Moving Away From High-stakes Exams

Digital Technology Illustration
Published: Friday, August 7, 2020

Reasons to avoid high-stakes exams and ideas for increased engagement and meaning for students.

The disruptions to traditional higher education that have occurred in 2020 have brought to light a number of interesting challenges. One that is at the forefront of many minds of professors, teachers, and instructors is how to handle assessments remotely when proctoring may not be a viable option.

For a university that is trying to emphasize values of integrity, compassion, exploration, adaptation, inclusion, and determination, consider how proctoring provides students the opportunity to express growth in any of these values? Does it show we, as an institution, trust that we have done a good job supporting those values?

While there are many myths regarding both “traditional” and alternative assessment methods, it is important to recognize the reality that what we refer to as traditional assessment relies heavily on pre-selected answer options (multiple choice or true/false) that can easily be auto-graded. This was largely created as a way to streamline grading for larger class sizes than an effective method of measuring student knowledge. Cramming a semester of information into a final exam that is two or three hours long is not only impractical, but it also sends a message that the entirety of a course can culminate into just a few hours. Such high stakes exams are inherently going to miss assessing depth and complexity of knowledge, especially at higher orders of cognitive understanding.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, put it well:

“Imagine if, in the working world, your boss told you to expect a test later this week, but that you won't know exactly what will be on the test, you can't use any of the resources that you normally rely on (computers, colleagues, etc.), you cannot ask questions, you will have limited time to complete it, and your results will impact your next bonus. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success for you or the boss.” (Pope, 2019)

Yet, for some reason, we continue to force students to endure such a process time after time, telling ourselves whatever we need to in order to believe it is somehow preparing them for the “real world.”

The Intent of Alternative Assessment

At its core, alternative assessment is a means to meet outcomes on a deeper level. It achieves this often by adding relevance to an assessment, making it a bit more plausible or reflective of activities or problems one might face in the real world. This relevance improves the engagement for the learner. As a result, the motivation for the learner moves the end goal beyond merely a grade. Will this shift engage every student to the ideal level of motivation? No. But things an instructor can control are how they approach assessment in a meaningful way that honors the profession, the course and its outcomes, as well as the students and their trust in the institution. Focusing your efforts on the students who are in attendance for the right reasons is the best way to improve your course and provide a meaningful educational experience. (Lederman, 2020)

Giving Up Some Control

It’s scary to consider giving up some control of your own classroom, but the reality is that giving students some choice, even small ones, can create a feeling of some control in their own lives, allowing them greater motivation and excitement for their own learning. It also creates opportunities to individualize assessments, making academic dishonesty far more challenging, and providing opportunities for learners to construct a connection of meaning and value to the material you are teaching from their own experiences.

This can be done in ways that do not compromise your class structure but require some robust planning and rubrics to make grading consistent and equivalent. A few examples of items you might let students have control of are:

  • Selecting a topic to present on
  • Choosing a method of presentation
  • Opportunities for personal reflection on their experiences
  • Choosing whether to work individually or in groups
  • Choosing roles within a group
  • Providing opportunities for self-reflection on an activity

Performance-based Assessment

Odds are, something in a class you teach is important in the real world, in a job, somewhere. Most students attend college with the end goal of finding a career and many degree programs have adjusted to fit this model. What outcomes are you addressing in your course that align to something that fits the real world? Crafting a plausible scenario or problem the students must solve is a viable way to allow students the chance to synthesize the information they have gathered throughout the course to put it to use and create something meaningful from it. Examples might include:

  • Student presentation
  • Student projects
  • Student discussions
  • Group tasks
  • written explanation/persuasive piece
  • Debate/roleplay


When all is said and done, by the end of your course, does it matter in terms of outcomes that a student learned a particular concept in the third week of class or the fifteenth? Isn’t that part of what a summative final does? If it was scaffolded information, then the punishment shows in other assessments. However, if a student can show they know where they went wrong and can correct their own mistakes, is that not worth something for both the course outcomes and their growth as an individual? Allowing assignments to be retried for some grade improvement can allow students an opportunity to improve rather than showing them they only get a single chance to prove their ability, encouraging them to move on and forget the lessons they failed to grasp, instead of learning to get it right.


Lang, James M. (2013). Cheating Lessons, Part 3. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 22 July 2020 from:

Lederman, D. (2020, July 22). Best Way to Stop Cheating in Online Courses? ‘Teach Better’. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved July 22, 2020, from:

Pope, D. (2020). 7 Approaches to Alternative Assessments. Retrieved 22 July 2020, from:



Guest Author(s):
Daniel Whitaker
Former Instructional Designer, Digital Learning