Exams and Alternate Assessments

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If you rely on in-person invigilated mid-terms and exams as your primary assessment tool, moving to online formats can seem a challenging prospect. The good news is that there are a wide range of both formative and summative assignments to support and assess student achievement throughout your course.

Getting Started

  • When choosing an assessment, first consider the course learning outcomes. What are you expecting students to achieve? Ideally, assignments will help students meet the expectations of the course, allow you to accurately observe how well students demonstrate achievement, and align with the teaching strategies you plan to use.
  • One of the most common concerns when assessing in non-invigilated contexts is maintaining the integrity of the assessment process. It is much easier for students to collaborate with each other or consult alternate sources when online, and it is important to factor this into the design process. Be sure to be clear about your expectations with respect to citation and referencing. For more strategies, please visit: Fostering Academic Integrity
  • Plan for how you will consistently support students through the assessment process. If you have GAs or TAs, for example, ensure that everyone is on the same page with respect to what types of supports and resources are appropriate to give to students, as well as what criteria to apply when evaluating and offering feedback.

Choosing an Assessment

Traditional exams can be conducted in a variety of different ways. In addition, final projects and other types of assessments are often better suited for determining whether students have met the required learning outcomes. The table below identifies some key types of outcomes and assessment strategies that align with them.


Foundational Knowledge
Assignment Description Challenges Mitigating Challenges
Online Exam Students respond to a range of questions (from multiple choice and short answer to essay questions) in an online environment, typically during a limited timeframe
  • Students ability to complete will be dependent on technology at a time when many have been re-located and may not have access to high-quality internet connections and other resources
  • Students may consult their texts or collaborate with peers before answering
  • There is no way to verify that the student is the one submitting the work
  • Consider alternate forms of submission for the quiz – or have a back-up plan in case technology fails.
  • Create a large pool of questions and randomize them in delivery so that each student has a slightly different test
  • Ensure that the time allocated is sufficiently restricted to discourage outside research
  • Online proctoring is a possibility but comes with significant costs and potential technical challenges – not recommended in almost all cases
Glossary Students are required to identify key concepts from the course and define them
  • If the course text already contains a complete glossary, it might be too easy to copy
  • Have students submit through SafeAssign to help detect copied text, remembering that percentages detected will be higher than usual because of repeated use of core vocabulary
  • Emphasize that the assignment isn’t just about defining as many terms as possible, but also identifying those that are central and explaining their importance
Student Generated Exams Students submit questions that they think would be appropriate for a final exam, along with a rationale as to why they think the concept is central and important
  • Exam questions are widely available, and so students may attempt to find the questions, rather than generate them.
  • Students will also need guidance as to what level of a question to create and be clear on expectations
  • Having students submit a rationale and engage in discussion as to which are the most important concepts and why will help ensure that they are submitting their original work.
  • Explain to students that learning how to teach material will deepen their understanding of it, and help them in future courses
  • A free tool called PeerWise can help facilitate this process https://peerwise.cs.auckland.ac.nz/
Scavenger Hunts Capitalize on the instinct to search the internet for answers by building it into an assignment requiring students to locate research-based answers to specific questions
  • As much information available on the internet is itself plagiarized, students may be tempted by the oft-repeated answers in superficial sources
  • Design questions that will help students distinguish quality of sources.
  • Create clear criteria for evaluating the sources they identify and synthesize (eg. peer-reviewed, relevant, discipline-specific, etc.)
Concept Maps Students synthesize course material by diagramming the relationship between course concepts
  • Designing images can be challenging, and students may focus more on formatting rather than concepts
  • Consider offering options for formatting. For example, students could draw relationships with pen and paper, and submit a photo, or use whatever software they have available to produce digital documents.
Oral Exam Students are examined individually with oral questions and responses
  • Can be time-consuming and will not work in larger classes.
  • Consider group exams where students are also tasked with coming up with questions as well as answers.
  • Focus on synthesis of materials and developing dialogue with students
Critical Thinking
Assignment Description Challenges Mitigating Challenges
Take Home Exam Students complete the exam at home and submit it as they would an assignment. This assessment type is very flexible and may incorporate other ideas in this table. Students will have ample opportunity to consult with the literature and each other before submitting
  • Create novel and in-depth questions that require significant analysis
  • Have students submit through SafeAssign to help detect copying
Problem Sets Students are provided with specific problems or cases (whichever is most appropriate) and required to solve them
  • Solutions to common and low-level problems may be widely available on the internet
  • Students may work together before submitting their assignment
  • Create problem sets where collaborative discussions would be beneficial to the solution and encourage students to work together
Learning Portfolio Students compile a series of artifacts with reflections that synthesize their learning throughout the course and apply it to other contexts
  • Learning portfolios are often unfamiliar to students, and they are unclear on expectations and criteria.
  • Provide clear prompts to guide student reflection and types of elements to gather
  • Portfolios can be created in e-formats or as documents that can be submitted as assignments
  • Consider supplementing the portfolio with an ongoing learning journal, so that students can get formative feedback along the way and compile this work into their final project.
Case Studies Students respond to a specific scenario, analyzing the details and providing solutions or recommendations
  • Designing compelling case scenarios that are valid assessments of student achievement is challenging
  • Create unique scenarios to make it more difficult for students to simply research answers
  • Consider the level of detail in the scenario required to ensure students have adequate information to be successful
  • Incorporate case analysis into your lectures or other course materials so that students better understand expectations
  • For a handout to help design cases, click here
Presentation and Facilitation Skills
Assignment Description Challenges Mitigating Challenges
Online Presentation Students moderate synchronous sessions using Bb Collaborate, MS Teams, or other Virtual Classroom technology. *Be cautious about the amount of synchronous activity that you require for a course, as students may have variable access and ability to be online, and may be in different time zones *These types of assessments work best for smaller seminar classes, thesis defenses, or other situations where only a few people will be actively participating
  • Consider options where students can prepare a presentation that can be delivered asynchronously (see below).
Video Presentation Students videotape their presentation or create a voice-over powerpoint. They can then submit these files as they would a regular assignment
  • Requires additional technical skills on short notice that may be beyond the original objectives of the assignment
  • Videos should not be streamed through Blackboard as the increased load will slow the service
  • Provide students with a choice of formats (eg podcast, video, slide-show, etc.), so that they can use the tools they are most comfortable with.
  • Link to resources that will help answer their technical questions
  • Choose an outside streaming service such as YouTube or UView if you want to make the videos available for viewing
Facilitate Asynchronous Discussion Students post a thread to the Blackboard discussion board and prompt peers to respond with their ideas
  • Facilitation skills for online discussion are different than those for in person, and so students may struggle getting conversations going
  • Encourage all in the class to participate
  • Ask students to choose their most important contributions to the discussion and those of colleagues. Submit a paper with reflection on those posts and justification for choice as important contributions
Performance Students can be asked to prepare a video or audio recording off site and submit along with reflective commentaries
  • Video recording of many types of performance would require equipment, skills, and often another person that might not be available
  • Videos cannot replicate the authentic live performance
  • Provide students with suggestions and resources that will help provide them with technical direction
  • Remember that large video files cannot be effectively viewed through Blackboard, but should be either submitted as a file to be viewed elsewhere or streamed from another source (e.g., UView, YouTube, Microsoft Stream)
Lab Work
Assignment Description Challenges Mitigating Challenges
Data Interpretation Assignment Consider whether the purpose of the lab could be about data interpretation and analysis, rather than collection and provide students with data sets to work with
  • Will not work for performative outcomes that require knowledge of specific instruments or tools
  • Provide datasets that contain (or mimic) the challenges typically encountered
  • If students can be provided with different datasets, this can reduce the chance to submit collaborative work
Simulations Some labs have open simulations
  • Most simulations would provide opportunities for students to self-test, but would not be suitable for formal assessments
  • Finding simulations that are both relevant and high quality can be challenging
  • Often a cost for high quality
Infographics Students synthesize data into meaningful images that communicate key information to target audiences
  • Designing infographics, particularly interactive ones, requires knowledge of graphic design and programming, or access to specific types of tools.
  • Identify resources to support students and simplify the process, so that time spent is thinking through the data, not just learning new software.

Which Tools Do I Use?

A number of options are available for online assessment. The simplest solution is to rely on the tools available in the LMS, which allow for a range of different assessment types, facilitate grading, and make it easy to communicate grades and feedback to students confidentially.

Assignment Tool

The Assignment Tool will accept a range of document formats and is relatively easy to set up.

Test Tool

The Test tool supports 17 different question types, most of them with automated marking. Information on best practices setting up the tests tool is available

Other Tools

  • Other BB tools that can easily be set up as assessments are Discussions, Wikis, Blogs, and Learning Journals. More information on setting up these tools can be found at More on tests and assessments

Ensuring Inclusive Design

Inclusive teaching accommodates the diverse needs and abilities of students in all stages of the learning process while maintaining academic rigor. While online course delivery can in many ways improve accessibility, there are also some notable risks. The following are a few strategies to keep in mind for assessment:

  • Communicate expectations clearly: Be transparent about the purposes of the assignments, how they connect to the course material and learning outcomes, what the specific expectations are, and how they will be evaluated. This will help all students!
  • Be very clear about what the essential components of your course, and what might be changed. This will help you adjust assessments without sacrifices to academic rigor, should some students require accommodations.
  • When experimenting with assignment types, be aware of additional soft skills that may be required. For example, producing a video can be an excellent assignment, but to be successful, students will need access to appropriate technology and know how to use it. When including these types of assignments, consider what resources you might provide to support students or offer them choice of format, so that students can play to their strengths. For example, if the assignment is an online presentation, consider offering students the option of a video, podcast, or slide show.
  • Keep it simple. When using technology, plan a back-up delivery mode, to ensure that technical problems do not stand in the way of student completion of assignments.
  • Learn more in the Tips for Accessibility article.


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