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Exam Alternatives

Why would a teacher want to skip traditional exams altogether?  Two realities might induce us to change how we assess student learning.

  1. Academic exams only happen within academic contexts.  In their professional lives as practitioners in any field, the kinds of ‘tests’ graduates will face are those of application of knowledge, not of the knowledge itself: In most cases, “knowing in action” is much more important than just the knowing of facts and theories. When students enter their chosen profession, they will never again have to take an exam, unless they are applying to graduate school or taking a licensing exam.  
  2. Knowledge only becomes visible through student actions.  Only when students apply their knowledge to new situations of the kind they might experience in their chosen field can a teacher see how much they’ve learned.  If students make professional or disciplinary decisions based on best available knowledge, and plans for assessing the effects of their decisions, their mastery of course concepts is clearly visible.

Assessing “knowing in action” is much more complicated than assessing knowledge. It involves activation of prior learning, decision-making, and application and evaluation skills. These skills are extraordinarily difficult to measure with a traditional end-of-course exam.

When students are making decisions based on knowledge and theory, and acting on those decisions, it is critical that the teacher have specific, actionable course learning outcomes clearly communicated to the students. Only in the presence of clear learning outcomes expressed as actions are the connections between alternative assignments and the course clear to students.

University courses can prepare students for “knowing in action” by asking them to act in the ways professionals in the field might act, even if at a novice level.  Alternative assignments are excellent ways to do this.  Here are a few examples of alternatives to traditional exams.

Students prepare a presentation that will be given to a “real” audience (as opposed to peer students and the teacher). Audiences targeted are professionals in the field: a community group; a local board; a graduate school recruiter; a kindergarten class; hospital administrators; a city council; a local First Nation; policy-makers—any group that might have an interest or a need for the information presented.  To produce a solid presentation, report, briefing or blogpost,, students will have to demonstrate a number of important things:

  • Solid understanding of the topic
  • Ability to pitch their information at the appropriate level for their chosen audience
  • Research skills (finding appropriate information, identifying the needs of a particular audience)
  • Communication skills to make an effective presentation
  • Technology skills to support an effective presentation
  • Critical thinking skills to make good decisions or recommendations

 Example of Blogs assigned by VIU faculty can be found here: 

This assignment works equally well in the Sciences as the Humanities: students pick a topic from a teacher-prepared list.  They develop a thesis or hypothesis about their topic, then do library (or lab) research to find/create information supporting and countering their hypothesis.  Students refine their hypothesis based on their research and make an argument based on their evidence.  Depending on the topic, they might suggest further implications for research or possible solutions to unsolved problems. Students present a poster summarizing their work in a public poster session and explain their topic to peers or a broader invited audience.

Example of public showcase assigned by VIU faculty  can be found here (second example in blogpost): 

Using the works read in class, supplemented by additional relevant works found by students themselves, students prepare a themed annotated anthology or bibliography, complete with introduction to the whole work and introductions/commentaries on each work. Asking students to theme their anthology or bibliography and to select from course readings and from their own research allows for decision-making about relevance of works that clearly shows their mastery of the concepts of the course.

A related assignment might be having students develop an annotated edition for future students of a significant work from the course.  Such an assignment requires them to understand scholarly approaches and at the same time communicate scholarly material to non-experts in a clear and relevant way.

Example of digital edition assigned by VIU Faculty can be found here (second example in blogpost): 

Students prepare a portfolio of their best work (or all of their work) from the semester (# of works and intent of selection set out in teacher’s instructions).  They annotate and comment on each included item through a brief introduction, and write a critical introduction/reflection to the whole portfolio.  Students will need support in criteria for selection of works and how to write critical introductions/reflections.  This approach is an excellent way for students to self-assess their learning, and is good fodder for conversation between faculty and student if desired.

 Example of portfolio assignment can be found here: 

A student-developed fact sheet is designed to be placed in public locations where relevant audiences can learn from it.  Topics can be anything: how to stay safe in a pandemic; smoking cessation; ecological and/or business impact of a city council’s proposal for a new stadium; comparison of land-based and sea-based fish farming; cost and benefits of bike lanes; important chemical properties and interactions, etc.  Students have to research the topic; come to conclusions about implications of what they’ve found; set out the information clearly, concisely and in a visually impactful way.

A related assignment might be to write an evidence-based opinion column to the newspaper about the topic chosen. This project requires research into the topic, argumentation skills, concise and relevant communication to a certain audience.

Especially in courses where there are experiential activities, students need help making sense of the experience. Without reflection, students often see experiential activities as merely ‘fun’ and do not consciously put into context what they learned from it.  When asking for reflection, faculty are often disappointed at the lack of depth in student reflections because beginning students stay at the ‘factual report’ level (“I watched someone make a widget, I filled out a sheet about the steps.”)  A useful strategy for helping students reflect effectively on experience and get them to see their own learning is the “What, So What, Now What” structure:

What? What actually happened?  What did you see, hear, do, notice?

So What?  Why was this important? What is significant about what you saw, heard, did, noticed? What details stand out and why did they seem noteworthy?

Now What? What are the implications of the significant findings (of the “so what”)? How does what I learned change what I will do next time? What can I carry forward to other tasks or experiences?

Students are presented with a real-life scenario where someone has done something wrong in a key way.  The students must ‘coach’ or ‘advise’ the person in the scenario on how they might improve their approach to get a better solution.  This works in any discipline: just imagine a situation where students often make a mistake.  Present a story of an individual who knows some things, but makes some critical mistakes (“Sam is working on…Sam did/said this.”)  Now you can ask students to do a number of things that will show you they have understood course concepts:

  • Diagnose the situation: how did Sam get here? Why did he do what he did?
  • Recommend a better approach: what might Sam have done differently?
  • Predict/weigh implications: what will happen if Sam doesn’t take your advice?

A related assignment is to give students a large set of data to interpret.  They might have to answer questions such as:

  • Interpret: What does this data show?  How do you know?
  • Diagnose: What might have happened to create this data? How did it come to be?
  • Predict/recommend: Given the data, what should happen next? How would you ensure that it happens (or doesn’t)?
  • Evaluate: What are the limitations of the data?  How would you find out more?

Students may be asked to demonstrate their learning through a variety of formats.  They might perform a skit, a piece of music, create an artwork like a sculpture or a painting, put together a collage or a scrapbook, write a short story, etc.  Accompanying this work would be an explanation of how the work represents the learning from the course.  Course learning outcomes need to be very clear and tied to the expectations of this option so students have clear guidelines for what a ‘quality’ piece of work entails.   Students will also need to have at least one preliminary due date to describe what they are planning, so unrealistic projects don’t sink them at the end of a busy semester.

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Contact us at if you have questions about alternatives to exams, or if you want a sounding board for a particular assignment you are designing.  Tell us what your question is, and one of the CIEL staff will contact you for a chat about your assignment.