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Blog 242

Blog 242

Can an old dog learn new tricks?

By Merv Mosher, Professor Emeritus (Teaching Stream)

The COVID-19 pandemic provided the impetus for many changes in how we deliver our courses. I taught large (500 plus students), required courses in School of Kinesiology and Health Science for decades. The course material was presented through in-person lectures, weekly labs and assigned readings. Evaluation was done via weekly lab assignments, multiple-choice mid-term tests and a final multiple-choice exam. Course and instructor evaluations were always quite positive.

During the 2020-2021 academic term, this traditional mode of course delivery and evaluation was shifted to an online format with few changes. The online version of the course worked reasonably well. However, because of a strong desire to maintain the academic integrity of online testing, strict measures were introduced. These included tight time limits and sequential question testing (once a question is answered, a student cannot go back to review or edit their answer). As I reflected on the evaluation process, I developed a growing unease with the methods I was using. I think the online format exacerbated the problems that have long existed with the traditional grading system used in many courses.

More specifically, I realized that education should be about learning not testing/grades.  I was also fatigued dealing with “grade lawyering”, (begging, arguing, pleading for a grade bump). My dissatisfaction with the evaluation process led me to a book by Linda B. Nilson, (Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time).

One of the interesting concepts in the book is that of requiring mastery of a topic as part of the evaluation process. In other words, it is possible to establish the criteria that a student must achieve to receive credit for completing a topic. I found this notion of competency-based evaluation refreshing.

At about the same time, I found a blog post, (Teaching Without Exams), by York University’s James Andrew Smith, an associate professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. 

James generously spent time answering my many questions about his course format.

After reading the Nilson book and speaking with Professor Smith, I decided to use alternate forms of evaluation for my courses in the Fall of 2021. I reached out to the Teaching Commons for guidance and assistance in structuring the evaluation protocols that I would use. I would highly recommend them to anyone considering restructuring course evaluation methods.

Once the term was completed, I created a series of videos to describe the why and how of what I had done. In the first video I explain why I would try to improve something that had worked quite well for decades. The second and third parts of the video series describe the alternate assessment techniques that were used and the corresponding grading scheme. Video parts four and five describe the results of the alternate assessment techniques and the feedback provided by hundreds of students. In the final video I reflect on what I would modify to improve the delivery of these courses using alternate assessment techniques. And I give my impressions of how the alternate assessment techniques affected the learning process. Spoiler alert: I would do it again in a heartbeat. 

I am willing to share my experiences with anyone who may be interested.  I can be reached at 

Part 1: Why Try Something Different?

Part 2: What alternate assessment techniques were utilized?

Part 3: What Grading Scheme was used?

Part 4: Results?

Part 5: What did students think? (Results of student survey)

Part 6: Improvements and Impressions

About the author

Merv has recently retired from York University. He began teaching in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science, several decades ago when using an overhead projector was considered the height of technology. Merv has received several teaching awards and was a finalist in the TVO Best Lecturer competition.