Letting students choose how they will be assessed: Yes, you read that right.

Followers of my blog will have seen some of my writing on alternative modes of assessment, including a few that have proven most popular with my students (such as the infographic, artistic reflections and core-concept videos.)  Given the positive response I’ve had from students (both informally through out of class discussions and in my formal teaching evaluations), I really challenged myself in the past year (in my upper year courses) to  increase my use of these different types of assignments.  In particular, I have  I have focused on creating variety of assignment types in a single course in order to give students a choice of which type of assignment they would like to tackle (for example, in my 300 level IR class this past term, students could choose from one of eight assignment types for their final assessment– not 8 essay questions/options on one assignment type, but different types of assignments all together).  I’ll be challenging myself in the future to think about what this looks like in my first-year courses.

My reasons for integrating a range of alternative assessments, from a pedagogical approach, is two fold. First, alternative assessments, when designed properly,  teach students a broader range of skills that will be useful for them in their professional lives.  A well designed assessment can be used as something concrete to talk about in their cover letters or CVs and at job interviews. Allowing students to choose assignments based on what skills they want to further develop and be able to showcase can be combined with more traditional disciplinary learning goals creating a multifaceted learning experience that is also tailored to individual student needs.   Secondly, I have found that when students are able to choose how they will be assessed, it increases their sense of ownership (and dare I say, excitement) about a project, that often leads to increased quality of output.  Side note: One of my colleagues, who also gives students choice on assessment type, noted that they do this for reasons related to access, diversity and inclusion (something I hadn’t thought of  but will also consider, moving forward).

I have been able to glean evidence of both of these outcomes through reflective writing assignments where I prompt students to explore what they have learned in terms of content and professional skills, or what they learned about themselves more generally by completing one of these assignments.  While I can’t provide specific examples of student reflections due to confidentiality–  numerous students have spoken in detail about how a project links to (quite a wide range of!) specific career goals.  I also have had a few students note how they were surprised how they lost focus on ‘the grade’ they might get on the assignment and were almost entirely focused on the output—and how this in turn sometimes made the assignment ‘not feel like an assignment’.  There were also some very candid moments were students reflected on their own personal situation, or that of their family and how being able to choose this particular assignment actually allowed them to learn more about themselves, their background, their heritage and the struggles of people in their own community.

Most of my posts over the rest of the summer will explore some of the alternative assessments I used this year in my 300 level International Relations course on peacebuilding that I feel could be adapted to other topics.   This will include posts on ‘Publish With Your Prof’, ‘Peace Negotiations Database’,  ‘Education/Teaching Modules’ and ‘Roundtable/Event Planning’.  If I have time, I will sneak in some more, but I found these to be the most translatable to a range of courses. Although I’ll go into greater detail on the ins and outs of each particular assignment type in future posts, here are few general tips if you want to get started on creating your own ‘menu’ of assignment types for your classes next year.

Design for academic rigor first :  Designing new innovative assignments can be really freeing and creatively satisfying for us as scholars at we think about teaching the same course again for the umpteenth time, but there is of course a risk of our creativity getting the better of us and focusing too much on creating something new/innovative/dare-I-say-fun.    The focus on the innovation can take over quite easily (which I have learned the hard way in previous stages of my ‘alternative assessment’ journey).  Have a look at your learning goals and objectives for the course, specific readings/themes/concepts and build assessments around those. What does ‘mastering a concept’ or ‘acquiring a skill’ mean in the context of your course and types of assignments might allow students to demonstrate these?

Create a clear set of expectations for your students for each assignment type:  Just as you are taking a risk—so are your students.  You are asking them to step outside the comfortable bounds of assessment formats that they have come to know quite well (research papers, exams). This can be disconcerting for students. Despite the aforementioned students who reflected on how grades became a secondary consideration for them, grades still matter (to students and to institutions).  Many students have come to know exactly what a good essay or response to a short answer question in an exam looks like, without having to give it too much thought.  For alternative assessments,  you need to give them a solid sense of security—what does a good/excellent ‘infographic/database entry/concept video etc’ looks like?   How can they get that ‘A’ on this untested assignment type? Even if you are not one for creating very detailed rubrics (like myself), you need to give clarity on what excellence looks like if you want them to be creative and take pedagogical risks alongside you.  Be specific about what you will be looking for, what they should put most of their effort into, what you expect the final project to tangibly look like—otherwise, students themselves might get carried away with the creative/innovative element of the assignment at the expense of intellectual rigor and course content.

Be flexible with your students and ask them to be flexible with you:  This is particularly important the first time you try out a new mode of assessment.  What might be clear as day in your head might a) be envisioned and interpreted in a different way by your students and b) might not actually be possible in the confines of the course.  Expect the unexpected, be willing to alter what the project might look like in the end (without reducing the degree of intellectual rigor you expect at this level).  Very few of the alternative assessments my students have produced physically looked like what I had envisioned in my head when I wrote up the assignment instructions.  However, nearly all of them have still delivered in terms of the intellectual curiosity and scholarly standard I had expected.  And in some cases, their interpretation of the creative side of the brief was superior to my own.

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