Alternative Final Assignment Formats

Many social sciences and humanities faculty focus on a final essay as the culminating assignment of a given course. While this is what students know and expect, there are many options that also equally satisfy course learning objectives. Here, I discuss one approach to broadening the final assignment format to consider other formats, such as blog posts, websites, videos, podcasts, and presentations.

There are two potential advantages to this approach: First, encouraging students to think about the formats, even if they write an essay, promotes critical engagement with the course content and an appropriate means of communicating course content. The second is that for students who do choose the alternative format, the final product is often really strong and interesting. However, permitting alternative formats does not come without a cost, so I’ll offer some suggestions on how to structure alternative assignment formats and some context with the experiences I’ve had so far.

Why not papers?

There is value to having a final paper for students. Often, this is a skill they have already worked to develop and it is likely one they will need in future coursework and potentially in their careers post-graduation. For many courses, a final paper makes the most sense given the course learning objectives. For example, in one of my courses, students write a series of short papers to prepare them for a final project that extends and builds upon two of these short paper proposals. In that instance, a final paper fits with the learning objectives and course design. In other courses, the learning objectives are about demonstrating understanding and application of relevant theories or an analysis of a situation using the framework developed in the course. In these cases, a paper is one option, but students could fulfill the learning objective through a number of possible paths. Additionally, multiple formats allow students to choose how they engage with the course (multiple means of expression, as it is known in Universal Design for Learning).

Considering alternative assignment structures, i.e. allowing these multiple possible paths, comes from Universal Design for Learning and helps improve the learning environment for a variety of learners, allowing for students with varied skills to demonstrate their understanding in a way that matches their skills and interests. If your course isn’t explicitly about teaching and improving writing skills, allowing students to get creative in how they engage with the material can increase their interest in the content and spur deeper learning. Interestingly, although the modal assignment selected by my students has been a final paper, students really enjoy having the option to select the assessment and it seems that they take more ownership of a project format they chose.

Who should consider the alternative structure? What should they choose?

Any course that has a final capstone paper or project is a good contender for the alternative structure [Note: I’m not sure how well this would work for a midterm project if you’re considering something like a podcast as an option simply for timing reasons]. There are infinitely many possible structures or products students can turn in, so instructors can decide what are possible opportunities. I limit the choices but include a statement that students can contact me if they’d like to pursue a format not mentioned. The key in successfully structuring the elements is that the final paper is sizeable enough that an interested student would want to undertake the effort of an alternative structure (e.g. if the final paper is quite short, it might seem more efficient to just write the paper).

The biggest challenge is selecting other options that (a) the instructor feels are relevant/suitable to the topic, prompt requirements, and course goals and (b) ‘similar’ enough in size that no student would be advantaged or disadvantaged by any format. For example, allowing a large poster might make it hard for students to perform well on the final because they aren’t able to include enough depth or complexity in the format relative to a paper given the course goals and prompt requirements. Typical options I offer are a paper, interactive graphic, podcast, webpage, video, or presentation with voiceover. Your course learning objectives will help determine which of these make sense for your format.

In my syllabus, I mention each type and provide information and resources on how to conduct it:

"You can choose to do a final research paper or you can select a multimedia project, such as making a podcast, a webpage, a video, or a presentation with voiceover. Be as creative as you’d like – we will have a proposal workshop in class to go over the options in greater detail as the deadline draws near. Some helpful links are included below.

Providing these choices seems to make the options seem more accessible to students and knowing that we have a workshop helps encourage them to be creative.

How do I structure the assignment?

Structuring the assignment is crucial for success. The options must be perceived as equal by students or they won’t be interested in the other formats. I include the list of other options and describe each of them. I’ve varied the final paper length over different courses and it seems that papers over 10 pages seem large enough that students are willing to consider other options.

It's also important to be very explicit about exactly what students need to do in the assignment. This makes structuring the rubric clearer and easier (see below on rubrics) and lets students know what to expect.

I also ask that students include a short, two-page description of their alternative assignment. This can dissuade students because if they’re writing a short paper, why not write the full paper. But, it provides an ‘insurance policy’ in a sense for students so that they have the opportunity to explain why and how they made the choices they did for the assignment. For example, I had a student in one class create a video that was very good but the additional paper alongside it helped add additional depth to why and how the different elements were included and how they related to the course and prompt. Students write two short papers earlier in the course that provide a draft template for this description. Thus, while additional work for them, it was a minimal add-on to the overall final assignment.

How do I GRADE the assignment?

To grade final assignments, you must have a good rubric [If you’re at Northwestern, Searle is really helpful for this]. It must relate to each of the different requirements of the assignment prompt and provide a clear means for evaluation. I use the same rubric for all assignments (creating separate rubrics would be overly onerous to manage and coordinate, particularly with Canvas. I use one rubric and one submission for the assignment for all students).

Within the rubric, in addition to the prompt requirements, I also have a category around execution of the project. This helps equalize the different projects because they can be evaluated on how well they met the prompt objectives and well they were executed (for example, it may be that the paper writing is evaluated here or the ability of the presentation to capture and communicate the underlying issue). I enjoy an excellent paper; however, I also enjoy a student who did something that was really creative and relevant to the material. I want to ensure that my rubric allows me to essentially award points for ‘degree of difficulty’ while still evaluating how well the student fulfilled the prompt. It is crucial that any one format not be privileged over any other.

So what? Is it really worth it?

One of my goals as an instructor is for students to take an interest in their own learning. I’ve found that even allowing the option for students to choose the final assignment format increases student interest, even when most students still select the paper. Additionally, entertaining thoughts about how they might try an alternative format encourages students to engage more actively with the material than when reacting to a prompt where they’re thinking of ways to fit what they know to the assignment requirements.

The small number of students who do choose the alternative format are typically those who are interested in and engaged in the material and want to try something different, either because they have a different set of skills from hobbies or outside coursework they would like to apply, or because they want to try something different.

I don’t have hard data on learning outcomes for this (yet), but students who select the alternative assignment often (but not always) do it exceptionally well. One student made a podcast to rival This American Life, one made a website that expertly addressed issues of school reform, another made a video surrounding societal gender norms through performance. The times projects have been less successful were when, early on in the process, I wasn’t as explicit about the requirements of the prompt and didn’t connect the elements to the rubric. In short, when structured properly, alternative assignment formats can be exceptional.

Tips for success

  • Consider limiting formats to just one or two options at first.
  • Announce alternative format early to pique interest.
  • Discuss alternative options in class (I mention how a video we watch would be a fitting final project, for example).
  • Have students float the suggestions by you (this helps improve the quality of all projects, regardless of format.
  • Be sure the paper is sufficiently large enough that it seems like ‘similar’ work to consider other formats.
  • Make a very specific prompt with all requirements explicitly stated.
  • Consider asking students to include a short writeup on their assignment so they can check they’ve addressed the prompt—this can take any number of forms, either in-process through check-ins or by including an additional summary with the final project.
  • Have a VERY clear rubric.
  • Include an ‘execution’ component of rubric to equalize across formats.