Alternative Assessments – Breaking Away from High-Stakes Exams

Student taking exam

We can all recall a time when we felt stressed, anxious, or exhausted from preparing for an important exam. High-stakes exams are common practice in many of our learning experiences. While these exams can be an appropriate choice for some courses, take a moment to reflect on whether there is a better way to assess the adult learners in your course.

Why Do We Use Them?

High-stakes exams are comfortable methods of assessments because it is the way many of us were evaluated as children, and it is still commonly implemented. After being assessed in this way for a number of years, it is only logical to duplicate the effort in our current courses.

The Adult Learner

To sum up Merriam et. al’s book Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice, there are key differences in teaching adults and teaching children. Adult learning is best when self-directed, when learners have some control over their learning, and when authentic and applicable to real-life scenarios. Using this knowledge, we can build meaningful activities and appropriate assessments.

Alternative Methods of Assessment

Now, you can choose to have tests in your course. A low-stakes multiple-choice test with multiple attempts is a great way to help students remember, identify, and repeat information. It serves as a practice assignment to help students perform higher skills on future assignments. There are some careers that require employees to earn certifications by taking exams. In this case, an exam would be an appropriate choice in a course.

Think about your course. Imagine giving students a choice in their final project. Students could choose between a portfolio, essay, or other form of assessment.

Instead of chapter quizzes, students can write reflective journals, synthesizing information and focusing on what they connected with the most. Or consider a project that spans over multiple weeks requiring students to submit work and receive feedback multiple times.

There are assessment techniques that exist that have potential, yet it is largely untapped. Before the fall semester unfolds, take a moment to reflect on ways we can improve students’ learning through purposeful assessment techniques.


For more information or ideas on using alternative assessments in your course, contact your instructional designer.


Merriam, S.B., & Bierema, L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Jennifer Antoon was an instructional designer for FIU Online. After studying adult learning theories in her master’s program and implementing them during her time as an adjunct professor, she became interested in discovering and creating learning activities that engage and motivate adults.

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