Beyond the Bubble Sheet: 6 Alternative Types of Assessments in Education
When someone mentions “testing,” what comes to mind? A sheet of paper and a number two pencil? Neatly filling in a bubble for a multiple-choice answer?
Assessments are an essential component of education. Most teachers would agree that the best types of assessment in education go beyond a simple numerical grade.
Over the course of the school year, teachers have the task of determining the best way to assess student learning. We continually refine our practices as we evaluate how well our methods achieve our learning goals. Measuring student progress is an important part of evaluating the effectiveness of our teaching strategies.
Although the traditional testing format has its merits, many teachers are moving toward more authentic, alternative ways of assessing student learning. This blog will discuss the benefits of alternative assessments as well as creative ideas to incorporate them into your instruction.
Types of Assessment in Education: Traditional vs. Alternative
There are many types of assessments that teachers utilize in the classroom— all share the same goal of determining what students know to inform instruction. Two popular types of assessments are traditional assessments and alternative assessments.
Traditional assessments typically refer to formal tests that follow the format of true/false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, matching, and short answer. These are usually in the format of a paper and pencil test or on a computer or tablet.
- Can provide a baseline measurement for learning across a group of students.
- Is generally straightforward for teachers to grade.
- Don’t require additional tools or technology for students to complete— most teachers already have access to the necessary materials.
- Provides a quick snapshot of learning when used as a formative assessment.
- May not be accessible to all students, resulting in skewed feedback with a narrow focus.
- Limited flexibility in customizing questions.
- Provides a limited snapshot of what students know, as opposed to a comprehensive evaluation of their learning.
- Typically require lower-level thinking skills, such as recall, rather than higher-order thinking skills.
Alternative assessments, or authentic assessments, allow students to meaningfully apply what they’ve learned using higher-order thinking skills.
- Provide students with multiple avenues to demonstrate what they’ve learned— they’re not “one-size-fits-all.”
- Require higher levels of cognition than traditional pencil and paper tests.
- Give teachers a more complete picture of what students know, as well as provide direct evidence of learning.
- Encourage students to take ownership of their learning.
- Require more effort from teachers to grade and develop.
- More time-consuming than traditional assessments.
- May require more resources and sometimes financial investment from teachers and families to complete.
The Impact of Alternative Assessments
According to the University of Illinois Chicago, alternative assessments provide many long-term benefits for students who complete them, including:
- Increased confidence and self-efficacy
- Higher grades
- Increased engagement and retention of knowledge
- Better demonstration of their abilities (assessments are more accessible to individual learning styles)
- Development of real-world artifacts of learning to present in a resume, interview, or professional portfolio
Many alternative assessments develop workforce readiness skills as well as graduate attributes like open-mindedness, problem-solving skills, leadership, internal motivation, citizenship, and empathy. Not only does this type of student learning assessment help to develop lifelong learning skills, but it also prepares students for life outside the classroom
Tips for Designing Alternative Assessments
It is important that your alternative assessments are well-planned and communicated clearly to your students. The tips below can help you to develop effective alternative assessments.
Identify learning objectives
When planning your alternative assessment, it is helpful to first identify the learning objectives and standards that you want your students to master. These will serve as your roadmap when designing your assessment. Additionally, your students will benefit from having a clearly identified set of goals and objectives.
Decide how you will measure learning
One of the ways that you can support your students’ understanding of the expectations is by identifying and communicating how you will measure their learning. Starting with the end in mind helps you to align your evaluation with your identified learning outcomes. Many teachers find rubrics to be helpful in grading alternative assessments.
Consider your students
Think about your group of students— what motivates them? What are their learning styles? One of the benefits of alternative assessments is that they can be tailored to your students’ unique interests and needs.
You may also want to include your students in the process of designing your alternative assessment. According to Edutopia, “Assessment becomes even more relevant when students become involved in their own assessment. Students taking an active role in developing the scoring criteria, self-evaluation, and goal setting, more readily accept that the assessment is adequately measuring their learning.”
Scaffold the assignment
Some students may feel overwhelmed by the scope of an alternative assessment. You can scaffold your assessment for students by breaking down the process into more manageable steps.
For younger students, this may look like providing them with a timeline for completing their projects. For older students, they can have the opportunity to develop their planning and time-management skills by creating a plan for themselves.
Depending on the needs of your students, you may choose to use a more guided approach for your alternative assessment that offers more structure than a self-directed project.
Incorporate student reflection
You can help students develop their metacognitive skills by encouraging them to self-reflect. It’s important to include formative feedback in the process— this could come from you, their peers, or their self-reflection.
Consider your timeframe
Be realistic with the timeframe that you give your students (and yourself) to complete the alternative assessment. If this is the first time you’ve used this type of assessment, build in extra time in your planning. Keep in mind that grading these assessments will take longer than traditional exams, so plan accordingly.
6 Alternative Assessment Ideas
Although they may take more time to develop and grade than traditional types of exams, alternative assessments allow you to tap into your students’ creativity— and when students are excited about what they’re doing, their engagement and learning will increase.
When it comes to alternative assessments, the possibilities are nearly endless. You can even have your students brainstorm ideas for your assessments.
We’ve compiled a list of our favorite alternative assessment ideas to get you started.
1. Create a Podcast
Creating podcasts is an excellent way to measure your students’ research, writing, and collaborative skills. Begin by using podcasts in your classroom to familiarize your students with their format and purpose.
The step-by-step guide by Reading Rockets walks you through the process of creating a podcast and offers many helpful resources.
2. Make a Family Tree
Family trees are a versatile project that can be used in multiple content areas. Whether they’re creating personal family trees, making trees for famous historical figures, or using them to map out book characters, students will need to use research and writing skills to complete them.
Storyboardthat.com has a variety of family tree templates that are simple for students to use.
3. Write a Letter To…
This is another project that has many possibilities for application across curricular areas. This activity can integrate many skills such as writing, research, higher-order thinking skills, and more. Some ideas for using letters as an assessment include:
- Have students write a letter to a historical figure.
- Have students write a letter from the perspective of a historical figure or book character.
- Have students write a persuasive letter to the school board, principal, or other authority figure. Use this persuasive writing graphic organizer to get them started.
- Have students select a social justice or activism issue and write an op-ed letter.
4. Design a Multimedia Poster Using Technology
Bring the tri-fold poster into the 21st century by having students create interactive posters to summarize their learning. Tap into their creativity while boosting their digital literacy skills!
This assessment can be used in a variety of curricular areas. Use multimedia posters as an alternative to a book report, a science fair project summary, a timeline for a social studies unit, or even as a summative assessment of three-dimensional shapes.
Common Sense Education has developed a comprehensive list of apps and websites for making interactive posters.
5. Create a Living Wax Museum
A teacher favorite, this activity brings historical figures to life while helping your students practice their research, note-taking, and writing skills.
First, have your students choose a historical or famous figure. Then, have students research their lives and compile their notes into a research paper. Students will also prepare a presentation about their figures. Choose a “museum day” and have your students come to class dressed as their historical figures. Other classes and teachers can come to visit your museum and learn about the people your students have chosen to represent.
For more information on how to implement this activity in your classroom (and some free templates to get you started), check out our blog article.
6. Build a Portfolio
A student portfolio is a purposeful collection of a student’s work throughout the year. They can offer an authentic picture of a student’s growth and learning over time. Portfolios give students the chance to reflect on their progress and set goals for themselves— increasing ownership over their learning.
Whether you use digital portfolios, traditional binders, bins, or another tool, it’s important to be intentional and organized with this assessment method. This article from Clutter-Free Classroom has useful tips and strategies for organizing your student portfolios.
Alternative assessments can be a great way to promote student engagement and meaningful application of skills.
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