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Alternative Assessment Strategies

Many of us were taught by the traditional lecture and exam structure, myself included. The instructor lectures in class, then students complete a traditional paper-based exam to assess their understanding.


Paper-based exams are those that originate from a paper layout, which includes multiple choice questions, true/false questions, and fill in the blank among others. When used in an online course, this type of exam can be automatically scored through Canvas, which makes them very appealing for the at-your-own-pace online course. For those who prefer more structured exam procedures, these exams can be proctored through one of the many online proctoring options (proctoring options can be found HERE).


Many instructors have mastered the traditional exam in an online course by compiling a large question bank. Creating a timed exam, which pulls randomly from the question bank, can ensure 1.) that students do not have time to look up every question and 2.) students within the course will not see the same questions on the exam.


Implementing this strategy can greatly reduce the likeliness of cheating, but may not work well for exams with questions other than multiple choice or true/false. What do we do for the other styles of assessments? Do we tack on additional fees for proctoring? Do we set up a time where students can come to campus to take it? Do we avoid proctoring altogether? How do we uphold academic integrity?


What if a better way to assess your students was available? What if there were a more effective way for students to demonstrate they have mastered the material?


Imagine a classroom where paper-based exams are not possible. How would you assess your students? Take a moment to think about how you would assess the students in your online course…


"What would students be saying and doing if they truly understood what they were learning?" -Dr. John Orlando, "How to Effectively Assess Online Learning" 


A great way to alternatively approach assessments is to make the students take an action. Have them produce original evidence to show they have mastered the content. These types of action-based assessments can have summative results similar to those you would see from a paper-based exam. These strategies gain more reliability when scoring rubrics are used to evaluate them. See an example discussion board rubric to the right.

Action-Based Assessment Styles

To discover what type of assessment will work you must refer back to your objectives. What do the students need to do in order to demonstrate they have mastered the material and have met the objectives of the course? After this type of reflection, many instructors realize that regurgitating factual information on a paper-based exam is not accurately assessing the students. So what are some alternative assessment options?

Video Presentations- This would be the online equivalent of an oral exam. Insert an essay-style question in a quiz and have the student upload a video response within a specified time.​

Reserach Papers- Have the students complete a written research assignment over the semester, or give them a specified time during finals to answer a question (similar to grad comprehensive exams).

Simulations- In courses teaching specific skills, students could simulate their understandings of software programs, animations, or computer simulations: a great option for students to demonstrate their understanding.

Tutorials/Lesson Plans- Preparing to teach a lesson can be a great way to demonstrate content comprehension. Have students prepare a full lesson to teach a specified topic and present it to the class.

Self Reflection- Similar to a research paper, students create a written report of their understandings through the course. The report could also be styled as a debate, where students support their stance with evidence.

Portfolios- A portfolio is a compilation of student-made artifacts. Reflections, reports, simulations, models, research, or proof of attending an event are examples of what can be included in a portfolio.

Interviews- Students interview each other or subject matter experts to demonstrate their understanding of a topic. Role-playing interviews or conversations between students are alternative styles of this assessment.

Paper-Based- There is a reason these are popular. Most often, they are the most streamlined assessment option. If an exam is worth 25% or more of the overall grade, we recommend proctoring. You can find a list of proctoring options HERE.

"Because reliability is not fully attainable for any given method, it is important that instructors use a variety of assessment methods." -Dr. John Orlando, "How to Effectively Assess Online Learning" 


Each instructor must determine what type of assessment will best demonstrate mastery of the course objectives. In your course, there may be no equivalent alternative to the traditional paper-based assessments. However, I urge you to consider alternative assessment types for your online course even if this reflection ultimately justifies that what you are currently doing is the best assessment option for your students.


A common recommendation for new online instructors is to incorporate a variety of assessment strategies. The traditional midterm and final paper-based exams will always be appropriate methods for assessing comprehensive student understandings. But instead of relying entirely on the midterm and final to assess student mastery of the material, give them multiple outlets to express their knowledge. Not only will you gain a broader understanding of what your students are learning, you will be incorporating research-based teaching practices for how to best assess student learning.

  •  References
    Orlando, J. (2011). How to Effectively Assess Online Learning. Magna Publications. 
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