Alternative Assessment Guidance

Laptop and headseatThis guidance is aimed at HoDs, DLTs, programme leads, exams officers and other staff working in teams to consider digital assessment approaches for the 20/21 academic year. The guidance provides a strategy for considering changes to assessments, and details of some specific digital assessment methods.

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What will assessment look like in 2020-21?

For Semester 1 of the 20-21 academic year, assessments (including final assessments) are to be delivered digitally and should be asynchronous wherever possible.

The deadline for significant amendments to assessment for the 20-21 academic year has now passed, and you should now know the broad assessment type you will be using on your modules. The information on these pages will help you to make more specific decisions within those broad assessment types.

Review your current assessment formats

Review the current assessment format and ask yourself:

  • Is the assessment simple to mark? Are there clear assessment criteria/rubrics in place that others could use to mark if necessary?
  • Are there marking teams in place to mitigate for staff illness?
  • Is the assessment simple to complete for students? In the current context, assessments such as group assignments, presentations, creative media etc might be much more difficult for students to complete. Is there a simpler alternative that still allows students to demonstrate their achievement against the learning outcomes?
  • Does the assessment give all students an equal opportunity to demonstrate their learning? If not, are there ways you could make this assessment more inclusive?
  • When you have made decisions about new assessments, have you clearly communicated with both staff and students about the format? Have you provided clear briefs on the task, marking criteria, and detailed arrangements for submission, marking and deadlines?

It may be that alternative assessments devised during this period could provide more opportunities for students to demonstrate their progress, and learn through assessment. It may well be that alternative assessments are not temporary. This paper by Sally Brown and Kay Sambell (downloads automatically) provides guidance on how to use this opportunity to develop more authentic assessment.

Be mindful of the differing circumstances students might find themselves in at the moment, and inequities that might be compounded by the shift to digital and blended teaching. Students may have differing levels of access to or control over broadband, hard/software, resources, information, quiet and spacious study space, time allocation, or their normal reasonable adjustments provided. Allowing a degree of choice and flexibility in assessment, as well as providing clear information and being open about the rationale behind assessment choices, will all contribute to an inclusive environment in which students are equally enabled to demonstrate their learning. Where at all possible, embed equality impact analysis in any departmental decision-making about assessment.

Innovating in assessment - examples

In the spring semester, The School of Architecture held an online version of their yearly exhibition of students’ work submitted for assessment.

View the online exhibition

Landscape Architecture also produced an online catalogue of students’ assessed work:

View the catalogue

Rachel Thorley from Engineering Interdisciplinary Programmes created an innovative peer assessment activity in blackboard collaborate to replace a face-to-face 'elevator pitch' presentation.

Watch a short video about this assessment

Watch a longer video about this assessment

Support and guidance from the Elevate team is available at any time to help you navigate your way through these questions - please email and we can arrange this.

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Guidance on specific types of assessment

There are three key online assessment formats that are most likely to be used:

Open book exams

How does this work?

Questions/tasks can be set virtually. These can be multiple choice question (MCQ) tests, short answer tests, or long-form/essay questions. Students submit their responses electronically within a set period of time.

Pedagogical considerations:

  • Exam questions will need to be based on interpretation of information and application of knowledge rather than recall. This may mean that MCQ exam questions, in particular, may need to be revised to include more application-based tasks that cannot easily be looked up online or in textbooks. There is the opportunity to offer students the chance to demonstrate their skills in synthesis of information, critical analysis, interpretation of information and evidence, argument, and creativity.
  • Plagiarism is a risk, but this can be mitigated by careful design of exam questions as outlined above. The University has also produced some special guidance for staff around unfair means in online assessment.
  • Be mindful that students’ access to the internet might not always be consistent, students may be in different time zones, may be sharing equipment, may have caring and family responsibilities within the current situation. It is important to allow a reasonable amount of time for students to complete an open-book exam - a minimum of 24 hours is ideal but the time you allow will vary depending on the task you are setting.
  • Make word limits very clear and advise students to stick to the time given. Advice around time management will be useful for students. Do not schedule assessment over a weekend.
  • For further useful guidance (particularly for STEM subjects), see this document produced by CBE.

Technology for delivering this online:

Blackboard and Turnitin can be used to submit work - see Digital Learning guidance for more detail. 

Written assignments

How does this work?

Students submit a written piece of coursework by a set date. The format of the assignment could be varied (essays, portfolios, reports, literature reviews, methodologies, media articles, etc).

Pedagogical considerations

If the chosen assessment format is going to be new to students, offer the chance to practice and receive feedback in advance of the final assessment.

Written assignments may be needed to replace lab-based work. For example, you could ask students to interpret a data-set that you give them, or ask students how they would plan and conduct a particular experiment. Our page on teaching practical learning activities contains further guidance on alternatives to lab-based activity.

Technology for delivering this online

Assignments can be managed within Blackboard and Turnitin.

Portfolio based assignments can be managed with PebblePad, or simpler tools such as Blackboard Journals. See Digital Learning guidance for more detail on digital portfolios.

Audiovisual submissions

How does this work?

Students record themselves or their work and submit online. This could be a replacement for performance-based assessments or presentations, for example.

Pedagogical considerations

Criteria and mark schemes may need to be modified, for example if some marks were available for Q&A. Students are likely to have access to equipment of varying quality and judgement should not be based on this.

Technology for delivering this online

Kaltura Capture, Audacity, Powerpoint (for narrated presentations), Blackboard and Kaltura for submissions.

Digital Learning guidance on recorded presentations

Digital Learning guidance on recorded performances

For more details on how to deliver these formats online, please see the guidance from the Digital Learning team:

Assessing Online

You will also find on that page a list of further types of assessment you may have chosen, and practical guidance on implementing them.

Assessment based on group work may need to be reviewed. Depending on the assignment it may be possible for students to still work together remotely, using collaborative tech such as Google Docs. In other cases group assignments may no longer be practical or feasible, or may need some modification. For example, if an assignment was a group presentation, it may be that students can each record a segment of the presentation and upload it, but the mark scheme might need to be modified if Q&A is no longer feasible. If group work is to continue, remind your students that their peers may be in different time zones, may have different equipment and internet connectivity, and may have different pressures on their time - some extra support might be needed.

More guidance on managing group work

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How do we support students in preparing for assessment?

Laptop in useMany students will be experiencing high levels of stress and uncertainty at this time. It is important to be open and transparent about the rationale behind your assessment choices, and keep students informed in a clear and timely manner about what will happen.

It is also likely that there will be higher levels of illness and absence, which may affect students’ ability to complete examinations and meet deadlines for assessed work. Be flexible and open to extension of deadlines on assignments (and bear in mind that deadlines may also need to be changed in the case of staff illnesses). Clearly communicate to your students your departmental procedures for extension requests and extenuating circumstances applications. The University of Sheffield has updated the Extenuating Circumstances Procedure to allow students to self-certify and report medical and personal circumstances, without the need to provide supporting evidence or the authority of a healthcare professional.

Students with Learner Support Plans will also need to be supported, and reasonable adjustments still provided as appropriate. Whilst there is a lot you can do to support disabled students in moving to alternative forms of assessment by taking an inclusive approach to the design of assessment, please see additional guidance for supporting disabled students:

Supporting disabled students with online assessment

Remember the importance of supporting students to understand academic integrity and to avoid unfair means in digital assessment.

Avoiding unfair means in digital assessment

Students can still access a range of online support from 301 Academic Skills Centre to aid in study skills and preparation for assessment. 301 have also produced a student-facing guide for alternative assessments that you can direct your students to:

301 Guide to alternative assessment

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What support can I get?

For queries relating to using learning technologies and tools for assessment, the Digital Learning Helpdesk is open Mon- Friday 8am - 5pm: email

Elevate also offers one to one appointment slots, which can be used to discuss alternative assessments.

You can also email Elevate at any time for non-technical support on moving to alternative assessments:

For support at a departmental level (for example with looking at assessment across a programme), complete this request form.

For queries relating to changes to assessment, contact your Faculty Academic Programme and Quality contact.

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Further information

Further Information