Let Students Choose Alternative Assessments and Watch their Creativity Bloom

Let Students Choose Alternative Assessments and Watch their Creativity Bloom
Kara Wyman, MEd April 11, 2017

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It’s easy to fall into a routine of assessing students the same way over and over. But letting students choose from a menu of assessments can do them a lot of good — and make you a better teacher.

Sure, it takes time to create alternative assessments, but there are tons of resources online that make it easy to borrow ideas from others. Think about your standard summative assessment given at the end of a unit. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel: Just get creative with the options you offer, and watch how they ignite your students’ creativity.

You can tap into what interests them to further engage them, even those who are less motivated. Let’s say you have a student who randomly fills in bubbles on multiple-choice tests. What if you give that student a chance to make a board game, construct a museum exhibit or perform a rap instead? The dreaded word “test” is forgotten when an array of enticing options come into focus.

Students must still demonstrate knowledge, and they will use and develop other skills as well. You will still be able to collect valuable data by providing clear expectations and rubrics that target your measurable outcomes.

How alternative assessments can help your students

While there’s clearly a time for standardized tests (and students need to prepare for them), you also have an obligation to prepare them for life beyond the classroom. Here are a few of the life skills students can acquire and strengthen through alternative assessments:

  • Critical thinking: Giving students options to use what they’ve learned to problem-solve and create something develops their ability to think outside of the box, find creative solutions and formulate their own ideas and opinions. Perhaps they have to invent and sell a new, affordable device that addresses climate change. Or, they could have the option of giving a persuasive speech urging skeptical investors (the class) to invest in the type of renewable energy that they believe is best. Either way, those assessments (and many others) would let students show what they’ve learned while still having to dig deeper.
  • Collaboration: Some alternative assessments like performing an infomercial or filming a newscast require students to work together on creating a script and sharing their ideas and what they’ve learned. Working with different personalities is part of real life, and compromising and finding creative solutions can help them in the “real world,” too.
  • Synthesizing information: Students accustomed to multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests often get hyper-focused on knowing the right answers. Yet some struggle at connecting the dots, applying concepts they’ve learned and articulating their thoughts and opinions on a subject. Let’s say those get-it-right-obsessed students are in your history class. You give them these options for their summative assessment: Write a diary as a historical figure, design a scrapbook from that time period, or create a soundtrack explaining how each song connects to key events from that time period. Suddenly there is no right answer. Students have to dive into what they’ve learned and make sense of it all — in an innovative and in-depth way.

How you can benefit from giving your students alternative assessments

At first glance, providing a menu of choices for a summative assessment might seem like little more than extra chores, but it can actually help improve your teaching practice by:

  • Reducing complaints: Letting students choose means you don’t have to hear them say “not another test.” Although traditional assessments collect important data to inform our teaching, you can still collect that data from alternative assessments if they’re aligned with your learning outcomes. And, you’ll have more fun grading these, and you’ll get to see another side of your students. When you’re more motivated, they are, too.
  • More effectively assessing your students: Different types of assessments mean you can better gauge students who have different learning abilities, linguistic challenges and other characteristics that might not reveal themselves on standardized tests. For example, an English learner might score poorly on a short-answer exam about a novel he read, but he might do really well if he could demonstrate his comprehension by drawing a comic strip or creating a collage instead.
  • Ending on a meaningful note: If you’re passionate about what you’ve been teaching but the whole unit ends with a dry exam, the passion and the importance of it might be dulled or forgotten. Multiple assessment options keep the enthusiasm alive while empowering students to take over their own learning and demonstrate their understanding in focused, high-quality, unique ways.

Kara Wyman earned a MEd and a BA from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization.

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