Making Alternative Assessments the New Norm

The pandemic forced many post-secondary educators to explore alternate ways to assess learning, but just because in-person instruction is back doesn’t mean traditional exams have to be. If the goal is really to assess learning, then alternative assessments can be a more inclusive, accessible, and less stressful way to go. 

Op-ed post by the BCcampus editorial team

At BCcampus we’ve talked about the benefits of alternative assessments before. In the article “Exams: Are They Just Par for the Course?” we looked at all the ways traditional exams are anxiety-inducing for the majority of students. And in “Exams: Who Are We Leaving Out?”, we touched on the fact that many traditional exams test remembering, and in addition, they end up testing a whole bunch of other things that have nothing to do with subject mastery or the ability of students to use their learning later in the real world. Exams that are held in auditoriums with several hundred students test a student’s ability to focus on a particular task when there are many other distractions around them. Exams that have a tight time limit, are closed book, or restrict answers to only one format (e.g., written) might disadvantage students with particular learning disabilities or attention disorders or those who are physically unable to sit for a long period of time. 

The Issue of Academic Integrity

Moving away from traditional exams to more alternative assessments brings up the topic of cheating — if a student has more time or more resources at their disposal to complete their assessment, what stops them from copying and pasting someone else’s work or just Googling the answer? BCcampus Research Fellow Meghan Costello found by restructuring physics questions in a way that required increased student engagement (i.e., having them explain their understanding of how to answer a problem in a self-submitted video) along with getting them to submit a PDF of their calculations made it easier to identify students who had used a simple tutoring website to collect their answers versus those who had a good grasp of the material. Although the primary motivation behind her project was to encourage academic integrity, she found having students explain questions via video had positive effects on both their engagement and concept mastery. The students were more involved with the material, and if they weren’t happy with their initial video response, they had the chance to re-record/revise (and consequently better understand) their answer.

How Stress and Academic Integrity are Connected

Another BCcampus Research Fellow who explored the concept of academic integrity in her work was Elle Ting. Elle and her colleagues examined the experiences of instructors at Vancouver Community College both before and after the emergency pivot to remote learning that occurred in the early days of the pandemic. Their findings led to the creation of an Alternative Assessment Toolkit. This toolkit, launched in spring 2022, is a living document that operates as a decision-making tree for instructors in search of alternative assessment ideas. The user receives suggested assessment tools, strategies, and approaches based on particular course filters they select. The toolkit is intended to help protect academic integrity by facilitating the implementation of assessments that accurately represent student achievement while minimizing student stress. The stress part is important here. The theoretical framework for Elle’s study came from criminologist Donald Cressey’s work on occupational fraud. In the 1950s Cressey created his Fraud Triangle model, which describes the three main risk factors for fraud to be perceived pressure, perceived opportunity, and rationalization. He argued the presence of all three factors can create a heightened ethical risk, and an increase in any one of the pressures correlates with a higher risk of committing fraud. This model was more recently used to explain and analyze academic integrity violation. Simply put, high-pressure/high-stakes exams can be a motivating factor for students to cheat. Finding ways of assessing learning that minimize this stress — perhaps by having no final exam at all — could be a very simple path to promoting academic integrity. In spring 2021 the BCcampus blogfeatured five instructors from the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) who decided to apply alternative assessments in lieu of high-stakes examinations. This helped promote critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication skills, real-work learning, and new application of knowledge while offering flexibility for learners.

Ditching Your Final Exam

During the pandemic’s pivot to remote learning, UFV’s Teaching and Learning Centre worked with faculty to design assessment activities that would assess student learning in non-traditional ways. Below is a brief summary what five of these instructors chose to do. (You can read their individual blog posts for further details.)

  • Stefania Pizzirani replaced her high-stakes final exam with two quizzes that were open book and offline, with 12 hours to complete them. This helped reduce student anxiety. She also gave students agency in decision-making, having launched a pre-class survey asking her students what their assessment preferences were.
  • RoseAnne Timbrell wove exam questions into weekly discussion questions, requiring students to respond with theory and reflection in a certain time frame. The weekly questions could be answered in a way that worked for the students: some chose art, some preferred oral reflections, and some preferred the traditional essay format.
  • Michael Corman actually had fun grading his alternative assignments (!), and he received feedback from students they had fun completing them. He included a performative component that allowed students to take up content in nuanced, complex, and complicated ways.
  • Amea Wilbur took a trauma-informed approach to assessment. She gave her adult education students a poster presentation as their final assignment, aligning the assignment with learning outcomes to prepare them for when they are adult educators and want to present their research at conferences. 
  • Keziah Wallis asked students to propose how they wanted to present their learning from her anthropology course. She received a range of examples that varied from resource kits, video essays, and knitting patterns to traditional essays. When she changed her assessment approach, she found a re-enchantment in teaching and discovered the joy in it again.

Some recurring themes are alternative assessments provide students with more choice, minimize student stress, and make demonstrating learning more fun and engaging. Let’s face it — don’t we all learn better when we’re having fun?

The pandemic brought with it many negative things, but perhaps one of its positive impacts was it forced instructors to think differently about their assessments. And now, for the reasons listed above and many more, rather than go back to the way things were, perhaps it’s time to make alternative assessments the new normal in our classrooms.

The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Zen Chung