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The Best Ways to Evaluate Student Learning Without Giving Them a Test!

    how to evaluate student learning without giving tests

    Evaluating student learning doesn’t have to mean giving a traditional test. There are several ways to assess student learning that are both effective and engaging. Dive into this post to learn what they are!

    What are the best ways to evaluate student learning without giving them a test? I’m glad you asked!

    We can’t avoid assessments in the ELA classroom. But who said that assessment had to be synonymous with test? (You know, no.2 pencils, paper, multiple-choice questions, scantrons– all that “good” stuff.)

    The good news is it doesn’t have to be.

    The Power Of Evaluating Student Learning Without Testing

    In modern education, we know how important it is for students to be active and engaged in the learning process, including the assessment. We know it’s about more than recalling information. In fact, I would argue there’s an essential step before even applying information. Students need to be able to interpret information before applying it– and that’s where the magic happens, right?

    By challenging students to interpret and apply their knowledge through assessments with high autonomy, the experience becomes more engaging and individualized– and just as effective, if not more so. Let go of the reigns a little bit and watch as the floodgates open, students’ ideas and revelations spilling through. And that, my friend, is the magic of a strong and engaging assessment. The secret? Moving beyond traditional tests. And– to many ELA teachers’ surprise– traditional essays. (Stay with me. I promise it will be worth it.)

    I mean, sure they can interpret information on a test. But the extent of interpretation and application is limited to what’s on those dreaded pages. Does opting for a traditional pencil and paper test here and there make you a bad teacher? Absolutely not. However, in this post, I want to share with you the best ways to evaluate student learning without a traditional test.

    The Best Ways To Evaluate Student Learning Without Giving Them A Test

    Here are five ways to evaluate student learning that aren’t a test:


    I love how presentations give students a different type of ownership over the content since they’re– well, literally presenting their knowledge and skills. However, and perhaps more importantly, presenting requires many real-world skills that aren’t necessarily hit with a more traditional assessment, like speaking.

    This assessment style requires students to synthesize and focus on the most important elements. I find that students who normally struggle with more traditional testing and writing assessments thrive with this alternative approach.

    Some of my favorite presentation-style assessments include:

    • Persuasive speech
    • Posters
    • Slideshows
    • “Ted Talks”
    • Brochures
    • Infographics
    • Gallery walks


    While they were once viewed as the “easy way out,” there’s been a shift in the understanding of the benefits of project-based assessments. (It turns out there’s a lot more to project-based assessments than meets the eye.) While testing requires students to know their subject matter, projects require important 21st-century skills like planning, critical thinking, time management, reasoning, and creativity.

    Using projects as a tool for evaluating student learning requires students to collect information, think about how to present it, and successfully translate what they know into a final product. Therefore, projects give students a chance to dive even deeper into a skill, subject matter, or text. Better yet, you can combine projects with presentations for a well-rounded assessment.

    Some of my favorite project-based assessments include:

    • Creating a company
    • Creating a PSA campaign
    • Designing a website
    • Creating a board game
    • Classroom debate


    When designed well, multigenre projects can be fun and engaging for students and teachers alike. Therefore, the key to multigenre assessments is having clear assessment criteria and an overarching theme, goal, message, or question for the project to unpack. While it can seem like a daunting task at first, students typically love the opportunity to pick and choose a variety of elements to showcase their understanding of a particular subject. Due to the variety of multigenre projects, students must tap into various skills while playing to their strengths.

    In addition to more traditional writing pieces, some of my favorite elements in multigenre projects are the more creative aspects. The following are some of my favorite genres that make for a great addition to a multigenre project. However, they can also stand alone as a more creative way to evaluate student learning: 

    • Diary entry from a real or fictional character
    • Writing a poem, play, or dialogue
    • Character social media profiles
    • Collages
    • Work of art or music
    • Found poems
    • Playlists with explanations
    • Abstract recipes
    • One-pager projects


    Like a multigenre project, a portfolio-style assessment includes multiple pieces of work. Therefore, teachers have various opportunities to evaluate student skills and understanding. One of the greatest benefits of portfolio-style evaluation is assessing student growth. Students can create portfolios using binders, folders, or even the internet. While this approach helps take the pressure off any one assignment, it provides teachers a holistic view of student ability and understanding.

    While you can require certain pieces to be included, I recommend giving students some choice. This autonomy requires a skill a test doesn’t: self-evaluation. Students must carefully select pieces for their portfolios that align with the criteria while showcasing their best work.

    There are a few ways to approach a portfolio assessment:

    • Show student growth over time
    • Students select their best work
    • A collection of a specific genre (i.e. short stories or poetry)


    Looking for a way to combat the “when am I ever going to use this” complaints? Evaluating student learning with real-world tasks just might be the answer. There are a lot of ways for students to showcase their learning and it’s an added bonus when you can tie it to a real-world situation or deliverable. Consider the following ideas for inspiration:

    • Writing a letter to congress
    • Writing a blog post
    • Creating an advertisement
    • Newspaper article or editorial
    • Writing a book review
    • Op-Ed piece
    • Email campaign

    Designing Effective Assessments That Aren’t Tests

    The idea of moving beyond the traditional test assessment can be intimidating at first. After all, many educators and training programs see more traditional test-taking as the go-to. It becomes much clearer that assessments can take many forms if you can move beyond the method of assessment and  focus on the essential questions:

    • What do students need to know/do?
    • Why are they learning this?
    • How can they apply this knowledge in class and beyond?

    When it comes to developing a non-test assessment, I suggest using the backward design approach (Shoutout Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe for this game-changer). Begin by determining what your students are learning and what you want to assess. The questions above are a great starting point. Then, begin finessing the specific targets of the assessment by asking more specific questions:

    • What is the target skill and/or essential question for this unit?
    • What’s the purpose of the assessment? Will the results be used for further instruction?
      • Do you want to assess student knowledge or the skill of applying that knowledge– or both?
      • Are you looking to assess a final product or a process– or both?
      • What evidence needs to be gathered and provided to answer the two questions above? Make a list of the skills you want to include in your assessment.
    • How will students express evidence of skills or apply knowledge through this assessment?
    • What are the time constraints around this assessment?

    Once you answer those questions, you can get to the fun part– designing the assessment!

    Getting Around The Challenge Of Less Traditional Assessments

    Worried this “won’t work”– I hear you. That was my initial reaction too. However, I’ve learned that students are more capable than we give them credit for. Often, it comes down to how we frame a less traditional assessment. For example, if the assessment involves creativity, I like to give students ownership over the assessment by establishing creative quality criteria. Regardless, be sure to provide (and review) clear expectations, guidelines, and requirements.

    Another concern many teachers have is that more creative assessments aren’t rigorous enough. Again, much of this can be set by you. If you worry there is not a strong enough writing component, require students to accompany more creative pieces with mini analysis paragraphs. Additionally, a reflection is a great asset to a less traditional assessment. You can have students discuss their takeaways and their process and justify their decisions.

    Lo and behold, while tests seem to be synonymous with assessment, there are several ways to assess student learning. Besides, the goal of assessments shouldn’t be regurgitation. Instead, it should be to actively engage with and insightfully apply new knowledge, right? (Right.) That’s exactly why I believe in interactive assessments over transactional assessments. I strive to engage my students with engaging assessments And, after reading this post, I hope you will be too.

    I’m excited for you to give some of these ideas a try in your classroom. Hey, you can even share them with your teacher friends too. If you’ve hit the lottery and have an engaging assessment that works in your classroom, be sure to let me know in the comments below!

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