  • Put students in Canvas groups where they can post short videos, works in progress, and provide informal feedback throughout the week.
  • You can use FlipGrid to have students make short videos of their work that they share with other students in the class. This is a good way of tracking incremental progress over time.

Critiques: When your focus is on giving students detailed individual or group feedback, there are options for providing this feedback both in real-time as well as asynchronously.

  • Students can use VidGrid to record and present work or performances. They can share them in group discussions or peer reviews for feedback.
  • You can use Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack or other video chat programs to meet individually or with small groups to deliver feedback and critiques.
  • Make use of the Canvas rubric feature to help speed up grading time and deliver consistent and specific feedback. Make sure the rubrics are visible to students so they can see the criteria before submitting their assignments.

Additional resources: This spreadsheet has additional resources to help you quickly move your Fine & Performing Arts course to a remote environment, many of which are tailored to specific disciplines. Feel free to share this document and add any additional resources that you find useful.

Be Creative

Not every component of your course may be possible to re-think and deliver remotely. Sometimes creative out of box thinking may be required. For this, we encourage you to reach out for additional support, consult other faculty members, and use your resources.

Additional institutional resources

UNL's Center for Transformative Teaching is committed to continuous improvement and would appreciate your feedback about this resource.