Alternative Assessments

What and why of Alternative Assessment

Are the dozens of research papers all starting to blur together? Are the scantron bubbles beginning to haunt your dreams? More than likely, they are for students too. In moving away from traditional forms of assessment it is becoming more common practice, and highly desired, by students, teachers, and the professional world to extend the life of assessments past a single moment. Alternative Assessment may offer new ways for you and your students to explore subject matter in unique, and holistically beneficial ways.

Although carrying its own importance and necessity in achieving specific outcomes, summative assessments do have distinct drawbacks (Williams, 2014). These typically include:

  1. Tedious completion and grading for professors and students
  2. Narrow learning outcomes
  3. A focus on the grade, rather than the process (for more on this see Ungrading)
  4. Disposable products that are never seen by student or teacher again
  5. Instances of concern for academic integrity

Alternative assessment offers solutions to these drawbacks and speak to emerging needs of college graduates. The professional world seeks college graduates who possess not only discipline-specific factual knowledge but also the problem solving, collaborative, and interdisciplinary skills that cannot be achieved by artificial intelligence advances (Binkley et al., 2012). Considering this, mixed method approaches to assessment are becoming necessary in the college environment (Hains-Wesson et al., 2020). Incorporating aspects of summative, formative, and alternative assessment can help to expand and enhance learning outcomes for the students as well as provide new experiences for the professor.

Types of Alternative Assessment


In this form, often written products are exchanged among peers for assessment. While the professor may provide the rubric, training, and criteria for the consistency of peer assessment, the “assessment” of the assignment is conducted by fellow students. This offers opportunity for the product to be reviewed by multiple people before any final submission to the professor and allows students to view their peers work. This exposure among peers can help to facilitate new connections and perspectives that students may be able to communicate among themselves in a way that had been missed in the course prior. Self-assessment can be constructed in the same way (with a rubric, criteria, and revisions) but offers students an opportunity to reflect on their own thought process and externally process. Additionally, pairing peer/self-assessment may allow students to review their peer’s work and then reflect upon their own in a new light (Wen & Tsai, 2006). These activities can also facilitate community within the classroom.

Authentic Assessment

This form of assessment aims to create “authentic” experiences that require practical, context-driven approaches with assessment as learning opportunities (Gulikers et al., 2004). When moving away from quantitative means of assessment, it can be difficult to concretely define authentic assessment in practice. Guliker et al. provides a five-dimensional theoretical framework:

  1. “An authentic task is a problem task that confronts students with activities that are also carried out in professional practice.”
  2. Physical Context: “Where we are, often if not always, determines how we do something, and often the real place is dirtier (literally and figuratively) than safe learning environments… Authentic assessment often deals with high fidelity contexts.”
  3. Social Context: “In real life, working together is often the rule rather than the exception… learning and performing out of school mostly takes place in a social system.”
  4. Assessment result or form: “The assessment result is related to the kind and amount of output of the assessment task, independent of the content of the assessment…It should be:
    • Quality product students would be asked to produce in real life
    • Demonstration that permits making valid inferences about the underlying competencies
    • Full array of tasks and multiple indicators of learning
    • Presentation of work either written or orally to other people”
  5. Criteria and standards: “Setting criteria and making them explicit and transparent to learners beforehand is important in authentic assessment, because this guides learning… and employees usually know on what criteria their performances will be judged.”

Work Integrated Learning (WIL)

This form of assessment aims to not only imitate authentic field experiences, but actually participates in these experiences outside of the classroom. As such, WIL is technically a form of authentic assessment – but takes it even further than in class experiences. Although common place in many vocationally oriented programs (such as social work internships or education student teaching), WIL is not limited to these types of curricula. Implementing WIL experiences into a course (or program) entails distinct challenges—specifically ensuring rigor and a means of using effective assessment practices (Ajjawi et al., 2020). As institutions are ultimately responsible for the WIL assessments reflecting intentional learning outcomes, it is important to put great care into ensuring the alignment of WIL assessments.


Technology has become a larger part of the college experience, not only in the classroom, but in the way that course assignments are completed. These various forms of media provide additional resources and creativity for alternative assessment. Developing electronic portfolios, creating video essays/reflections, music videos, or other digital products that require student creativity and engaging with course material is an effective means of using technology to aid in learning outcomes. The language of the learning outcomes do not necessarily have to change, but the criteria can. If large multimedia projects seem overwhelming or unachievable at a scale for your course, offering these as options for extra credit or alternatives to existing assignments is a good trial run for their implementation.

Crafting your own Alternative Assessment

Some of these suggestions may already be in practice or more inherent to your discipline. For others, jumping into these may seem daunting. It is not necessary to attempt to overhaul a course overnight. From these categories, there are endless possibilities for how to incorporate aspects into a single class session, or into a semester long capstone project. To hear from your fellow faculty more in depth on ways they are incorporating Alternative Assessment into their classrooms, view this Seminar for Excellence in Teaching.

  • What can I do next class? Have students write a self-reflection on that day’s topic on how it relates to their career path, what aspects of the topic they feel they have grasped well, or what areas they feel like they still do not understand well.
  • What can I do next unit? Craft the end of unit assessment to be something other than an exam or essay. Try to holistically assess student learning as they are experiencing it (e.g., have students put together a portfolio—in a journal or online—that has them describe/narrate as they view their complete understanding of that unit.)
  • What can I do next semester? Design each end of unit assessment as a segment that culminates into an end of course capstone project. The final product could combine audio, visual, and/or physical components that reflects products created within this discipline.
  • What can I do across semesters? Create a project or experience that builds on itself as more semesters participate in the activity—such that data collected, products created, or ideas generated create a continuous “living” assessment (e.g., literature reviews/meta-analyses that continually build based on new publications and expanding datasets to monitor trends through time).

Below are key characteristics and examples of alternative assessments compared with traditional approaches. While this is not exhaustive, it provides an insight to the ways in which you can begin to transform your own course assignments and assessments.









Figure 1: (Rojas Serrano, 2017)

Challenges and Champions of Alternative Assessment

In a similar frame of mind as formative assessment, alternative assessment seeks to provide a means of assessing student learning in real time, rather than as a snapshot such as in summative assessment. Alternative Assessment is less focused on grades and more focused on student process and thinking, allowing instructors to more clearly into the minds of their students and their learning. Other objectives you may be aiming for (including Universal Design for Learning and compassionate teaching) can be incorporated, if not enhanced, by employing alternative assessment. This has distinct advantages and challenges in the way it is realized in the classroom (Stasio et al., 2019). While these are important considerations, they are meant to provide context and mindful considerations as you explore these alternatives.


  • Ensuring academic rigor
  • Restructuring understanding of student’s role in learning
  • Requires time for development
  • Trial and error may be necessary
  • Aligning course outcomes with assessment tasks


  • Source of motivation for students connecting with their areas of study
  • Holistic approaches to subject matter
  • Applied skills and products for student portfolios
  • Build collaboration and opportunities for living course work
  • Places learning outcomes in the foreground

Ajjawi, R., Tai, J., Huu Nghia, T. le, Boud, D., Johnson, L., & Patrick, C. J. (2020). Aligning assessment with the needs of work-integrated learning: the challenges of authentic assessment in a complex context. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(2), 304–316.

Binkley, M., Erstad, O., Herman, J., Raizen, S., Ripley, M., Miller-Ricci, M., & Rumble, M. (2012). Defining Twenty-First Century Skills. In Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (pp. 17–66). Springer Netherlands.

Gulikers, J. T. M., Bastiaens, T. J., & Kirschner, P. A. (2004). A Five-Dimensional Framework for Authentic Assessment. ETR&D, 52(3), 67–86.

Hains-Wesson, R., Pollard, V., Kaider, F., & Young, K. (2020). STEM academic teachers’ experiences of undertaking authentic assessment-led reform: a mixed method approach. Studies in Higher Education, 45(9), 1797–1808.

Rojas Serrano, J. (2017). Making sense of alternative assessment in a qualitative evaluation system. Profile Issues in Teachers’ Professional Development, 19(2), 73–85.

Stasio, M. di, Ranieri, M., & Bruni, I. (2019). Assessing is not a joke. Alternative assessment practices in higher education. Form@re - Open Journal per La Formazione in Rete, 19(3), 106–118.

Wen, M. L., & Tsai, C.-C. (2006). University students’ perceptions of and attitudes toward (online) peer assessment. Higher Education, 51, 27–44. 10.1007/s10734-004-6375-8

Williams, P. (2014). Teaching in Higher Education Squaring the circle: a new alternative to alternative-assessment. Teaching in Higher Education, 565–577.


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