Alternative Assessment

Course Design

Variety engages learners. When designing your course, incorporate some of the following to maintain student engagement through diverse assessment types:  

  1. Use discussion forums, hands-on activities, reflective posts, and surveys. 
  2. Create large or small group activities in between individual activities. 
  3. Create challenges that are challenging in a positive way. 
  4. Be creative with more conceptual or applied questions that students cannot quickly look up in a textbook.
  5. Use assessment strategies that are meaningful and require students to apply their knowledge.

Alternative Assessment Types

The following are summative and formative assessments that can be used in lieu of or in addition to proctored exams in online courses: 

  1. Student-developed quiz questions. Writing quiz questions both builds and demonstrates students’ understanding of the material. This assignment can be structured as a collaborative group activity.
  2. Open-book assessments. Many disciplines already have a tradition of take-home exams, typically involving more conceptual or applied questions that students cannot quickly look up in a textbook. Questions should be focused on the levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956). Refer to the Special Advice for Open-Book Assessment in Quantitative Courses when developing open-ended questions.
  3. Use Experiential Learning. Experiential Learning (also referred to as problem-based, case-based, and project-based learning) support students as they apply course content to “real world” problems, issues, and/or situations. Experiential Learning is a cycle composed of (a) concrete experience, (b) reflective observation, (c) abstract conceptualization, and (d) active experimentation.
  4. Professional presentations or demonstrations. Students can create audiovisual presentations using a variety of media, powerpoint, prezi, and other tools. Instructors should create assignments that pose higher-order questions and require students to apply essential course concepts to a relevant problem. This may encourage students to seek relevant information beyond the assigned readings and lectures, and conduct independent research by identifying credible sources to support the development of their assignments.
  5. Annotated anthology or bibliography. This project gives students choice in selecting works while assessing their higher-order abilities to evaluate sources, compare multiple perspectives, and provide rationales for their choices.
  6. Fact sheet. Students create a one-page fact sheet on a topic. Students must select relevant facts and explain them clearly and concisely.
  7. Peer- and self-review activity. These allow for personal reflection on learning and peer-to-peer instruction, both of which reinforce and deepen understanding. Students do need instruction in the task of providing constructive feedback. Targeted rubrics laying out expectations for student work are very helpful.
  8. E-Portfolio. A student-selected portfolio of work from the semester. Students compile their best or representative work from the semester, writing a critical introduction to the portfolio and a brief introduction to each piece.
  9. Paper-based assignments and programming projects. Creative assignments work best when used for “real-world” relevance and offer students choices in delivery format. The use of the Gradescope application supports online alternative summative assessments that are paper-based (handwritten and problem-solving assessments) including coding assessments. The integration of rubrics and plagiarism detection software supports multiple grader fidelity and transparency of the assessment. Students would scan their completed handwritten and problem-solving work and then upload to the Gradscope application for annotations and grading. 
  10. Group Project. Group projects require students to demonstrate mastery of subject matter and develop their ability to communicate and work collaboratively. It is crucial to make your assessment criteria and grading scheme clear, and to ensure that there are clear, explicit expectations for each team member. The assignment will require them to find their own resources and research to learn about their topic.
  11. Authentic Assessments. Create Authentic Assessments appropriate to your field. See examples of alternate assessments.
  12. Varied Question Types. Use specific details and supporting narratives that are unique to students’ understandings of the course materials. Think about using the textbook questions as inspiration and changing them up enough that the students would not realize it was the same question asked in a different way. You can also change how the answer choices are worded.
  13. Use Discussion Assignments. Create a Discussion Forum assignment that requires students to demonstrate critical thinking skills by responding to a relevant forum topic. Faculty may also design a rubric that is specific to the Discussion Board assignments, and develop questions that require students to respond to every rubric category. Having assignments that are very specific makes it more difficult for students to use portions of a previous term paper or other sources that may only indirectly touch on the Discussion Board topic.

Student Reflection

Reflective assignments can “Require students to engage in critical reflection and higher order thinking; they force students to be more open-ended and less prescriptive; and they permit students to be creative and questioning” (Dyment & O’Connell, 2011, p. 92). Reflections can be both formative and summative:

  1. Formative Reflection. Video Prompts are an effective means of prompting student reflection. Typical video-prompts can be used to ask the following formative questions: 
    • In 1-2 minutes, ponder how to best explain calculating the surface area of a rectangular prism. Be concise and precise in your video.  
    • In about 3 minutes, explore how to add and/or subtract signed integers using the number line and/or two-color counters as discussed in class.
    • In at most 5 minutes, reflect about problems related to probability involving cards as opposed to probability involving tree diagrams.
  2. Summative Reflection. Confront the students with summative, open-ended questions in order to gain insight into how they felt about the use of written discussion boards when compared to the use of a video application for reflection. Example reflection Questions:
    • What way of reflecting (written or video) do you prefer and why?
    • Did you use the videos to prepare for your exam? If so, explain. 
    • Did you use the Discussion Board to prepare for your exam? If so, explain. (Wheeler & Waltje, 2020)

Student Presentations

In Canvas, faculty can use the web conferencing tools, Zoom or Webex, to conduct a synchronous online session for class presentations. Students may be asked to submit a progress report or use a Discussion Forum to reflect on what they have learned in the past week that supports work toward the presentation. To further scrutinize work on the presentation, students may be asked to include time for questions and answers. 

Students who have developed the presentation should be comfortable answering a range of topic-related questions. The CTL offers workshops and one-on-one consultations on using Zoom and Webex for teaching and learning. The use of simulation-based assessment for online STEM courses is possible using the web conferencing tools.


Bloom, B.S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook: The cognitive domain. Addison-Wesley Longman Ltd.

Dyment, J. E. & O’Connell, T. S. (2011). Assessing the quality of reflection in student journals: A review of the research. Teaching in Higher Education, 16 (1), 81-97.

Wheeler, A., & Waltje, J. (2020, July 29). Recording and/or writing? Weighing the benefits of reflective practices. Faculty Focus.