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What are some alternative formats for assignments?

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What are some alternative formats for assignments?

Academia has prioritized traditional methods of assessment such as the research paper for decades, but if we really give thought to what it is we’re trying to assess, it can be that there are other options available to us–and ones that could give students a better chance of successfully showing their learning. Offering students a variety of methods of assessment can allow students whose skills are not in, for example, writing, to shine, and to demonstrate their skills–and allow students to make choices that better reflect their priorities and identities.

It can make sense to consider some different approaches to grading at the same time as exploring alternative possibilities for assignments, and the section What are some alternative grading strategies? explores some of those approaches.

Table of contents

General considerations
Learning outcomes
Multiple assignment types
Formative vs. summative assessments
Grading considerations
Assignment types
Multimedia assignments
Presentations
Conversational assessment
Propose a project
Civic engagement
Reflective pieces

General considerations

Learning outcomes

When it comes to assessment, it is helpful to keep in mind the learning behavior that you are looking for, and to consider the different possible ways that this could be demonstrated and documented.

Robbie Pock has developed a framework for thinking about this in terms of the professor and the student’s parallel experiences.

A teacher’s track:
Introduce → Guide → Assess → Reflect

A student’s track:
Encounter → Practice → Demonstrate → Reflect

When you design a learning experience, it is worth thinking about what the student’s experience in that moment is. For example, you might ask: What would be an ideal way to first encounter this idea? And you might decide, for example, that the best way might be for students to engage in guided exploration and questioning such that they discover the idea for themselves. Or, you might decide that the best approach might be for students to encounter the topic in their own time and at their own pace, for example by watching a video, and then come to class to practice it (a roughly Flipped Classroom model).

Similarly, you might ask: How can I guide students as they practice? What are ways that it might look for them to demonstrate it? And how can I prompt students to reflect on what they’ve done, and develop their metacognitive awareness?

When it comes to assessment, thinking about different ways that students can demonstrate understanding can result in some surprising answers. Could students show you what they know by talking to you, by making a video, by building a website? For some discussion of the possibilities, see the section on assignment types below.

You can see some of Robbie’s slides here, and if you’d like to discuss further, you can reach her on pockr@pacificu.edu.

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Multiple assignment types

One thing to keep in mind is that students excel in different ways, and including a lot of different ways to demonstrate learning can really help to give all of your students the best possible opportunity to show their learning –and to honor their own priorities and identities in their choices.

You might consider building a diverse set of assignments over the semester, including elements such as journal entries, reading logs, reflective pieces, and multimedia assignments.

Some instructors offer students a choice of possible formats for assignments, such that students can choose whichever better suits their strengths and reflects their interests, values and identities. The fact of asking students to choose can give them the opportunity to come to know themselves better as learners, and reflect not only on their particular strengths, but also on their goals for the class and priorities in life.

This involves some careful work to ensure that each option has students demonstrating the same skills and understanding, and that you have an equitable way of grading them. For more on grading, see the section on grading considerations below.

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Formative vs. summative assessment

Also consider that assessment can be either formative, i.e. provide guidance as a student goes along, or summative, i.e. serve to chart a student’s achievement against some standard or benchmark. A good structure can be to build in a lot of small formative assessments all the way through a class, and then give students a choice of summative assessments, such that they can play to their strengths.

The function of formative assessment is to give students an opportunity to practice with feedback. Examples of places where this might happen are in homework, minute papers, in-class discussions and so on: tasks in which students’ understanding is checked while learning is in progress. Summative assessment comes in at the end of a class, where we expect students to have proficiency in some skills and knowledge–and the formative assessments build toward the summative.

For more on the distinction between formative and summative assessment, check out this guide from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center.

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Grading considerations

A common concern with experimental or exploratory assignments is how they can be graded, and particularly, how to grade equitably if students are submitting different things.

One way to make this work smoothly and be well documented is to work with a rubric. It would make sense in this context to make the components more general and abstract than you normally would. Are you looking for complexity? Critical thinking? Incorporating the ideas of others? Think about different ways that each of these could look, and make sure your rubric suits them all.

CETCI has run a number of workshops about working with rubrics, and you can access a range of resources on this Moodle site. The slideshow at the top provides a helpful introduction.

For more ‘creative’ projects, it can help the grading process to include as a part of the assignment a written reflection that makes up a substantial proportion of the grade. This can help to keep the grading equitable across different formats of project because all students, across all project types, will need to be able to reflect and identify ways that they were manifesting their skills and learning through their particular project, and this is a major way that you can assess their understanding.

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Assignment types

Below are a few different options for alternative assignment types that you might consider. These are assignments that you could use at different moments during the course of a semester, or could offer as alternatives for one assessment.

Multimedia assignments

One possibility is to ask students to make a podcast or video on a topic. It is becoming a standard across industries for multimedia communication to be a priority, so these are important skills for today’s world. You can give them a target length, and ask that they include a transcript if that would be helpful. One strength of this is that they can include locations, multimedia elements, or even relevant interviews to get the topic across.

For Brent Johnson, as he explains in his Faculty Teaching Profile, asking students to create multimedia artifacts to demonstrate their writing ability can actually teach them certain skills better than simply writing. For example, making a podcast, and speaking into a microphone to an imagined audience, seems to help students to think more deeply about their voice and their audience than they would simply typing into a document.

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Presentations

These are a relatively well-established form for demonstrating knowledge, and have the advantage that the rest of the class can benefit from the presenter’s work! It also accustoms students to public speaking, and having a live audience can help students think through what they need to include for an audience member to fully follow their argument.

This is another assignment type that can work well paired with a reflective exercise. It can also be productive to involve some audience engagement activities, either initiated by the individual student, or as part of the rhythm for every presentation. For example, Q&A sessions at the end can be more engaged and comfortable if you first have students complete a ‘Yes yes no’ activity in which they write down two things from the talk that they recognize from their own experience or agree with, and one that they don’t agree with or don’t recognize from their own experience. This leaves all students primed and prepared to ask questions.

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Conversational assessment

Some professors offer students the option to be assessed on the basis of a conversation with the professor. You can give expectations as to length and the topics covered, and in place of the citations you would see in a paper, perhaps ask for a bibliography of relevant sources to be provided before or after the discussion.

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Propose a project

It can be quite exciting to allow students to propose their own project if they wish to. An important point is that you will probably want the student to do some work to establish why this format is appropriate, and to work with you on developing a suitable rubric before work commences. Just proposing the project can actually become a powerful learning experience, since it takes a lot of thought to understand the learning objectives and how to manifest them in a rubric.

For more on the ways you can support students through successful projects, see the page How can I improve student learning through independent and group projects?

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Civic engagement

Civic engagement is a way for students to make changes in their own communities, and see the impact they can have on the world. Philosophy professor Ramona Ilea structures classes and class activities around that kind of engagement, which allows students to see how the ideas they are working with apply in the real world, gain a range of skills, and see themselves as agents of change. You can read more about this approach on the Engaged Philosophy website, created by Ramona Ilea, Prof. Susan Hawthorne of St. Catherine University, and Prof. Monica “Mo” Janzen of Anoka Ramsey Community College, which has a wealth of information including sample syllabi and assignments.

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Reflective pieces

Writing short reflective pieces, either simply to synthesise knowledge, or as a self-assessment tool as a component of and reflection on an assignment, can teach students important skills in metacognition and self-assessment. You can build additional structure by asking students to work with a rubric as they self-assess, thus improving understanding of the rubric and the ways they’re being assessed at the same time.

If they can talk about what they learned and in which part of the process it was that they learned it, students are prompted to think more about and better understand the learning goals and their practical manifestations.

For creative projects, including a reflective section in the final submission that is weighted heavily in the grading (perhaps, even, worth more points than the project itself) can help promote equity in grading across different types of project, since it focuses some of the points assigned on similar tasks based on skills that you should be seeing across the board (such as, for example, critical reflection).

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Interested in thinking more about ways to adopt alternative assignment formats in your class? Reach out to us at edtech@pacificu.edu, and we can suggest more resources or schedule a one-on-one.

We are also always looking for more answers to this question, so if you have one that’s worked for you, please let us know!

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