Alternatives to Exams
  • PDF

Alternatives to Exams

  • PDF

Goals and Planning

Considering changing from a traditional final exam to another format? Start planning from the beginning of the term. Some of these ideas could be added during the term, but for maximum flexibility, include them in your first syllabus.

What do you want your students to be able to do?

What? In five years, what do you want students to do as a result of taking your course? Focus on observable behavior. Instead of, “I want them to know/understand…” describe how that knowledge or understanding would make them act differently. Your assessment should involve students do those actions.

How well? Do students just need to repeat memorized definitions? Identify examples? Apply a skill to a typical problem? Critically analyze an example? Combine facts and skills in new ways? Your assessment should let students show they can perform below and up to this level.  

In what context? When students need to use their skills after the course is over, will they be able to use reference materials or the internet? Will timing be a factor? Will they be writing, speaking, creating media, using their bodies? Your assessment doesn’t need to be timed, closed-book, or written unless that's how they'll need to perform in real life, after the course is long over.  

Variations within just one example: Poster Session

Most alternatives listed in this resource could be done different ways, depending on what you want to want to see the student do. For example: one popular alternative is for students to prepare (and maybe present) an academic-style poster. But that could be assigned in many ways:  

If a student needs to show the following skills...

The assignment could require...

Summarizing key points

A set of headings with supporting text 

Depicting information visually

Graphs, charts, and pictograms

Making a rhetorical point or convincing an audience

Use fewer words, emphasize key points, visuals

Present and defending conclusions 

Timed oral presentation with Q&A, poster plays supporting role but is not the primary focus

Critical thinking about the course subject

Detailed peer review (the review of other students’ work is weighted as heavily as the student’s own work.) 

Criteria & Rubrics

The more creative your options, the more important it is to have clear criteria for exactly what you’d like to see, and rubrics for how you will award credit for those criteria. One way to avoid an ambiguous assessment: Draft a description, then have a TA or peer look at it and ask them to imagine all the inadequate projects that could be submitted that technically meet your criteria. Then rewrite your criteria and rubrics to guard against that. 

Alternatives to Traditional Exams

A timed, proctored, comprehensive exam may not be the most accurate way to assess how well students can perform with your course material. These are some variations and alternatives. The ideas for before and after the exam can be incorporated into the exam score.

Variations on the written exam

If your goal is assessing basic knowledge or simple skills, a traditional exam may still be best. Here are some variations that reward students for what they do know instead of punishing them for what they don’t.  

Before the exam

  • Assign students to create their own study aids: Crib sheets, flash cards, chapter summaries, trivia games. Incorporate these into their regular exam grade or extra credit. 

The exam itself

  • Allow open book or student-made “crib sheets” 
  • Offer options, e.g. “Choose 2 of these 5 questions to answer”
  • Give a few medium-stakes tests throughout the term (e.g. three 1-hour exams) instead of one big final exam

After the exam (requires an exam before the last week of class)

  • Give each student a short oral interview to follow up on 1–3 exam questions (helps validate exam results when testing online without proctor or with open notes.)  
  • If the exam was multiple choice, pick a question at random and have students write a verbal explanation about why each choice is correct or incorrect. 
  • Allow students to retake some or all of the exam. Some variations: 
    • Students can only retake up to X% of total test points
    • Retaken sections can only receive Y% of original full credit 

24-hour exam 

This format is useful if students would have access to resources in their real-life context, but timed performance is still important. Students would know the nature of the task in advance, but not the specific example or content. Each student may get different but equivalent topics. The assignment should only take 2-3 hours, but allows for more if students need it. The challenge for the instructor is to write an assessment that is comprehensive but allows partial performance—it’s not good if students need to do everything well to have any success at all. Students can be assigned to:

  • Do a take-home exam (similar to in-class; many questions, wide range of topics)
  • Analyze a case study, data set, or graph
  • Write a short but urgent legal brief
  • Read/view and critique a play, performance, speech, art exhibition, etc. 
  • Summarize and critique positions in a live or recorded debate
  • Conduct a an academic literature review or write an annotated bibliography
  • Write an executive summary or scientific abstract for a document 
  • Create a one-page fact-sheet summarizing a complex issue
  • Recommend a response to an unexpected situation
  • Solve a puzzle with a group 

Term Projects

These are assigned several weeks in advance and should have multiple deliverables over time for feedback and improvement. They use skills from all parts of the course, but are usually only about one topic, chosen by the student from a list of approved topics. If you require multiple peer reviews as part of the assignment, you can assess students’ critical thinking as well. Students might:

  • Write a term paper 
  • Create (and possibly present) an academic-style poster
  • Narrate a slide presentation
  • Make an advertisement, brochure, or product design proposal
  • Record a video talk or demonstration with physical visuals or lab equipment
  • Write and/or perform a poem, play, or dialogue 
  • Design and/or create work of art, music, architecture, sculpture, dance, etc.
  • Create a series of diagrams, table, chart, or creative visual data representation
  • Create a navigable website 
  • Present and narrate a compiled portfolio of the student’s own work

Getting In Character

Students can get very creative when they can imagine themselves as someone else. These ideas could be done in the “24-hour exam” format, or as a longer project. Some example prompts:

  • Given an emergency situation, give a government executive three options for responding, and possible consequences
  • Write a research proposal to a granting agency. Describe what you’d like to do and how you’ll go about it. 
  • Using first person, describe a day or experience in the life of a fictional future character using technology/science that is under development but not yet invented or widely available. 
  • Write a series of journal entries (or correspondence) by real or fictional characters about a historical event, or about how to solve a problem
  • Role-play a reporter, analyst, or media critic for a news organization reporting on a current or historical event (product could be written, audio, or video) 
  • Write a legal brief or Supreme Court decision (student could write both decision and dissent) 

Cumulative 

In some courses, ongoing engagement with the material and growth through reflection is most important. Let students record their ongoing work, and then compile it into a final product. Make each entry worth a small part of their grade, but require a final, summative/reflective entry that’s worth more. 

  • Blog/Vlog/Podcast
  • Reflection journal
  • Portfolio of creative work 

Observation 

A live demonstration of a skill can be exciting! You watch students via live or recorded video doing things like: 

  • Lab work/demonstration
  • Live debate
  • Internships
  • Experiential or Service Learning activities (with performance review from a supervisor) 
  • Student-conducted consultation or interview (with another party, not the instructor)
  • Musical or dramatic performance 

Next steps and references

This resource draws heavily from these two sources:

These other DCE resources may be useful: