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How to Assess Without A “Test”: Three ways to change your testing routine

It’s an age-old problem. Well sort of. Perhaps, it isn’t that old because a few generations ago, all teachers did were pretty much paper and pencil tests to assess student knowledge. However, it has dawned on the teacher that there may be other ways to assess knowledge and understanding besides the dreaded “test.”

Why should teachers look for other ways to assess? The answer is simple yet multi-fold. First, students, by-in-large dread test. We care about that, why? Because happy students are students that learn and retain what they’ve been taught. Secondly, alternative testing methods have students create something! Instead of just showing what a student has learned, teachers can actually get them to use their own creativity to produce something- which is, by the way, absolutely one hundred times better than just answering questions that you or someone else has thought to ask.

Take a look at just a few ways you can have students show what they know!


Unessays are my favorite! Just a few months ago, I would not have been able to explain what they were, but now if you asked me to describe them, I have the perfect answer. I would say, “It’s not what they are, it’s what they aren’t.” Basically an unessay allows students to create “something” from the material they have been taught or have studied. Let’s take a novel for example. Traditionally, teachers would finish a novel with their class, and then have students answer 30 questions. They would pat themselves on the back for mixing the questions with multiple choice, short answer and constructed-response questions. Yay! Not really.

I must admit that I was a little nervous about using this as an assessment option, but I was so very glad I did. After reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible my students were told to do an unessay. They could create anything that tied in with the play. I gave them clear guidelines in a rubric (they helped me create). And the results were stunning. One student that enjoyed baking, made bread from the time period, but also explained a theory of why the people of Salem were acting so oddly. She not only made a website that explained the breadmaking process (with pictures of her bread included) she also wrote a fairly detailed explanation of ergot poisoning, which some theorize could have been the cause of the hallucinations and strange behavior during the Witch Trials.

While this presentation alone was a great success in assessing her knowledge of the book, it was not alone in its uniqueness because at the same time another student did something completely different but equally fascinating. This student created a Lego courthouse, inspired from the famous scene from the play. The detail was almost breathtaking- gavel in the hand of a white-headed judge for example. However, I wasn’t completely impressed until he turned his creation around and showed us he created a second court. This one was an awesome representation of McCarthy’s faux trials of the 1950’s. I had spent a great deal of time teaching the students the significance of the Salem Witch Trial and the more modern version of the 1950’s communism “witch hunts.” The student had to do further research to make his representation, and it showed as he explained to the class what he found.

Unessays give agency to students, and we know how important that is- especially to older students. But it did more than that. It got them excited about their learning, allowed them to teach their classmates something I hadn’t, and will provided them opportunities to explore interest they already have (i.e.. baking, engineering, etc.)

Technology-Based Assessments

It’s just a fact. Our future adults need to know how to use technology, or they will never succeed in their future careers. Now that the technology is out of the bottle, it won’t recede. No matter what subject we teach, we need to also teach technology. This is why finding a way to assess using technology is important.

The possibilities of this are truly endless. So instead of giving a list, I will provide you with an example. After teaching “The Great Gatsby,” I could have had my students write “a paper,” but typing a paper on a computer hardly qualifies as technology integration. So, I had them create a movie trailer for a new “Great Gatsby” movie. Again, I provided a rubric that laid out the qualifications. But creativity reigned supreme in this assignment, as well. Think of the ways this assignment assessed their young minds: summarization, retelling, synthesizing are a few skills they had to employ. Again, students have to know the plot of the movie and analyze what would be important enough to be in a one minute trailer. It’s like taking a test without knowing you’re being tested. Which is my goal. These are the types of assignments that have students wanting you to be their teacher again and again.

Build Models

Students, and my unscientific opinion is boys especially, love building models. See the lego model I mentioned above. This is a tactile way to get students engaged in their learning and allows you to assess their knowledge and build on their understanding at the same time. I will give you two examples.

My son, a sixth grader, had to build a model of the solar system at the end of their astronomy unit. Sounds simple? He thought so too, until he got his grade back. Remember, we are actually assessing students, not just allowing them to have fun. This project was very specific, so students could not just glue a bunch of balls down on a cardboard poster. The requirements were they had to have a scale, and the planets had to be exactly the correct distance from the sun and other planets. The asteroid belt had to be as well. You can include the correct color of the planets, the correct number of moons, the axis of rotation of the planets, and the list goes on. I literally could not think of a better way to assess their knowledge of the solar system.

My other example is one for a history class. I had a problem. I didn’t want to ask 20 questions on the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain when I was teaching the Cold War. So, my culminating project was to have groups create their own Berlin walls out of plaster. How did I make this more educational. Students had a website to read just about the graffiti and art that was on the wall. They had to reproduce graffiti, but it had to have a political message for or against communism or democracy. However, some students picked up that there should have been little or no graffiti on the Soviet Union side of the wall because it was much more guarded than the pro-democracy side. Extra points!

I still wasn’t done. Now that my students understood the difference between the West and East I could explain to them there was no literal “iron curtain” but the wall was quite literal. In addition, to teach students about how the wall came down. We watched parts of Ronald Regan’s Mr. Klobuchar, tear down this wall” speech. I played videos of the famous Tom Brokow reporting from the wall the night it came down. I then took my students outside, yelled “Mr. Klobuchar, tear down this wall, and students smashed their walls to pieces!

Admit it, this is an assessment you would have joined in the sixth grade. Even, I, the teacher, enjoyed it quite a bit.


Assessments are necessary for teachers. They hold students accountable. They give us the data we need to identify what to reteach and to whom to reteach. However, there are multiple ways to do it, and we should be relentless in finding ways to not only “test” but teach even more through the way we test. All of the examples listed in this article forced students to research, use decision-making skills and perform in a way that will prepare them for college and careers.

There is a video version of this article with other tips and suggestions:

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