Alternative Assessment Strategies

There are many ways to assess students' mastery of material besides multiple choice examinations. What follows are some examples of alternative assessments that you might consider.

  1. Open book exams. Because students can use books and notes, open book exams encourage students to learn to apply knowledge rather than memorize material. They are usually somewhat less anxiety-provoking than regular tests.
  2. Crib Sheets. Allowing students to bring some notes provides the same advantages as an open book exam. The process of deciding what to include in the notes, putting concepts in your own words, etc., is also a good learning experience for the students. The instructor can provide appropriate parameters and guidance.
  3. Take home exams. Take home exams allow instructors to give students problems which will take longer than a class period to manage and/or require the students to use a variety of references. However, they limit student studying to only the material related to the questions asked and instructors do not know if students received help in answering the questions.
  4. Collaborative testing. Some instructors have students take multiple choice tests in pairs or small groups. This approach which allows students to discuss the materials and ‘teach each other’ usually increases the students’ grasp of the material. There are several alternative ways to use collaborative testing. Some instructors allow students to discuss the test with their group, but ask each student to turn in his/her own answer sheet; group members do not need to agree on answers. Others require the group to come to an agreement on answers; each group hands in one answer sheet and each group member receives the same grade. A third option is a combination of the two: Class members first take the test individually and hand in their answers to receive an individual grade. Then they take the same test (or portion of the test) as a group and individuals are assigned bonus points based on the group’s performance (e.g., for group tests of 95% or better, individuals receive 3 bonus points, 89-94% receive 2 points, etc.). If tests are to be taken collaboratively, test items should be written at the higher levels of the taxonomy. For information about using collaborative testing, including advice from an instructor experienced with using them, visit Cooperative Quizzes: Learning Through Group Assessments.
  5. Student portfolios. Instructors in many classes ask students to prepare a collection of class assignments. These are most often collections of written work, but could also include computer programs, drawings, video tapes, or problem solving. Because portfolios contain a collection of student work, they often provide a more accurate picture of a student’s achievement than a single test or project could.
  6. Performance Tests. In a performance test students are required to perform a complex skill or procedure, or create a product to demonstrate that they can apply the knowledge and skills they have learned while the instructor observes and evaluates the process. These tests are time consuming and often difficult to grade, but are much more appropriate for certain courses than a pencil-and-paper test. For this type of test to be reliable, an instructor should have a scoring guide which specifies the criteria for each grade.
  7. Retake policies. Providing students with the opportunity to repeat an exam (using an alternative form of the exam) benefits most students. It decreases student anxiety and provides the opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes. However, this policy demands a large bank of test items and additional instructor time for grading the exams. One professor at this university cuts down on grading time by bringing answer keys to class and having students correct their own tests, in the presence of the instructor, as soon as they finish. This has the added benefit of immediate feedback to the students.
  8. Adding the option of explanation to an M-C test. Sometimes students feel that a multiple choice question can be interpreted in more than one way with one interpretation leading them to choose one answer while an alternative interpretation leads to another. Allowing students to explain an answer decreases student anxiety and often prevents penalizing the ‘good’ student for interpreting the question at a deeper level than was intended. This entails slightly more grading time for the professor, but those using this option report that students rarely include an explanation for more than one or two questions.
  9. Replacing tests with summaries. Some instructors, rather than testing, require students to regularly write summaries of the class readings and lectures which include the main points, a critical reaction to the ideas, and a discussion of what’s most important. This requires a great deal of reading on the part of the instructor, but students report that they prefer the summaries over tests. They feel it is less stressful than taking a test and that they learn more and retain it longer.