The quest for alternative assessment

Formal exams and essays have formed the backbone of academic assessment for centuries, but they are far from perfect, and they don’t suit everyone – tutors and learners alike. Alternative assessment methods have been growing in popularity. Could it be the accelerating adoption of artificial intelligence that finally forces us to fully embrace them?

What are the alternatives?

Alternative assessment refers to any assessment method that is not a traditional timed exam paper or academic essay. This can take different forms, including:

  • Portfolio: a collection of student work that demonstrates their learning over time.
  • Project: a longer-term assignment that requires students to apply their knowledge and skills in a real-world context.
  • Presentation: an opportunity for students to share their learning with an audience.
  • Performance: a task that requires students to demonstrate their skills in a hands-on way.
  • Media: students submit their work using video or audio recordings.

There are numerous benefits to embracing alternative assessment. It makes it possible to assess a wider range of learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity, thus potentially providing a more comprehensive assessment of student learning. It also increases student engagement – alternative assessments can be more engaging and motivating for students, which can lead to improved learning outcomes.

Another benefit would be closing the awarding gap and increasing access. Alternative assessments provide students with a variety of ways to demonstrate their learning, which can be beneficial to those with disabilities or from diverse backgrounds. And, of course, it would help to address the challenge of artificial intelligence, because it is much more difficult to use AI to submit via an alternative assessment method.

Even before the rise of AI tools such as ChatGPT Dr Carli Rowell, (Sociology and Criminology), approached Educational Enhancement to deliver a workshop highlighting different alternative assessment methods. Dr Charlie Crouch (Academic Developer) and Rachael Thomas (Learning Technologist) were delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate on this workshop (Sussex login required).

Professional Services collaboration

Educational Enhancement are often engaged in blue-sky thinking with academic colleagues but are also regularly asked about how changes can be made within current university systems. Accordingly, there was great benefit in collaborating with Professional Services colleagues to identify where and how any changes to assessment could be accommodated.

A beautiful collaborative relationship was born among the Professional Services teams providing support to the Social Sciences cluster of schools.

  • Charlie Crouch (Educational Enhancement) drew from pedagogic literature on the benefits and challenges of alternative assessments, and what has been successful in other institutions, to facilitate the workshop.
  • Amanda Bolt (Academic Quality and Partnerships) gave practical advice about the School Education Committee process for when, how and whether to make changes to accommodate alternative modes of assessment.
  • Anna McCall (Academic Regulations) provided information about assessment regulations and common pitfalls in assessment briefs.
  • Rachael Thomas (Educational Enhancement) provided expert knowledge of specific university systems and instruction on how to set up assignments to accept the different ways students might submit work.

Together, they provided a rounded picture of the process, and were able to respond to queries which arose during the workshop.

The workshop

The workshop started with an activity, asking participants to add post-it notes to a wall, saying why they think we need to assess students. This was followed by an explanation of why alternative assessments are desirable, what they could look like, some case studies and student feedback.

Participants in the workshop were then asked to play a game (described below), to identify different methods of assessment, and how these might work within Sociology and Criminology. After the game, there was an opportunity for participants to ask questions about the practicalities of how they would implement the assessment types they had discussed and identified as appropriate for their learning outcomes.

The game

The larger part of the workshop focused on participants taking part in Assessment: The Game – an activity developed by Ian Turner, a professor in learning and teaching in higher education at University of Derby, to ’break down existing barriers and preconceptions about assessment modes that can be used in higher education.’

The workshop attendees were split into small groups, and each member was dealt three cards from a deck of 60, each showing a different type of assessment mode. They were invited, as groups, to consider one of the learning outcomes associated with their module and create an assessment which aligned with that learning outcome, using one of the assessment mode cards in their group. They were given 45 minutes to discuss this in their groups, with an opportunity to swap their cards if they couldn’t find a match with one of their learning outcomes.


Feedback during and following the workshop included some robust discussions about the concerns that assessment might become less academically rigorous as they became more varied. Inevitably, conversations also touched on the possible implications of ChatGPT for assessment. And there were suggestions for how the skills gap in academic staff and students could be addressed to enable the use of different tools and systems.

The game was well received, with one participant commenting ‘it was really great and worked well’ and recognising that it was structured enough to provide direction, but free enough to allow discussion of issues important to the school. As a result, a strong interest in podcasts was identified and a follow up workshop on designing podcasts as assessment has been arranged. Everyone involved enjoyed spending an afternoon together dedicated to exploring the possibilities of alternative assessments.

If you would like the Educational Enhancement team to deliver this workshop in your school, please contact

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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