Alternative Final Assignment Tips and Tools

Many social sciences and humanities courses focus on a final essay as the cumulative assignment in a given course. While this is what students know and expect, there are many options that can also equally satisfy course learning objectives. Here, I discuss one approach to broadening the final assignment to consider other formats, such as blog posts, websites, videos, podcasts, and presentations. These offer opportunities for students to capitalize on their own interests and the challenges 2020 has brought. This pandemic has had a huge effect on everyone, and it has not been equitable.

Thinking about alternative assessment types can be particularly beneficial as you consider your Winter 2021 courses so that students can approach their own learning in a way that maximizes their skills and strengths during a challenging time. Honestly, I have seen some of the most exceptional work by students in these final assignments. Students have done choreography about gender norms, a podcast to rival “This American Life” on gender and politics, a webpage as a fake school board candidate proposing a new zoning policy, and an interactive simulation on gerrymandering.

There are three potential advantages to alternative assignments. First, encouraging students to think about the formats, even if they write an essay, promotes critical engagement with the course content and encourages them to consider an appropriate means of communicating that content. The second is that for students who do choose the alternative format, the final product is often strong and interesting. The third is that trying to administer an exam online can be a real challenge right now. 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.

I have a previous post on Digital Learning that goes through the why of alternative assignments. For this post, we wanted to focus on the how of assignments, particularly considering online and hybrid learning.

What are my options?

  • Design a week: Students add an additional week of content to the course, including selecting readings and writing a short paper explaining what readings they selected, why, and how those papers contribute to the course.
    • This can allow students to include additional information that interests them (and possibly you for future classes!) while applying course content.
  • Design and give a presentation: Students can design a PowerPoint and present it where they explain or analyze a topic or concept relevant to the course.
    • This can be an additional lecture or some kind of “explainer” where they revisit a challenging topic from your course and provide examples
  • Create a webpage: Students make a webpage to apply concepts or present issues discussed in the class.
    • Students have pretended to be someone agitating for/against a policy we discussed, have created a how-to guide, etc. They typically like the creativity allowed by this option.
  • Create a podcast: Students create an approximately 20-minute podcast on an issue of their choice.
    • Students have done it themselves, interviewed people, spliced in news clips, etc. It’s been fun to see.
  • Design an exam/assessment: Students can create a short quiz on one of the course weeks/modules/sessions where they write questions and an answer key.

How do I make this a success?

  • Consider limiting formats to just one or two options at first.
    • Prioritize the types of formats you feel most comfortable grading.
  • Announce the 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).
  • Make a very specific prompt with all requirements explicitly stated.
  • Require a short (1-2 page) explanation of their reasoning/design approach for their assignment as an earlier deliverable – this is an insurance policy for them and helps dissuade low-effort attempts.
  • Have a clear rubric – students don’t like trying to guess what you’re looking for. Rubrics also make it easier for TAs/you when grading time comes.
  • Scaffold the assignment – have all students do a proposal and workshop a draft. This helps them get feedback and feel confident they’re headed in the right direction (this applies to all final assignments).
    • I have them use the rubric when workshopping – if your peer doesn’t think you’ve satisfied the rubric, then you may want to revisit things!

How do I grade such different assignments?

  • Have a clear rubric! (This is time-consuming to make, but it can be a huge time-saver, and it allows students to get clear feedback.)
    • I like to use consistent rubrics over the course, so students get used to expectations.
  • Include an “execution” component of the rubric to equalize across formats.

**Special thanks to Erik Lovell and Dan Hoefler for comments on previous drafts of this post.