Alternative Assessments

Inclusive Approaches to Support Student Assessments During Times of Disruption**

Fortunately, for much of the time, Dalhousie faculty and students are able to teach and learn as planned in the syllabus. However, whether due to weather, travel, or illnesses like COVID-19, there are times when these plans need to be adjusted. This resource offers approaches to making these adjustments, especially in the area of assessment.

In times of significant disruption, the key goal is to help students get the support they need to meet your most essential learning outcomes. Teaching in times of disruption may involve thinking creatively about how to build students’ knowledge and skills in different formats to complete the same assignment. An example of this adjustment includes delivering a virtual lecture and then having students complete the original exam using the Quizzes tool in Brightspace. Dalhousie has compiled an elearning website that offers remote and digital modifications for many teaching and learning practices.

However, instructors may also wish to think creatively about the assignment itself, through an approach that may not be intensively digital. For the purposes of inclusion, it is important to be mindful that some students have limited access to laptops and data plans. An assessment that relies on face-to-face interaction (e.g., discussion, presentations, debates) might be completed in Collaborate, or it could be substituted with an assignment in a different format that meets the same course outcomes. One example of a "low tech" adjustment includes asking students to write a pro/con issue comparison memo, in lieu of participating in a classroom debate.

Below, we describe the most frequently used assessments in Dalhousie courses and offer low- and higher-tech options for helping students to complete them. If you are using an assignment type that is not detailed below, please contact to talk through options specific to your teaching context.

Creative Approaches to Help Students Complete Key Assessments



Dalhousie’s eLearning website for using the Brightspace Discussions tool. Other possibilities for creatively maintaining discussions include:
• Holding discussions or office hours via conference call. Instructors can use Collaborate to hold such discussions.



In many ways, papers are the ideal assignment during times of disruption because they require fewer adjustments compared to other types of assignments. However, because of the lack of peer or instructor contact to go over drafts or discuss expectations, ideas to creatively support student writing include:

• For peer feedback, instructors can set up pairs or triads for students to email drafts to each other. Just as with any peer feedback process, it is most helpful to structure these discussions by sharing a rubric in advance, or asking students to annotate their draft with questions that ask for specific feedback from their reader. Instructors also can ask peer readers to answer specific, descriptive questions like, “What is the biggest unresolved question in this draft? What do you want to read more about in this essay? What are the draft’s biggest strengths?“ (Gooblar, 2019, p. 93).

• Students can use Microsoft Word online to share drafts with instructors. The wonderful aspect of this option is that it also allows students to use the comment feature to dialogue with the instructor, e.g., “Here’s where I think my thesis statement is” or “Here is a section that I am struggling with” (LaVaque-Manty & Evans, 2013).

• To offer guidance to students about helpful writing conventions, online tools such as Purdue OWL offer resources about topics such as writing a thesis statement and discipline-specific writing expectations.

• Research papers may be tricky for students to complete, especially if the assignment was originally designed to involve a lot of on-campus interaction, use of the library’s physical collections, or data collection. Consider what the key goals for the research paper are. Bean (2011) lists seven, including how to ask discipline-appropriate research questions, how and why to find sources, how to take good notes, and how to write for audience, genre, and purpose. If your most important goal is source-related, an annotated bibliography might also function well as a substitute assignment. If asking and answering questions is most critical, consider if a research proposal—laying out the key intended aims and approaches of the project—might meet similar objectives.


To help students complete labs and lab reports, consider:

• Whether the key outcome of the lab is (or could be) data analysis, rather than data collection. If the latter, instructors can share pre-existing/”dummy” data with students then ask them to analyze and submit via Brightspace.

• Can some aspects of the lab be accomplished if students watch them, rather than do them? For example, the Journal of Visualized Experiments (to which the Dalhousie Libraries subscribes) offers over 9,500 videos demonstrating experiments, mapped to key concepts and student protocols. MERLOT serves as a repository housing 90+ virtual labs.


For planned in-class student presentations, other options are below:

• Ask students to record their presentation using simple technology (such as a cell phone or their computer) and send it to the instructor via Brightspace.

• A lower tech option is to ask students to submit a written script of their presentation to assess content knowledge and other skills like persuasive thinking. This substitution is most appropriate if oral communication is less of a core objective for the course.

Group Projects and Design Projects


Projects may be broken down into components—such as data collection, writing, presentations—that can be addressed by some of the ideas outlined above. However, other options include:

• PhET offers a number of online simulations where students work through core concepts in physics, mathematics, chemistry, earth science, and biology. Students can work through the simulations and design a class activity, physical lab, or homework assignment that incorporates that concept.

• For design projects, students can create prototypes at home using objects around the house. The prototypes can then be shared as a photo or video file through email or Brightspace.


The eLearning website offers a resource for using Brightspace’s Quizzing tool. However, other possibilities for creatively measuring student understanding of concepts include substitution of an in-class exam with:

• A timed or untimed take-home exam. In the case of a timed exam, an instructor might distribute problems or prompts to students by email, then give students a certain amount of time to return their responses. If collecting responses by email, it is logistically helpful to ask students to use a standard file naming format, such as Lastname_FirstInitial_Exam2.docx.

• A final portfolio with revisions and annotations. For classes with significant writing (weekly responses, multiple papers, etc.), students could have the opportunity to revise a certain number of assignments and compile them into a final portfolio. The portfolio should then be annotated, where students explain their writing and revision process for each piece and include a brief introductory statement about the work as a whole--which elements of their growth in the class does the portfolio highlight?

• A series of smaller assignments that can be completed remotely in lieu of comprehensive exam.

Please contact the Centre for Learning and Teaching to talk more about these or other options specific to your teaching context.



Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gooblar, D. (2019). The missing course: Everything they never taught you about college teaching. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

LaVaque-Manty, M., & Evans, E. M. (2013). Implementing metacognitive interventions in disciplinary writing classes. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVaque-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (122-146). Stylus Publishing.

** This document has been adapted from "Inclusive Approaches to Support Student Assignments During Times of Disruption” created by the Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University.