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Blog 145

Blog 145

Considering Alternative Assessment

By Mandy Frake-Mistak

Click on this link to view an online tutorial about Planning to Assess (When everyone is stressed…)

York University has suspended all remaining face-to-face classes and moved all courses and course related material to an online or alternative format to support the nation’s response to COVID-19. Further to this, as communicated by Lisa Philipps, our Provost and Vice President Academic, all in-person exams have been cancelled during the formal winter exam period of April 7-25, 2020. According to Senate Policy on planning for the completion of the academic term, Course Directors may implement adjustments to the number of assignments, make changes to the kind and weight of assignments (including tests and examinations) provided the changes do not disadvantage students, and preserve academic integrity and, where relevant, accreditation requirements. Naturally this presents several significant challenges to us all, least of our students, and to Course Directors who must rapidly determine the most effective and meaningful way to deliver course content and assess student learning.

Let’s pause for a moment and look at the big picture and ask the ‘big’ question: What is the purpose of higher education? Ultimately (I think), a university degree suggests that students will graduate having acquired new knowledge, ways of thinking and seeing the world, professional skills, reflection, writing, collaborating, creativity, researching, and so on. More broadly speaking, we hope that students will obtain significant and enduring educational outcomes that will serve them well in their lives beyond academia. Given the current situation, we have been forced to reconsider our typical forms of assessment. What are the enduring understandings that students must carry with them beyond your course? What else is good to have, but unessential in these challenging times? While we acknowledge that a valid assessment should measure the skills and knowledge that you have intended for your students to learn (Ryerson Teaching and Learning Office, 2018), we also have to come to terms with what and how students learn is largely dependent upon how they think they will be assessed (Biggs, 1999). Hence, the necessary changes you make to your assessment plan will have to have a rationale you can explain to them, and a clear connection to their learning so far. Make sure you have a plan to communicate this to them succinctly and in a timely  manner:

  • As a Course Director, you have been asked to communicate with students in your course or courses as soon as possible and by no later than Friday, March 20, 2020 to indicate how you will make course materials available and complete course activities.
  • All students should be informed by their instructors of any adjustments to evaluation and grading schemes by Friday, March 27, 2020.

As your consideration of what assessments are reasonable and feasible given both the time constraints with end of term approaching and these unprecedented circumstances with Covid-19, it may be helpful to be aware of what potential advantages and disadvantages there are in using alternative assessment. Importantly to any Course Director is that they can be aligned to course learning outcomes.

The following is a set of guidelines for developing your own alternative assignment and has been created by Brigham Young University:

  • Clearly define the learning outcome you still need to assess.
  • Create tasks that elicit evidence of the student’s ability to perform the targeted learning outcomes.
  • Consider how these tasks can be completed and shared with you given the circumstances. Asynchronous means are recommended.
  • Decide what kinds of guidance you can provide while still allowing students the freedom to learn and do it independently.
  • Try out the assessment and make revisions as necessary.

Times are indeed turbulent and as such our everyday world seems to be changing from one moment to the next making the simplest of tasks seem overwhelmingly complex. For more tips and strategies to adapt your course assessments, please visit:

I will conclude by referring to President Lenton’s March 13 community update letter:

I know this is an anxious and upsetting time for everyone. Let me say, without reservation, that York will be there to support every member of the community as we face this pandemic together. For students, my commitment is that you will have the academic and wellness supports you need to thrive in and beyond the current situation. For faculty and staff, know that the University recognizes your dedication and is, in turn, committed to your health and wellbeing.

Read also the Five Principles for Making Decisions about Assessment in Challenging Times for important considerations when adapting your assessment strategies, with concrete examples.


Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. New York: Open University Press.

Brigham Young University. (n.d). Using Alternative Assessments. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from

Indiana University Bloomington. (2018b). Authentic Assessment. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://citl.indiana. edu/teaching-resources/assessing-student-learning/authentic-assessment/index.html

Ryerson Learning and Teaching Office (2018). Best practices: Alternative Assessments. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from:

Queen’s University. (n.d.). Assessment Strategies - Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Retrieved from assessments/index.html