For many courses of varying format and size, across many disciplines, reasonable alternatives to traditional tests (i.e., paper-based T/F or Multiple Choice) exist. In fact, oftentimes the alternatives may even be advantageous to promote student learning and be more authentic means of students demonstrating what they have learned at the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy (synthesis, analysis, evaluation). All such courses should, however, include appropriate summative evaluation activities per COCI policy on (alternatives to) final exams.
Paper instead of test
A standard alternative to a test, the paper can take many forms. Make sure that the paper is integral to the course and not simply an add-on. One way to accomplish this, to help students write better, and to encourage academic integrity is to give the assignment early and ask for portions of the paper to be turned in at intervals: preliminary topic, outline, bibliography, draft, and so on. And ask students to include all drafts and notes along with the paper.
A series of quizzes or chapter tests instead of comprehensive, high-stakes tests
Unless there is a solid pedagogical reason for a comprehensive, high-stakes test (i.e., midterm), you might consider a series of shorter tests throughout the semester. You can always add one or two questions relating to previous units in the course. Remember, though, a comprehensive final assessment is still required in most courses per COCI policy.
Memorandum or briefing
Students prepare a one or two page memorandum or briefing, with, for example, the following headings: background, problem, possible solutions with pros and cons, final recommendation (and you can add as you like, for instance, final recommendation with implications, possible impact, and so on). Besides being a good exercise in synthesizing material, it’s an excellent way for students to practice being concise and direct.
Many courses lend themselves to presentations of the kind that a professional consultant would provide to a community group or some kind. For example, in Architecture and City and Regional Planning, students often present their projects to a simulated “community board.” The presentation could be applicable to many fields, in the form of an expert witness presenting material. One variant: Local library board. Make a presentation arguing for the inclusion of certain books in the library, based on the reading for the semester. Applicable to many different disciplines.
Annotated Anthology or course reader
Students prepare a selection of works they have read during the term as a thematic anthology—they create the theme, choose the works, write a paragraph introduction to each, and an introduction to the anthology. (If the works themselves are short, e.g., poems, they should be included). For longer pieces, just a table of contents, the introduction, and the introduction to each piece. Of course students will also have to think about order. Katherine Snyder of English has used such an assignment [word] as part of a final exam, but it could be easily adapted for use as an in-course assignment.
The course reader exercise works essentially the same way, but in this case, students have to organize the readings chronologically to develop the theme they have created for the course. This assignment can be made as complex as you wish, by asking for such things as assignments to go with the readings, suggestions for further reading, and so on.
Poster Sessions (with peer critique)
This is applicable to many different kinds of classes. Chemistry 1A has used it quite successfully in large classes for several years. Here is a description of the assignment developed by Michelle Douskey:
“The goal of the project is to help each student link the material covered in class to everyday products and processes by asking and answering key chemistry questions that get at the heart of the topic. Students must pick a topic from a given list, develop a hypothesis, and perform library research to support or refute their hypothesis. The students present their research during a poster session the last lab period. The scaffolding focuses on two main aspects of the project; support for the students and support for the GSIs. The GSIs are trained to assist the students in the refinement of their hypothesis and in the search for appropriate sources of information. Students are given a topic list, an example poster, the grading rubric and a proscribed feedback mechanism with the GSI. The clear timeline and implementation strategies help the students to be successful in pushing their understanding of the chemistry. When polled in the Spring 2005 semester, 84% of the students stated that project increased their ability to apply chemistry to things beyond the textbook.”
Annotated portfolio of work throughout the term
Portfolios in place of a test have been used for a number of years in the College Writing Programs. Students compile their best or representative work from the term, write a critical introduction to the portfolio and a brief introduction to each piece.
Annotated research bibliography with introduction
Rather than ask students to write a research paper, ask them instead to compile a bibliography on a problem or question. In essence they do everything but write the paper. They must read the works, evaluate their accuracy and helpfulness, and provide an explanatory introduction to the bibliography (from Anna Livia Braun, French). Each entry contains an explanatory and/or evaluative paragraph. Students can also compare the relative usefulness of sources, authors’ points of view, biases, and so on.
Developed by Barbara Abrams of Public Health, a Fact Sheet is a more demanding assignment than it first appears to be, and would be relevant to other courses. Such a fact sheet would be intended to be distributed to the public in relevant places. While Abrams’ fact sheets deal with health issues (smoking, HIV, etc.), other applications might be in economics or sociology (school board budgets or trends in enrollment), history or political science (fact sheet on the 1960 Presidential Election), engineering (fact sheet on the new Bay Bridge). Students must learn to search the relevant databases for the discipline, evaluate material, and present it in a concise, readable way. See Professor Barbara Abrams' Disease Fact Sheet Assignment. [word]
If the class is experiential in nature (e.g., student teaching, performance), ask the students to write a reflective paper/critique of their experience. The key here is to make them tie this to theory or themes in the course so that it doesn’t become an effusion of personal feeling.
Even in non-experiential/performance courses, a reflective paper can be very useful. Some classes ask students to add a reflection to a term paper. See College Writing Reflection Paper. [pdf]
Op-Ed piece to be sent to local newspaper
The Op-Ed piece is a “real world” exercise that requires not only a thorough understanding of both sides of an issue, but an ability to understand the audience.
These of course are not new, but are not often used in colleges—although they seem ideally suited, because the preparation can be demanding. An excellent resource(link is external) is from the Constitutional Rights Foundation, Chicago. While the material is geared for high school students, the concepts are easily applicable to more demanding assignments.
Students, at a pre-determined point in the class and with specific conditions tied to it to ensure it will represent their learning as related to the course goals, may have the option of suggesting a course project that they would like to undertake.