Alternative Summative Assessment

Changing the format of a major assessment away from an exam can seem daunting, but there are significant advantages for you and your students. The alternative assessments introduced in this video and described below allow students to demonstrate their learning in more authentic ways. Authentic assessments are those that more closely replicate work that students would do outside of a classroom. 

  • Small to medium enrollment courses (less than 60 students in a section)
  • Mid- to upper-level courses (300 level and above)
  • Courses with student learning outcomes that focus on writing, oral communication, or other skills not well quantified by examinations.

Courses with exams with a significant number of analytical questions, questions that involve making claims or judgement calls, or exams where students must justify their answers. You may wish to formally convert your exam to an “open book” exam. Set a time limit, or word count, for the exam. Allow students to use materials that they have at hand, and communicate your expectation that their answers be detailed, thorough, and specific to the course content.

  • Extension: Ask students to upload their notes, study guides, or scratch paper for additional exam credit.
  • Extension: Ask students to complete an “exam wrapper” that describes their preparation for the exam, a self-assessment of their performance, and a short reflective statement.
  • Extension: Add an open-ended or essay questions at the end of the exam where students must reflect on which course materials they used to prepare for the exam.

Considerations Before Implementing an Alternative Assessment

Many of the examples of alternative assessments listed below require students to demonstrate skills in searching for information, writing or presentation that you might not be explicitly teaching in your course. This means that students may need additional practice or support to successfully complete the assessment. For example, you might provide students with templates they can use instead of requiring them to create the entire product from scratch. You might need to adjust your expectations and grading standards to account for students’ lack of experience and expertise in some areas, particularly if those areas are also outside of the scope of the learning outcomes for your course.

Additionally, it may be helpful to provide students with multiple examples of the kind of product(s) you are asking them to create. You can review and critique some examples together as a class to demonstrate and explain your expectations. You can also require students to review and critique in class or in Canvas discussion boards; you can join the discussions at appropriate junctures and provide corrections and amplifications of important points.

Tools and Resources

If you choose to use any of the alternative assessments described here or elsewhere, we suggest that you create a rubric, as well as take advantage of Canvas’s Speedgrader function, to speed up your grading process. CTAL has resources and many examples of rubrics.

The Library has assignment packages for podcast, graphic design and interactive timeline projects. They include a sample timeline, suggested tools, rubrics, and resources for students. 

“Library Resources for Multimedia Projects” is a module available for download in Canvas Commons. The module contains pages for video, podcast, graphic design projects. Depending on what your students are creating, you can un-publish and customize the pages as needed.

Alternative Major Assessments Categorized by Disciplinary Portfolios

Each course is unique, but it can be helpful to think broadly about the kind of work frequently done within a discipline when considering what kind of alternative assessment is right for you and your students. Below you’ll find assessments organized by disciplinary categories – while these are grouped by discipline, please do not feel that a particular assessment can *only* be used within that discipline. 

Arts and Humanities

Many arts and humanities courses incorporate some form of writing, and it may be a natural inclination to assign a final paper in lieu of an exam in these courses. While many courses may find that an effective solution, some students can be overwhelmed by having multiple large papers due at the same time at the end of the semester. Here are some suggestions that do not rely on a traditional essay format: 

 

Digital portfolios

  • If students will be completing several smaller assignments remotely, or if your course used discussion boards, you may want to ask them to submit a digital “portfolio” where they select and highlight some of their best work and comments. Students can write a reflection about what resources and tools enhanced their learning, as well as add information to responses on earlier assessments. Adding this final, reflective portfolio component is a way to bring together many disparate elements into a cohesive final project, and requires very little advanced planning on the part of the instructor.

Digital reflections

  • If your course utilized class or group discussions frequently, you can create a few guided reflection prompts to ask students to synthesize their prior conversations. This has an added benefit of encouraging students to take notes during these conversations, and to reflect not just on their own positions, but those of their classmates. They can present their responses in a variety of digital formats, including:
      • Google Slides
      • An audio recording 
      • A video recording
      • An infographic
  • The Library has great resources for multimedia projects of all kind.

Course anthology

  • You can create a prompt related to the course’s student learning outcomes and ask students to select a limited number of course materials that help them to answer that prompt. They then create an annotated bibliography or a digital course anthology that describes how the course materials address the prompts, the limitations of the sources, and any avenues for further exploration
      • Extension: Ask students to seek out 2-3 additional sources (outside of the course) that they feel will also address the prompt and have them annotate them as well. Note: If research skills are outside of the course goals and are not explicitly taught/assessed, consider providing your students with a tutorial from the Library. 

Syllabus extension

  • Ask students what they would like to explore if the class were to continue for another module or unit. Have them identify the key theme of the unit, a variety of course materials (articles, videos, open educational resources…) and an essay question or other idea for assessment that would help demonstrate mastery of the materials and concepts.

Demonstrations or simulations

  • For arts courses that include hands-on practice or kinesthetic skill-building, you may want to have students demonstrate skills in recording. For example, dance or music classes may include a video ‘recital’ of some kind, while studio art courses could ask students to film themselves completing part of a work or project that is especially challenging. Even if your course is largely asynchronous, you may want to consider having a synchronous session for students to share their demonstrations live with each other and reconnect with their colleagues.
  • Students can borrow recording equipment from the Student Multimedia Design Center in the Library.
Social Sciences (Qualitative-Focused Courses)

Evaluation of case studies

  • There are multiple modes of assessment that you can use with case studies, as well as online repositories. You can select a few relevant case studies and ask students to write short answer responses, answer “best fit” multiple choice questions, or even write brief position papers. Need a case study? Check out:
    • UD’s own PBL Clearinghouse has many examples of problems that can be used as case studies. 
    • Sage Research Methods, a database available through the Library, has access to over 1100 case studies for teaching.

 

Autoethnography

  • Our world is increasingly interlinked socially, economically, culturally, and politically. Autoethnography asks a learner to describe and systematically analyze their personal experiences within the context of this interconnectedness in order to find their place in a community, to work and live with people whose experiences and perspectives differ from their own, and to think through the ethical challenges they will face over a lifetime.

 

Digital Storytelling & Podcasting

  • Individual learners, or teams of learners, create a digital story or podcast that details the various facts of a cultural institution (local farmer’s market, museum, community center, etc.) that interests them and aligns with course learning objectives. Learners will engage in a combination of non-fiction writing, journalism, and/or ethnography to report on their observations and conclusions. To increase rigor, instructors can ask learners to include quoted audio from interview subjects, and, if appropriate, music and atmosphere sounds to help provide narrative shape and transitions.
  • The Library has resources for video and audio projects, and a video on the digital storytelling process.

 

Annotated Bibliography

  • In addition to providing an alphabetical list of research sources, an annotated bibliography asks learners to write a concise summary of each source and assess its value or relevance to the course and/or a research question. Such an assignment often requires the student to identify and paraphrase its thesis (or research question), its methodology, and its main conclusion(s). This process asks learners to go beyond simply listing content and to instead account for why the content is relevant to the course and its learning objectives.
  • Some students may need a refresher from their experience in E110. Provide your students with a link to the Library’s resource page for evaluating sources.
    • Extension for information literacy skills: consider asking students to look for a variety of source types outside of books and journal articles, and provide information within their bibliography about why they chose those sources, applying evaluative criteria across formats.  The Library teaching team offers a lesson plan for such an activity.
Social Sciences (Quantitative-Focused Courses)

Analysis of data sets

  • For quantitative courses, or courses with a lab component, you may want to locate some online data sets or identify previously-collected data (e.g., student-collected data from labs run in previous semesters, data that are included as supplementary material for a published article) as resources for assessment. Generate a short list of questions or a list of calculations, statistical models, or functions that you want to ensure that students have mastered. You can make the questions about the data available ahead of time so that students can do some preparation in advance but only unlock the Canvas module with the data set during a limited window of time. Using this assessment, you may even use the same questions more than once, but give students multiple data sets to demonstrate their knowledge.
  • You may also consider having students create visualizations of data sets.  The Library provides a guide on data visualization projects.

Infographic

  • An infographic can help learners gain an increased understanding of complex disciplinary jargon and hone their summarizing and paraphrasing skills in an aesthetically pleasing and compelling way. Students will also improve research, organization, and design skills; which are important in interdisciplinary fields and in an increasingly multimodal workforce.
  • You can link to the Library’s resources for creating infographics to get students started.

Article for magazine, newspaper, or YouTube

  • Individual students, or teams of students, can research and produce a popular science article or video fitting a theme relevant to the course learning objectives. Learners will aim to synthesize current scientific findings on a specific topic and communicate the important points in a common vernacular. This assignment will fit especially well with courses whose objective is to help students gain an increased understanding of how to read and process scientific and/or discipline-specific research.
    • Related learning activity: Have students practice locating the source material upon which a popular press article was based, and discuss the differences in treatment between the two. Use this discussion to build a list of evaluative criteria or class rubric for what a reliable piece of scientific reporting should look like.
  • The library has great resources for multimedia projects of all kinds.

Policy petition

  • A successful petition has a clear goal and communicates an immediate emotional connection to a given cause. Language may also vary depending on the intended audience. The goal of the assignment might be, for example, to demand ethical reform in human subject review, promote the use of new data in environmental policy, or advocate for the publication of a specific article submission. A petition should always aim to propel the issue forward within a level of mutual respect. This assignment might also ask the learner to identify and include compelling media such as photos, videos, or recorded audio for additional impact.
  • You can access policy exemplars in Library databases such as HeinOnline Academic and NexisUNI.
STEM

Analysis of data sets

  • For quantitative courses, or courses with a lab component, you may want to locate some online data sets or identify previously-collected data (e.g., student-collected data from labs run in previous semesters, data that are included as supplementary material for a published article) as resources for assessment. Generate a short list of questions or a list of calculations, statistical models, or functions that you want to ensure that students have mastered. You can make the questions about the data available ahead of time so that students can do some preparation in advance but only unlock the Canvas module with the data set during a limited window of time. Using this assessment, you may even use the same questions more than once, but give students multiple data sets to demonstrate their knowledge.
  • Practice data sets are available in Sage Research Methods; you can search data by discipline, method, or data type.

 

Policy statements and advocacy

  • A successful policy statement and advocacy for change has a clear goal and communicates an immediate emotional connection to a given cause. The assignment must require students to use accurate and compelling descriptions of scientific principles and results as the core of their argument or a key component. Language may also vary depending on the intended audience. The goal of the assignment might be, for example, to demand ethical reform in human subject review, promote the use of new data in environmental policy, or advocate for the publication of a specific article submission. A petition should always aim to propel the issue forward within a level of mutual respect. This assignment might also ask the learner to identify and include compelling media such as photos, videos, or recorded audio for additional impact.
  • You can access policy exemplars in Library databases such as HeinOnline Academic and NexisUNI.

 

Poster presentations

  • Requiring students to present findings of experiments or experimental designs using a scientific poster allows them the opportunity to not only describe their findings or design but also practice critical communication skills. Scientists are familiar with this medium and often able to provide ready feedback based on their professional experiences. Students should be provided with the general format of a poster with templates they can readily use and descriptions of the purposes of each section. Students who may not have had experience presenting posters, particularly those in lower-level courses, should be afforded the opportunity to submit drafts for feedback and revision. Posters can also be shared outside of the classroom (e.g., posted in the hallway, shared with colleagues invited to the class) to provide a more authentic audience.
  • The Library has tips and templates for research poster design.

 

Research proposals

  • In upper-level courses where students are considering graduate school as an option, it may be helpful to include a research proposal as an assessment tool. The proposal could be scaffolded across the length of a semester, and students could review each other’s proposals and a review panel could be convened to replicate (and introduce students to) the proposal review process. This type of assessment may be especially valuable when placed in the context of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program or similar pre-doctoral fellowship. 

 

Storyboards or Infographics

  • It can often be helpful and powerful to portray scientific processes, theories, and methods as stories. Requiring students to create storyboards and embody the primary elements of the concept(s) as characters and actions can allow them to creatively illustrate their understanding (or lack thereof).
  • A primer on graphic design can be found on the library’s site (including resources for free and web-based graphic design tools).

 

Article for magazine, newspaper, or YouTube

  • Individual students, or teams of students, can research and produce a popular science article or video fitting a theme relevant to their course learning objectives. Learners will aim to synthesize current scientific findings on a specific topic and communicate the important points in the common vernacular. This assignment will fit especially well with courses whose objective is to help students gain an increased understanding of how to read and process scientific and/or discipline-specific research. The Library has great resources for multimedia projects of all kinds.
    • Related learning activity: Have students practice locating the source material upon which a popular press article was based, and discuss the differences in treatment between the two. Use this discussion to build a list of evaluative criteria or class rubric for what a reliable piece of scientific reporting should look like.
  • The library has great resources for multimedia projects of all kinds.

 

Health Sciences

Evaluation of case studies

  • There are multiple modes of assessment that you can use with case studies, as well as online repositories. UD’s own PBL Clearinghouse has many examples of problems that can be used as case studies. You can select a few relevant case studies and ask students to write short answer responses, answer “best fit” multiple choice questions, or even write brief position papers. Case studies can be presented in a written format, video vignettes, or a live simulation.
  • Case studies in the health sciences are also available in Library databases such as Sage Research Methods and in open textbooks.

 

Analysis of data sets

  • For quantitative courses, or courses with a lab component, you may want to locate some online data sets or identify previously-collected data (e.g., student-collected data from labs run in previous semesters, data that are included as supplementary material for a published article) as resources for assessment. Generate a short list of questions or a list of calculations, statistical models, or functions that you want to ensure that students have mastered. You can make the questions about the data available ahead of time so that students can do some preparation in advance but only unlock the Canvas module with the data set during a limited window of time. Using this assessment, you may even use the same questions more than once, but give students multiple data sets to demonstrate their knowledge.

 

Poster Sessions

  • Poster sessions are not only a unique way for students to demonstrate their understanding of a given topic, but exposes students to a skill they can carry with them beyond graduation. Many health care disciplines offer poster sessions at conferences to share research findings, interesting case studies, or novel approaches. When using posters to assess learning on your course, start by identifying the learning outcomes you will be assessing. Then provide students with a selection of topics or questions that they are to investigate. Since learning how to design a poster is not likely a learning outcome for your course, it is advisable to provide students with a template so that they can focus their energy on the content, rather than the design. Students display their main ideas on a poster and present it to the class, the instructor, or to attendees at a departmental poster session. 
  • The Library has tips and templates for research poster design

 

Create a fact sheet or “at a glance” document

  • Fact sheets are very common in healthcare as a means to communicate important information in a clear and concise format. Fact sheets need to be accurate, current, and effective in communicating a message to a target audience.
  • Examples of CDC fact sheets and at-a-glance documents can be found on the CDC’s website.

 

Article for magazine, newspaper, or YouTube

  • Individual students, or teams of students, can research and produce a popular science article or video fitting a theme relevant to their course learning objectives. Learners will aim to synthesize current scientific findings on a specific topic and communicate the important points in the common vernacular. This assignment will fit especially well with courses whose objective is to help students gain an increased understanding of how to read and process scientific and/or discipline-specific research.
      • Related learning activity: Have students practice locating the source material upon which a popular press article was based, and discuss the differences in treatment between the two. Use this discussion to build a list of evaluative criteria or class rubric for what a reliable piece of scientific reporting should look like.
  • The library has great resources for multimedia projects of all kinds.

Teaching an online course?

Conventional high-stakes exams are challenging to administer online in a way that that supports academic integrity without placing students in unfair or uncomfortable positions through the use of remote proctoring services. The use of these remote proctoring services has become both controversial (Coglan et al., 2020) and expensive in the last year, and many instructors are seeking ways to assess student learning without relying on these platforms. Alternative assessments or integrating the strategies above are options to consider.

Coghlan, S. et al. “Good proctor or “Big Brother”? AI Ethics and Online Exam Supervision Technologies.” ArXiv abs/2011.07647 (2020)

Additional Considerations

Many instructors now recognize the efficacy of building real-world context into their courses and assignments by using data sets, popular news articles, and contemporary controversies as part of their assessments. Recently, we have experienced a series of national and international crises related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, political violence, and the repeated instances of Black Americans harmed by police brutality. Caution should be taken in using data or new coverage related to these crises within a course this semester. Recognize that while it may not be possible to shield our students from these issues, we can do significant harm by naively using them within our classrooms (both face-to-face and digital). Many of our students, faculty, and staff have been directly impacted by the virus and their emotional and mental wellbeing should be safeguarded through the learning process. 

Many faculty have added an additional small-stakes assessment that gives students an opportunity to reflect on their learning in this difficult situation. Providing students with the chance to reflect on how they were able to learn, what they were able to learn, and how they will plan to learn more in the future can give our students agency during this crisis.  

More Resources