Assessment Options: Beyond the exam

In order for an assessment, usually in the form of an assignment or a test, to be valid, it should measure the skills or knowledge that you have planned for your students to learn.  However, many courses still rely on a narrow range of assessment tools that typically ask students to memorize large amounts of content without needing to apply it (Ryerson, n.d).  Research conducted by Conrad and Openo (2018) describe assessment as being the heart of the student experience and is probably the single biggest influence on how students approach their learning.  Furthermore, assessment is highly emotional; students describe it as a process that evokes fear, anxiety, and stress.  And assessment in a technologically mediated contexts adds another level of complexity to an already emotionally charged topic.

Alternative Assessments

But online learning in higher education has now created potential synergies between authenticity and assessment.  Alternative assessments, meaning an alternative to standard tests and exams, provide a true evaluation of what the student has learned, going beyond acquired knowledge to focus on what the student has actually learned by looking at their application of this knowledge (Ryerson, n.d).  Alternative assessments are used to determine what students can and cannot do, in contrast to what they do or do not know.  In other words, an alternative assessment measures applied proficiency more than it measures knowledge (Brigham Young University, n.d).

Authentic assessments replicate true settings.  The student in-class activities resemble real world situations and their constraints.  Authentic assessments are only valuable when they meaningfully connect with students beyond the ascribed grade. When applying authentic assessment to student learning and achievement, a teacher applies criteria related to “construction of knowledge, disciplined inquiry, and the value of achievement beyond the school” (Scheurman and Newman 1998).  Authentic assessments promote ways of thinking and problem solving used in the field by professionals and build applicable skills.  Implementing authentic assessments requires the willingness to incorporate these diverse assessment methods.  Authentic assessments require more time and effort on an instructor’s part to develop and may be more difficult to grade.  To address the difficulty of grading, it is useful to create a grading rubric that specifies the traits that will be evaluated and the criteria by which they will be judged.

Characteristics of authentic assessments:

  • Resemble real-world tasks and activities
  • Can be structured as written or oral assessments completed individually, in pairs, or in groups
  • Often presented as ill-structured problems with no right answers
  • Ask students to communicate their knowledge orally or in writing to a specific audience and for a specific purpose
  • Usually ask students to address professional or lay audiences
  • Requires judgment and innovation
  • Students “do” the subject
  • Allows opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback and refine performances and products

Designing authentic assessments can be devised by the professor or in collaboration with the student.

Types of authentic assessments categories:

  • Performance of the skills
  • Demonstrating use of a particular knowledge
  • Simulations and role plays
  • Studio portfolios

Discipline-Specific Examples:

Nursing Provide a case study of a patient and ask students to assess and create a plan of care
Business Develop a business/marketing/sales plan for an imaginary (or real) company in a student’s area of interest
Computer Science Troubleshoot a problematic piece of code; Develop a website/app to solve a particular problem and/or meet a set of criteria
Psychology Examine/critique a case study from multiple theoretical positions
Public Affairs or Service-Learning Courses Consider how a community agency might be impacted by a particular challenge (budget cuts, infrastructure outage, public health crisis)
Biology/Chemistry Draw a diagram of how a process works, indicating what happens if X occurs
History Engage in a role play of a particular event in history; Describe what might have happened if one element of a historical event had changed

Additional Examples:

Poster Narrate research integrating written and illustrative components
Paper slam Students present (or show a video of) a 60-90 second oral narrative using one slide that highlights their key ideas
Infographic Collect data and information on a topic and present in graphic format
Debate Gather credible evidence to support either side of an argument
Interview To generate useful questions, students would have to be familiar with the life and work of the person and understand their work’s significance.  Real or hypothetical
e-Portfolio Students develop portfolios in order to demonstrate the evolution of their work over the course of the semester
Simulations Simulations ask students to play and act out various roles within a case.  This can include mock trials, legislative meetings, or mock meetings of corporation stockholders or school boards.  In simulations, students require background information that they then apply to the role
*Alternative and authentic assessment is used interchangeably*

Western University. Centre for Teaching and Learning.  Assessing Online Learning: Introduction to Alternative Assessment. Video 5:16 mins


Brigham Young University Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d). Retrieved June 9, 2021

Conrad D., & Openo, J.(2018).  Assessment Strategies for Online Learning.  Engagement and Authenticity.  Edmonton, AB: AU Press Athabasca University.

Indiana Bloomington University.  Center for Teaching and Learning. Authentic Assessment (n.d). Retrieved June 9, 2021

Ryerson University.  Learning & Teaching Office. Best Practices. Alternative Assessments (n.d).  Retrieved June 9, 2021

Queens University Library. Examples of Alternative Assessments. (n.d) Retrieved June 9, 2021

Western University.  28, August 2020.  Centre for Teaching and Learning.  Assessing Online Learning: Introduction to Alternative Assessment. Retrieved June 9, 2021



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Blended Teaching: A Guide for Applying Flexible Practices during COVID-19 by Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence in Teaching is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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