Alternatives to Traditional Exams and Papers

Alternatives to Traditional Exams and Papers

In designing assessments or assignments for a course, instructors often think of exams or term papers, but there are many other types of assessments that may be appropriate for your course. If you are willing to think creatively about assignments that go beyond traditional exams or research papers, you may be able to design assignments that are more accurate reflections of the kind of thinking and problem-solving you want your students to engage in. In addition, non-traditional assignments can boost students’ motivation.

To help you think “outside the box” in developing assessments of your students’ learning, here are some alternatives to exams or term papers (drawn from Walvoord and Anderson, 1998):

  • Advertisement
  • Analysis and response to a case study
  • Analysis of data or a graph
  • Analysis of an event, performance, or work of art
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Brochure
  • Chart, graph, or diagram
  • Debate
  • Description of a process
  • Development of a product or proposal (perhaps to be judged by external judges)
  • Diagram, table, chart, or visual aid
  • Diary entry for a real or fictional character
  • Executive summary
  • Explanation of a multiple-choice answer (students must explain why the answer they chose to a multiple-choice question is correct, or why the alternative answers are wrong)
  • Introduction to a research paper or essay (rather than the full paper)
  • Legal brief
  • Letter to a friend
  • Literature review
  • Meaningful paragraph (given a list of specific terms, students must use the terms in a paragraph that demonstrates that they understand the terms and their interconnections)
  • Newspaper article or editorial
  • Performance: e.g., a presentation to the class or a debate
  • Policy memo or executive summary
  • Poster (which could be presented to the class or a larger audience in a poster session)
  • Practical exam or evaluation of lab skills
  • Poem, play, or dialogue
  • Portfolio to demonstrate improvement or evolution of work and thinking over time
  • Powerpoint presentation
  • Reflection by students on what they have learned from an experience
  • Research proposal addressed to a granting agency
  • Review of a book, play, performance, etc.
  • Scientific abstract
  • Start of a term paper (the thesis statement and a detailed outline)
  • Web page or video
  • Work of art, music, architecture, sculpture, etc.

In developing creative assessments of your students’ learning, it is helpful to think about exactly what you want to assess. The questions below will help you focus on exactly what skills and knowledge your assessment should include.

  • Do you want to assess your students’ acquisition of specific content knowledge, or their ability to apply that knowledge to new situations (or both)?
  • Do you want to assess a product that students produce, or the process they went through to produce it, or both?
  • Do you want to assess any of the following?
    • writing ability
    • speaking skills
    • creativity
    • use of information technology
    • Is a visual component to the assessment necessary or desirable?
    • Is the ability for students to work in a group an important component of the assessment?
    • Is it important that the assessment be time-constrained?

Who Is Doing This at IUB

Ben Motz, in the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, assesses his students’ understanding of concepts in his cognitive psychology course by asking them to produce 60-second public service announcements about the concepts. He describes the project in this CITL faculty spotlight. He has also created a course in which students apply concepts of probability and techniques of statistical analysis to managing fantasy football leagues.  His course is described in this news release.

Professor Leah Shopkow, in the department of History, has her students create posters to demonstrate their understanding of concepts in her medieval history class. The students present the posters in a poster session that is open to the public.

See Also

Learning Outcomes

Authentic Assessment


Walvoord, Barbara and Virginia Anderson (1998). Types of assignments and tests. Appendix B in Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 193 – 195.

For More Help or Information

For help in designing creative assignments, contact CITL to meet with a consultant.