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Moving Beyond Multiple Choice: Alternative Assessment Strategies

July 24, 2017

Moving Beyond Multiple Choice: Alternative Assessment Strategies


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Hopefully you recognize this multiple-choice item as an invalid assessment! There is no single “best” way to assess student learning. The answer depends on many factors, including the nature of the content, the purpose of the assessment, the skills of your students, and the time and resources at your disposal.

Perhaps because they are (relatively) simple to create, multiple-choice items pull much of the focus when the conversation turns to assessments. Wisewire has written several relevant blog posts: 

But you cannot rely solely on multiple-choice assessments to tell you all you need to know about your students. Other methods of assessment should play integral roles in your classroom. Here are some alternatives and ideas for when to use them. 

Good for Giving Targeted Feedback: Technology-Enhanced Items (TEIs)

Technology-enhanced items are just that: assessment items that students complete on a screen rather than on paper. (Of course, multiple-choice items may be enhanced with technology, but there are many other kinds—including drag and drop, “hot spot,” and object creation—that allow you to truly isolate what a student may or may not know.) In most platforms for creating TEIs, you may program specific feedback based on what a student attempted to do. A student who drags option A into bucket B has made a different kind of mistake than a student who drags option C into bucket B (or a student who drags both A and C). A well-constructed TEI gives each student feedback tailored to their particular error. It also provides a searchable record of the results, helping teachers to further customize instruction.

To see examples of a variety of TEIs, check out Wisewire’s sample bank. You can also use Wisewire’s tools to create your own TEIs!

Good for Assessing Reasoning Skills: Written Response

A written response, also called a constructed response, may be brief (typically no more than a few sentences) or extended (typically several paragraphs or more). Constructed-response items assess writing skills, of course, but they also challenge students to justify their answer or explain why it is correct. To assess these reasoning skills fairly, give students additional time to plan their response. You should also provide a clear rubric that describes precisely how you shall assess their work.

Good for Assessing Organizational Skills: Research Project

A typical research project assesses a wide range of skills—not only reading and writing but also selecting reliable sources and summarizing, paraphrasing, and synthesizing information. More fundamentally, however, a research project assesses students’ ability to organize their work, from taking useful notes to incorporating their learning into an essay, a presentation, or some other final product. You will likely need to pre-teach students the discrete skills related to their research and carefully scaffold each step; advanced students may be able to work independently in the library or at home.

Good for Struggling Readers or Writers: Oral Presentation

An oral presentation can be a sophisticated project in which students—perhaps supported by a slideshow or other multimedia—“teach” their classmates about a topic. It may also be simply an opportunity for you and a student to have a private conversation about their learning. If your goal is strictly to assess content knowledge, a conversation allows students to explain what they know without simultaneously having to demonstrate their reading or writing skills. This makes assessments more equitable—and results more valid. Help your students develop their conversation skills with these tips.

Good for Assessing Speaking and Listening Skills: Socratic Seminar

As previously suggested, an oral presentation may be quite informal; the goal is to give students an equitable opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, unhindered by the need to read or write. In contrast, a Socratic seminar is an extensive group project in which students not only articulate their own ideas but listen and respond thoughtfully to those of their classmates. Critiquing each other’s ideas helps students refine and develop their own thinking about a topic.

Good for Connecting Ideas: Mind-Mapping

A mind map is a graphic organizer that uses lines or arrows to illustrate the relationships between key concepts and sub-concepts. You can give students a partially completed mind map and have them add the missing information, or students can create their own mind maps from scratch. Consider including a writing or speaking component so that students can explain the connections they make, especially if there is no single correct approach to the content. You can also use mind maps to pre-assess students’ knowledge of a topic; at the end of the lesson or unit, have students create new mind maps and compare their work to their pre-assessment.

Good for Analyzing Process: Problem Solving

Problem-solving is not just for math: Students in an engineering course may be tasked with improving a prototype. Students in a history course may need to determine whether a primary source is genuine. Students learning a foreign language may need to translate a passage. Problems are useful assessments of process because there is no single path to a solution—there may even be multiple solutions. As with mind mapping, a problem-solving assessment may include a speaking or writing component in which students explain the choices they made.

Good for Assessing Practical Skills: Performance Task

An important kind of problem-solving assessment is the performance task. Typically, a performance task requires students to create a tangible product in an authentic, or real-world, context; students are assessed on their performance of the skills necessary to make the product. The authenticity of the task gives students a compelling purpose beyond simply passing a test. For example, students may demonstrate their mastery of math skills by making a household budget or their understanding of civics by writing a letter to a local representative arguing for a certain policy.

Good for Promoting Creativity: Artwork

Performance-based assessment is common in the creative arts; writing a story, composing a song, and presenting a play are all performance tasks. However, artworks may be incorporated into other disciplines as well. An excellent way for students in a literature class to analyze a poem is to write an original poem in the same style; students in a history class may improvise a scene between diplomats negotiating a peace treaty; students learning physics may demonstrate their understanding of sound waves by designing a functional guitar. Because responses to artworks are inherently subjective, it is crucial to provide students with a clear rubric; only those criteria explicitly listed in the rubric should be assessed.

Good for Assessing Progress Over Time: Portfolio

A portfolio is a collection of student work compiled throughout a unit or course. Typically, the purpose is not to assess (or re-assess) the individual components within the portfolio; instead, the portfolio demonstrates progress that students have made toward a broader goal. For example, a portfolio for a course in English language arts might contain writing samples in a variety of literary genres; a portfolio for a chemistry course might contain lab reports. Students may be asked to supplement their portfolio with a written or an oral reflection on their progress over time.

Good For Getting A Pulse On Your Classroom: Back-channel Chat 

The previous ten strategies involve relatively traditional forms of assessment. (Even TEIs use technology to enhance a traditional form; most TEIs can be reworked into paper-and-pencil items.) However, technology also enables the creation of new forms. A backchannel is a digital conversation that happens at the same time as another classroom activity; it gives students the opportunity to respond to their instruction in real-time (and without causing a disruption). You can use tools such as Backchannel Chat or TodaysMeet to informally assess your students—for example, by creating a chatroom in which students post everything they know, want to know, or have learned about the instructional topic. The platform can then aggregate students’ responses in a Twitter-like feed that you can read and react to as you are teaching.

People holding hands with their arms raised

Of course, each alternative to multiple choice may be “good for” a variety of purposes beyond our suggestions. How have you successfully used these—or other—assessments in your classroom? Share your success stories, and we’ll consider featuring them in an upcoming blog.

Love what Wisewire is sharing? Check out their Share My Lesson Summer of Learning webinar "Identify and Create Digital Assessments" for professional development credit on August 3rd, 2017 at 2:00PM EST. Register today!


Wisewire is a learning design company creating and licensing curriculum, assessments, playlists and learning objects customized to the unique needs of schools and districts to improve learning outcomes.


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