Although high-stakes exams have been a common assessment practice, many instructors are increasingly using alternative methods to promote other forms of learning while also offering flexibility for learners.
Alternative assessment ideas
While high stakes examinations are common (and sometimes necessary), alternative forms of assessment are an excellent way of facilitating critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, real-world learning, and application of knowledge.
How to select an alternative assessment
When selecting an alternative assessment, consider how it supports students to achieve and demonstrate the intended learning outcomes. Assessments should measure the skills or knowledge that students are meant to learn in a given course. It should also give students the opportunity and guidance to demonstrate these skills and articulate what they have learned.
For example, assessments have incredible impact upon learners – they affect what students attend to, how they work, and how they go about their studying. Consider what alternative format could provide students with an authentic way to demonstrate achievement of the learning outcomes.
Examples of alternative forms of assessment
There are many different options for alternative types of assessment. In many cases, current assessment practices can be easily adapted either for in-person or online courses. Please visit the sections below for more details and links to external resources.
When used for assessment purposes, case studies often require students to work through a scenario or narrative to respond to specific questions, identify problems, and offer analysis or solutions. Good scenarios usually involve realistic situations, often based on a true story or event that happened in the past. See this resource for more details on how to use case studies to teach and assess students.
Offer students some choice in how they are assessed. This can come in the form of which questions to complete within an assessment, the type of assessment form (test, project, paper, video, etc.), or in the grading scheme. In the case of choice with the grading scheme, this could involve removing the first or second lowest marks from students’ overall grade calculation, which can reduce stress for students if they have had an “off” day. See more examples of Choice of Assessment.
Paper (with submission of drafts)
Assign a major paper and require submission of many of the parts (at least in draft form) throughout the course. A problem statement or thesis might come first. After that, an initial annotated bibliography, literature review, or outline of major points can be submitted and marked before the final paper is submitted. See more about Drafting and Multi-Stage Assignments.
This is an assignment or activity type whose outcomes involve something that could be eventually applied to a real-life situation. It is authentic in the sense it is not adapted to the classroom; the result is often an artifact that is applicable to diverse contexts. Examples include laboratory experiments with presentation of findings (oral or written), debates, research proposals, policy briefs, reports, podcast episodes, blog or vlog posts, poster presentations, to name a few. See this resource to learn more about authentic assessment.
Oral assessments are used to evaluate student learning through spoken language. These can include presentations on a given topic, individual or group interviews, and demonstration of skills and abilities. They can also be used in conjunction with written assessments. When using oral assessment, consider avenues for accessibility for unreliable internet access, anxiety disorders, language considerations, and hearing challenges. See more about oral assessments and exams.
This is an assignment type in which students map out how different concepts are organized, intertwined, and connected. Organizing and structuring knowledge helps deepen learners’ understanding and comprehension. It can also reveal confusions and areas for development. Click to download a guide on Assessing and Evaluating Concept Maps.
Discussions or Debate
Discussions (either online or in-person) provide a way for students to think about and respond critically to questions, think analytically, build on one another’s ideas, or work collaboratively. Visit our Online Discussions Guide to learn more.
Annotated Portfolios or e-Portfolios
In this type of assessment, students pull together or compile their best work from across the term and write a critical introduction to the collection. Collections of evidence can include text, images, videos and more. Portfolios can be especially useful in applied disciplines. See our resource on e-portfolios.
An annotated bibliography usually entails asking learners to compile a list of duly referenced sources followed by a summary or analysis. The idea is to have students demonstrate they understand what the sources are about and how they relate to one another. See this resource to learn more about using an annotated bibliography to assess learning.
Instead of grading activities for accuracy or awarding points for frequency of participation, consider assessing meaningful engagement. Learn more about assessing engagement.
Other Examples of Alternative Assessments
- Alternative Online Assessments (University of Calgary)
- A to Z of Assessment Methods (PDF) (University of Reading)
Suggestions for tests and exams
If you feel a more traditional exam is best approach for your learners, here are some suggestions to increase flexibility and accessibility
Open Book Exams
Open book exams allow learners to complete exams at their own pace and allow instructors to provide more complex questions less dependent on memorizing and recalling factual information. Some examples of questions might include problems, short answers, or essays. Alternatively, instructors can provide questions in advance but ask students to respond to all (or some) in class. Read more about Open Book Assessments.
Instead of 1 or 2 very high-stakes assessments, consider a series of lower-stakes assessments, so that both you and your students can know how they are doing before it is too late to adjust or get help. If adding low-stakes assessments throughout the term, make sure not overload students with too many assignments. See more about Low-Stakes Writing Assignments.
Flexibly Timed Online Exams
Flexibly timed online exams have a limited time duration (e.g., 2 hours), but students can write them anytime during a specific time window. For example, the exam might start December 7, and a student can write it any time before the designated end date (e.g., December 10). Once a student begins the exam, they have a specified time limit in which to finish (e.g., 2 hours). See out guide on different types of online exams.
Key Resource: Online exam quick guide
When deciding on how many assessments to use in a course, keep an eye on balance and workload. It can be difficult to maintain for both students and instructors when the number of assessments is too high. Students taking a full course load may find themselves with multiple tests each week of the term with few opportunities for rest. Similarly, instructors could find themselves experiencing an explosion in grading requirements with a tight turn-around before the next assessment is due.
References & Additional Resources
Adapted from BC Campus: FLO Bootcamp Alternative Assessment Challenge
- Alternative online assessments (University of Calgary)
- Assessment Strategies Module (Queen’s University).
- Best Practices: Alternative Assessments (Ryerson University)
- Pros and cons of 16 diverse assessments that can be done virtually
- 13 Alternatives to Traditional Testing
- Responding to Student Papers Effectively and Efficiently (University of Toronto)