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Alternatives to the Traditional Exam as Measures of Student Learning Outcomes

Updated: May 16, 2023

Southeastern Oklahoma State University

With the COVID-19 outbreak, instructors across the country scrambled in the middle of the spring semester to move from face-to-face instruction to remote emergency teaching. Over the summer, many faculty have time to rethink their assessment strategies, including exams, as we prepare for the Fall. With the reconceptualization of how we all teach, now more than ever, is the time for instructors to consider alternative exam formats (for implementation inside and outside the classroom).

Using multiple-choice questions for course exams or quizzes that are pre-created from a textbook publisher’s test bank of questions is a common assessment method for testing students over content learned. The main appeal of using test banks is that they are automatically graded for an instructor when integrated into any learning management system (LMS) such as with Blackboard or Canvas. Unfortunately, test bank multiple choice questions may not work well for an unproctored at-home online exam, in addition to the shortfalls of multiple-choice items as an assessment strategy.

It is time for us to all seriously rethink this strategy, particularly with so many students now taking online and at-home exams.

Project-Based Assignments and Student Learning Outcomes

So what is the solution you might ask? Information regarding alternative and innovative exam formats are readily accessible with just a quick google search, but also within the educational literature. For example, Worcester Polytechnic Institute explains the benefits to student learning when instructors forgo the traditional multiple-choice or true/false exam format. Literature supporting faculty use of employing alternative exam formats includes, for example, project-based learning (PBL).

PBL requires students to work on a semester-long project highlighting the main ideas and concepts of the course’s learning objectives. Using a scaffolding technique, students submit parts of the project throughout the semester with a final draft due at the end of the term. Utilizing alternative and innovative testing formats such as PBL enhances student learning as they develop skills such as higher critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and leadership skills. Plus, there are even long-term benefits, such as stronger initiative-taking, responsibility, character, and the ability to understand different points of view.

I am using project-based learning in all of my courses currently. I put a disclaimer in my syllabus, explaining that I was forgoing multiple-choice exams and quizzes and that the student activities would all be project-based both individually and in a team. I then designed an overall individual Course Project where students submit their analysis weekly and build upon it each week. The additional assignments for my courses include digitally-based lab assignments fully integrated into my university’s LMS and other paper projects and group projects. The point is to be creative!

Additional Alternative and Innovative Exam Formats

Examples of other alternative and innovative exam formats are available on several university websites, such as the University of Minnesota, University of California – Berkley, and at Lakehead University:

  • Open Book Exams: allows students to use the designated course textbook/e-book, or supplementary resources, such as the internet, while taking their exams. With open-book exams, it is important to ask higher-order cognitive thinking questions rather than factual lower-level questions.

  • Crib Sheets: will enable students the ability to use resources such as class handouts and personal class notes while taking an exam.

  • Take-Home Exams: offer the instructor an opportunity to create more challenging problems for students to complete at home outside of the classroom, whereas such complex assignments are not possible to finish during a single traditional classroom session.

  • Collaborative Testing: allows students to work in teams to teach each other, debate, and draw a final consensus of answers.

  • Student Portfolios: these are creative projects where students can work on the entire class term, highlighting the main ideas and topics the students have learned throughout the course. These portfolios can be digitally-based, an oral presentation with visuals, or in a paper report format.

  • Performance Tests: requires the student to create something tangible that reinforces what the student has learned in the course. Examples of performance tests can include science/lab activities,” Shark Tank” night as commonly used in business courses, and art/drama courses to include plays and performances.

  • Retake Policies: allows the student to retake an exam to earn a higher grade. The test could be the same or any variation of the first exam the student took.

  • Summaries are a great tool that allows students to either verbally in presentation style, in a written report, or even digitally (i.e., website) summarize their main learning points throughout the term.

  • Small-Stakes Quizzes and Tests: instead of having “high-stakes” midterms and final exams, instructors can have smaller-stake quizzes and tests throughout the course.

  • Briefing Reports: students can create a memorandum of sorts identifying, for example, a case study’s problem and alternative solutions.

  • Presentations: students can analyze chapter questions and then create their analysis in a presentation such as with Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoint.

  • Reflective Papers: students write a paper reflecting on their learnings from the course. They are required to align course learning theories and outcomes to their overall reflections.

  • Student-Proposed Projects: students can either create their course project or choose from a list of projects. The list could, for example, be a paper, presentation, website, blog, audio/video recording, or podcast. The course project would need to analyze the key topics, concepts, and learning objectives of each chapter, or the course at large.

  • Experiential-Learning Activities: this type of activity consists of students “learning by doing,” and having hands-on personal experiences, such as internships (paid or unpaid), job shadowing assignments, student consulting assignments, for example, designing a local entrepreneur’s company website. Having students reflect on their experiences is essential.

  • Poster Sessions (can be virtual or face-to-face): students can create research posters using templates . Students may either submit their completed poster as a file attachment in an LMS for digital courses, present in class for face-to-face or hybrid classes, or record the presentation with the poster and upload as an audio/video file in a digital course LMS.

  • Fact Sheets: students can create a fact sheet on a particular chapter(s) or on the entire course. The fact sheet should contain pertinent information that the student can attribute to being true regarding the course subject, topics, theories, and/or concepts.

  • Gamification and Game-Based Learning: gamification is the process of applying game mechanics (i.e., points, levels, badges, money) to student learning; for example, stock market games, Kahoot!, and Capsim.

  • Service-Learning: combines learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance both student growth and the common good. For example, student activities partnered with Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity or a local Food Bank.


Hopefully, this blog inspires you to forgo standardized multiple-choice exams when developing options for measuring learning outcomes for your courses. Yes, I know, developing exams from test banks is very tempting. Who wants to rework the wheel?! However, multiple-choice exams have serious limitations in terms of testing for higher-order thinking. The alternatives to the traditional exam are justified in the literature. Implementing options requires more preparation and planning than developing a test. But by implementing alternative assignments, student learning is both enriched and enhanced as students demonstrate skills such as higher critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and leadership skills.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which alternative and innovative exam formats have you used in your courses, and why? Does your department support alternative and innovative exam formats? If not, how might you be able to change this in your department?

  2. Which example provided in this blog of alternative and innovative exam formats would you consider incorporating into a future course? Why do you think this particular format would work best in one of your future classes?

  3. What additional alternative and innovative exam formats were not addressed?


Alternatives to traditional Testing. (n.d.). Retrieved May 14, 2020, from

Bandy, J. (n.d.). What is service learning or community engagement? Retrieved from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching website:

Center for educational innovation. Advance your teaching. Engage your learners. (n.d.). Retrieved from University of Minnesota website:

Dubec, R. (2018, November 13). Thirteen alternatives to traditional Testing. Retrieved May 15, 2020, from

Free research poster PowerPoint templates. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2020, from

[Transforming higher education through project-based learning]. (n.d.). Retrieved from Chronicle of Higher Education - Worcester Polytechnic Institute website:

What is the experiential learning cycle? (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2017, from Growth Engineering website:

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