About Alternative Assessment

What it is

Alternative assessment is a category of assessment which uses methods other than the traditional mode of assesment (such as essays and exams) to assess the students’ skills and understanding. It is also sometimes called authentic assessment.

Its Characteristics

While varied,  assessment methods typically share some characteristics seen below:

  • Students are asked to create, produce, or do something
  • Uses tasks that have real-world applications
  • Provides opportunities for individual and group work
  • Allows flexibility for the student to tailor their learning
  • Allows students to reflect on their learning and progress

Alternative Assessment as part of the movement to decolonising academia

Alternative assessment methods are an important, yet easily overlooked, part of the movement to decolonize academia. Essays, which make up a large portion of assessments in the humanities, particularly in the UK, may not be a student’s strongest method of demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of the coursework material if their previous secondary education did not have a strong focus on essays. These students may thrive in other forms of assessment, such as presentations, or long term projects such as portfolios.

Alternative Assessment and Learning Outcomes

Alternative assessment give students more control over their learning and promotes more in-depth engagement with course content. Students are also more likely to feel satisfied with their learning as a result. Moreover, alternative assessment methods have real-world applications, giving students the opportunity to expand their skillsets.

Brigham Young University's Guideline for Constructing Alternative Assessment

BYU created a guideline to help implement alternative assessments, which is outlined below. You can also view it on their website (Here).

  1. Define the instructional outcome you want to assess as clearly and unambiguously as possible in terms of both the subject-matter content and the set of skills or operations that a skillful performer would exhibit.
  2. Distinguish between those outcomes that can validly be assessed solely by performance assessments and those that can be assessed just as effectively by objective measures.
  3. Create tasks that elicit evidence of the student’s ability to perform the targeted skill.
  4. Decide what kinds of teacher guidance can be used while still allowing students the freedom to learn and do it their own way.
  5. Try out the assessment and make revisions as necessary.

Alternative Assessment Checklist

When choosing the best assessment method, evaluate it against the checklist below (outlined by Boud, 1998).

  • The task is authentic and set in a realistic context (i.e., orientated towards the world extrernal to the course itself)
 
  • They are worthwhile learning activities in their own right (i.e., each separate act of assessment can be credibly regarded as a worthwhile conribution to learning)
 
  • The assessment permit a hollistic rather than a fragmented appraoch
 
  • The tasks are not repetitive for either student or assessor–they should work as a productive use of time for all those involved. (There are some limited situations in which practice, which might appear to be repetitive, can be justified).
 
  • The assessment prompts student self-assessment (i.e., the range of assessment tasks leave students better equipped to engage in their own self assessment now and in the future. They shift the emphasis from students looking to teaching staff for judgment to looking to themselves and the nature of the task).
 
  • The tasks are sufficiently flexible for students to tailor them to their own needs and interests.
 
  • The assessment is not likely to be interpreted by students in a way fundamentally different to that of the designer.
 
  • The task does not make assumptions about the subject matter or the learner which are differntially perceived by different groups of students, and which are irrelevant to the task (e.g., use of unnecessarily gender-specific examples, assumptions about charactersitics, references relevant to upbringing in a particular country or state).

Powerpoints or Presentations

Presentations given in class or PowerPoints turned in (with or without voiceover buttons) may be less intimidating to students than essay writing. While still distinct from Podcasts, voiceover buttons can act as a way for students to engage with their knowledge orally without learning new software needed to make a podcast. However, the fact that the voice-over recording would de-anonmise the assesment should also be considered.

In language learning, turning in a PowerPoint with voice-recordings on the slides gives the student the time to self-correct their language. Allowing students to give their presentation to classmates as a formative assessment may also alleviate some anxiety.

Group Work

Group work, such as collaborative testing, or group projects can let students decide how to divide their work and tasks. Students can use this to their advantage to build off of one another's skills and learn form one another.

Group projects, even on assessment methods that students are more familiar with, such as power point presentations, could give students the opportunity to correct one another and might help students who are less comfortable with public speaking.

Altered Testing Conditions or Grading Method


Alterations to exam conditions (such as creating take home exams, open-book exams, or allowing a page of notes in the exam hall) would help alleviate student anxiety by giving students more time or allowing them to focus on applying their knowledge, rather than memorising specifics. With a sheet of notes, students would be in charge of deciding what information they need.

Giving students a space to explain their thinking on multiple-choice tests would also provide insight into their reasoning and provide the opportunity to gain partial credit. Collborative testing (either partially or completely) makes it possible for students to help each other learn and correct each other's mistakes. Some educators use this method and require students in one group to have the same answer, with an explanation for the group's reasoning, while others permit variation among group members' answers. If only part of the test was taken collaboratively, the sections of the test can be weighted accordingly. A commonly referenced fear about this form of assessment is that some students will do more of the work while others may do little, either due to a lack of interest in the course, not understanding the concepts or skills being assessed, or due to other reasons such as anxieties about speaking their opinions or being wrong. However, this would ultimately hurt the student more than it would help them, and students may be more inclined to particpate if their learning environment is engaging and inclusive.

Consider ungrading or implimenting self-assessment.

Blog entries, reflective responses, think pieces

Smaller writing assignments where students can engage with their learning week by week. Each entry is relatively "low stakes" in terms of overall grade percentage, which gives them an opportunity to take risks.

Creative and Technological Projects

Projects which students are given creative freedom to engage with their learning and expand their skillset, whether they choose to do so through poetry or art and a reflective explanation, or creating a video essay, podcast, or website. When using creative projects as alternative assessment methods, it is especially important to ensure that students understand what is being assessed and how. If possible, show students past work and go through the grading process together.

Portfolios

Portfolios can include written works as well as creative works, giving students the option to choose how they can best show their knowledge.

Portfolios can be used in language-learning classrooms to assess progress over time.

The University of Guelph’s Office of Teaching and Learning created a handout for alternative assessment types. Its examples are also categorized by what skills they assess. You can get it here, or access their website here.

You can also visit this Padlet , created for a FLO course on Assessment facilitaed by Dr Nicki Rehn and Olaolu Adeleye, to see the types of alternative assessment other educators have used and their thoughts.

In addition to evaluating skills and knowledge in a way which would benefit students whose educational backgrounds have not focused on essay-writing, alternative assessment methods can allow students to expand their skills or explore creative options of engaging with their knowledge.

There are some fears (from students and educators alike) that alternative assessment methods may not be “academic” enough or may not prepare those who wish to  pursue an academic career.  However, there are many alternative assessment methods which are not all that different from public engagement projects that academics have  completed.

a silver microphone on a blurred background

Podcasts

Podcasts are now a common way for academics to engage with their research and can be part of creative projects, informational, or have a more informal tone.

silhouettes of people in front of lights at art exhibit

Artistic publications and public engagement

More journals (such as RUUKKU) and conferences are allowing video submissions or creative pieces, either to accompany an essay or as a standalone piece.

Social media logos together on black background

Social Media

Some educators have begun using TikTok and Instagram to create quick informational videos, debunk common misconceptions in their field, or make jokes related to their field. Some examples might be @ dr_inna on TikTok.

Hannah Boast on Thinkpieces

For my third-year theory module Feminist Killjoys, which I taught in a previous job, I asked students to write two thinkpieces. In the opening week we read bell hooks’ chapter ‘Theory as Liberatory Practice’ from Teaching to Transgress. I was keen to encourage students to see theory as a tool they could use to understand their lives and the world, beyond the literary texts they’d studied on their degree, and this activity seemed a good way to do it.

The rubric was to write two 500-word thinkpieces that used ‘theories discussed in class to interpret current news, media and political events, or your own experiences.’ These made up 25% of the overall module mark, with the rest being a traditional essay. The activity was inspired by an assessment on a module I took as an undergraduate at Nottingham, convened by Matt Green, where we wrote blog posts about the Gothic in contemporary politics and pop culture.

Students were (mostly!) enthusiastic about the task once it was explained to them, and often commented positively on it in module feedback. Many of them were taking modules in Creative Writing and enjoyed the chance to write in a different style. The pieces were wonderfully varied, and part of the fun for students and myself was that they rarely wrote about the same topic. Many were funny and sharp, and a handful moved me to tears.

That said, the first year I ran the module I wasn’t prepared for how much anxiety this assessment would provoke. Some students were very nervous about having an unusual assessment in their final year, even for what I’d thought was only a small percentage of the mark. I had a lot of individual discussions with students in office hours. By the second year, I put more structured assessment preparation in place to help the task seem less intimidating, including a seminar where I gave students recent news stories so they could workshop responses together in groups. Students were particularly keen to see examples of previous work written on the module, but the university’s system for providing these on a centralised bank was slow; in future I’d ask former students directly.

I’m planning to revive this approach for a Feminist Theory module I’m teaching in my new job. In spite of the difficulties, I think it helps students to grasp theory in a new way, and improves their academic prose through the challenge of communicating complex ideas to a non-academic reader. It was a really rewarding experience and some of the most satisfying marking I’ve done.

Dr Hannah Boast
University College Dublin

Loic Bourdeau on Podcasts and Creative Projects

In my graduate course on French cinema, students and I produced two short podcast episodes each week. Each week we watched 2 films from a specific decade (at home) and read theoretical texts either about the films, the directors, or developments in the industry. We spent two-thirds of the class discussing and analyzing the films and the texts before focusing on podcast production. Using a simple tutorial (Here), students – in two groups of 4-5 – developed their concepts and wrote and recorded their scripts; every single student had to participate one way or another. I used iMovie to record everything and used their detailed guidelines for montage purposes. Given the time constraints, I had to make a number of creative decisions on how to put together each episode, but students really enjoyed this weekly activity. While we engaged in in-depth discussions, they then were able to “vulgarize” the newly acquired concepts and produced accessible content that can be used by other language learners.

In the future, I plan to have students more involved in the technical and creative parts of production so that they can also acquire new skills (using software, finding soundtrack, chopping, editing, etc.), as it required a lot of extra work on my part. Yet, it was worthwhile as students were so eager to work on the projects each week and to hear themselves. We also showcased a diversity of Frenches (Louisiana French, native French speakers, Quebec accents, etc.) and of topics. Podcasts were graded under “attendance and participation”, which accounts for 30% of the course grade.

In my non-French humanities courses (such as “Youth & Diversity in Pop Culture” or Global Queerness”, Years 2/3/4) I ask my students to work on a creative project. During the first week, for instance, we’ll study specific materials (TV shows, writings, theories) and conclude by applying everything they have learned. For instance, they are given a prompt with specific questions to think about their ideal youth TV shows (title? Who are the characters? What do they do?). Later on in the course, having covered more materials and concepts, they are asked to actually turn in a creative piece (comic strips, a short story, a tv script, a piece of art) along with a descriptive/analytical report of the process and the goals of their piece. Assignment, which accounts for 10% of total course grace, is graded as follows: 25% Creativity, originality, 25% showcases diversity & inclusion, 25% clarity, 25% quality/completeness of report. Some students choose to work on the youth program they discussed earlier on, others produce sculptures, collages, etc. The feedback has been consistently positive, even with students who don’t feel very creative. Perhaps they’ll just write a personal short story, but they’ll be engaged and they’ll make a connection between course content, their own experiences, and the world. I’ve used this assignments 3 times already and plan to continue on using it. I then showcase the works with the entire class, which gathers positive responses and shows that anyone, regardless of their major, is capable of producing something creative.

Dr Loic Bourdeau
University of louisiana at lafayette

Benjamin Thomas on reserach-based seminar tasks

My preference as a teacher is for active, student-centred learning. I don’t see my role as imparting knowledge, but as helping students to develop their own skills and independent researchers and thinkers—while strongly believing that this also allows them to acquire a richer knowledge of the subject for themselves. I try to model these skills in my teaching, for example by including a full scholarly apparatus for images and other source extracts in my teaching materials (‘showing my workings’ as a researcher). But I also use teaching and assessment methods to develop them through practice.

At the heart of this are research-based seminar tasks, which I adopted then adapted from a senior colleague at Birmingham, where a group of us met regularly to discuss learning and teaching. She set students a task such as answering a question about the readings: they had to bring a short response (c.250 words) to class, one copy for themselves and one for her. I found this very helpful. Students respond well to the clear expectations it sets about preparation, and it also makes for stimulating and inclusive seminar discussions, since everyone has something to say. Many find the physical ‘crutch’ of their printed text reassuring, too. I start seminars with students discussing their responses in pairs while I skim the second copies—this helps me ensure the discussion responds to what they have actually done, and alerts me to any general or individual issues requiring attention. I then open up a general discussion, initially by asking the pairs to report on their conversation, along the lines of the well-known think-pair-share method devised by Frank Lyman and widely used in higher education (discussed in O’Connor 2013; see also Stanford Teaching Commons). This creates an expectation of participation, but also supports all students to participate, not least because they can clearly see how seriously I’m taking their knowledge and expertise. (In my module evaluations, students frequently stress how encouraging and inclusive they’ve found seminar discussions to be.)

What is ‘research-based’ about these tasks, though? They typically ask students to carry out an independent piece of historical research: locate a textual primary source on this week’s subject; locate a non-textual source; frame a research question for this topic, etc. But they also require students to describe and reflect on what they did. As well as practicing research, they are reflecting critically on their practice (UDL checkpoint 6.4). At one level, these tasks allow everyone in the room, including me, to expand their subject knowledge: each individual learns from everyone else’s contribution. At another level, they open up rich methodological discussions for us as historians: why do some historical actors leave rich archival traces and others hardly any? But at another level again, the research skills they develop are highly transferable—and in a wider context of ‘fake news’, the practice of critically verifying chains and networks of knowledge production is very valuable. (The skills they develop map onto several of my institution’s ‘graduate attributes’.) It’s important for these tasks to be assessed. In my full-year senior honours special subject, the tasks in the first half of each semester serve as a trial run for the more advanced tasks in the second, which form a portfolio—these add up to 2x15% of total assessment. There is also an explicit connection with other assessments, like the poster presentation based on independent research (10%) and the ‘time limited assessment’ (30%): an essay researched and written in four days, incorporating primary source materials and an account of the research process.

Dr Benjamin Thomas
University of glasgow

Rebecca Macklin on Creative Inquiry

In Spring 2021, I developed and taught an interdisciplinary class for advanced undergraduates called “Imagining Environmental Justice”. There were two assessments: the first was a fairly standard academic essay that responded to course materials; the second asked students to employ creative research methods to explore the topic of environmental justice through creative inquiry. The resulting pieces would collectively form an online showcase, in an attempt to engage with the wider public about the subject and to encourage students to explore the possibilities of communicating environmental and/or social research in a different kind of language.

Students responded well to this challenge. For many it was outside of their comfort zone and – especially for those students in STEM subjects – was a daunting endeavour. However, after spending ten weeks reading and engaging with creative and critical works on the subject of environmental justice, they felt qualified to contribute to the conversation. One student reflected: “It was a totally new experience for me, given that this was my first English class at a college level. But it was an area that, after having read so many other pieces, I felt comfortable adding something to the realm of environmental justice creative works. I like that this class emphasizes both – it is about your own writing, but it also is about how you can contribute to something bigger.”

Creative submissions had to be accompanied by a reflective commentary, in which students articulated the motivations and inspirations behind their work. In addition, I asked students to include a creative research question that they would explore through their work. I think this was ultimately effective as it helped them to engage with the process in a more grounded way, reflecting on the relationship between form and content. Several students commented that the way they thought about their chosen subject changed as a result of the creative process.

While submissions could use any medium, the majority were pieces of creative writing (especially poetry and short fiction). This was likely due to the limited timeframe and resources available to allow students to explore more technical and time-intensive mediums. We were joined in class by two guest speakers (a writer and a filmmaker) which was a great way to get the students thinking about their projects. We also used class time for workshops which helped students to develop their ideas and theorise the showcase in a collective forum. In the future, if I had the resources I would love to incorporate more technical training to enable them to work with a wider range of mediums. I loved teaching this class and the students found the combination of creative and critical approaches to be an exciting and effective way of engaging with the subject. One student reflected that she appreciated how the class "provided me with ways to communicate about climate change and environmental justice in ways that aren’t just a research paper or straight-up data. It showed me different ways people can connect, whether it's through a poem, a book, or a film... Being able to communicate something across many mediums, depending on what medium connects with different people, is so powerful."

I was lucky to be supported by my institution to develop this class as part of their new, interdisciplinary Environmental Humanities Minor. While I imagine it would require changes to be transferred to a UK higher education setting, I very much hope I can teach a version of this again!

You can view the Student Showcase Here

Rebecca Macklin
University of Pennsylvania

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