Also, Not Instead Of: Providing Students Opportunities for Alternative Modes of Assessment

The literature classes we teach in the English department have the student learning outcome that students successfully completing our courses will be able to “Effectively communicate analytical arguments and comprehension of course content through responses to, interpretations of, and arguments about [insert course focus here] literature in essays, written exams, class discussion, and other methods of evaluation using appropriate citation form.” The conventions of our discipline, our own course outlines of record, and our articulation agreements all require that in our literature courses, students demonstrate their interpretive and analytical skills in the form of written essays. We teach and evaluate student ideas and writing in these assignments. But we are not bound to evaluate students’ analytical arguments about and interpretations of literature exclusively through written essays and exams.

Wanting to push our students past summary and into interpretation and argument, but with some freedom from the essay form, we started to explore alternative modes of assessment that would allow our students to demonstrate interpretation and argument outside of more traditional writing assignments. As is typically the case for our literature classes that meet the Humanities General Education requirement, we were thinking about how this could benefit both our non-English majors as well as English majors; for the non-English majors we hoped these “Un-Essays” could address their feelings of being overwhelmed or intimidated by multiple essay assignments, and for the English majors, often enrolled in multiple literature courses per semester, we thought this could offer an alternative way of thinking about literature, a chance to be creative, to think in new ways about expressing an argument. The un-essay can also give students a chance to work with and hone their skills using the platforms and tools and/or materials of their future careers or workplaces, practicing how to communicate complex ideas and information clearly and creatively in another form.

Over the last few semesters, we’ve been experimenting with this assignment; it is often assigned as optional or with some student choice and control embedded (the students can still write a traditional essay if they want in some cases, or perhaps they can choose which of the assignments they can respond to with an un-essay), and the students are given the following guidance on how their productions will be evaluated and what writing elements are still required. Like an essay, these requirements are typically meant to be fulfilled in response to a specific prompt about specific literary works.

Un-Essay Project:

This project allows you to construct a multi-modal interpretation of the text(s) in response to the prompt you select. Your project should include thoughtful and thought-provoking interpretation of one or more significant aspects of the text in light of the prompt. 

Along with the artifact that you create (which may or may not have written material) you will also submit a written document, five numbered responses to the five components below (not written as an essay; written as five answers).

  1. A strong thesis statement that interprets the meaning of your creation as a response to the prompt. You can include a paragraph or so of further explanation to support that thesis about the works, your artifact, and the prompt, as needed.
  2. Specific examples (quotes and interpretations of those quotes) from the text that you collect and cite and provide commentary on, indicating how they are reflected, echoed, or somehow represented by your project.
  3. Specific examples (quotes and interpretations of those quotes) from the historical/cultural/theoretical literary contexts that relate. (These can be any of the editorial/historical essays from your Norton including the author biographies, or any outside research articles you want to use; all sources, including those in the Norton must be cited.)
  4. A reflective statement about what you were trying to do and assessing whether or not you were able to achieve your goal in this mode.
  5. A reflective statement about what you learned or realized or deepened your understanding of regarding the literature that this multi-modal way of thinking about produced.

“Okay, but what does un-essay ‘multi-modal’ mean?”

It means incorporating an analytical project or creation that is not primarily a written interpretation and that is not at all an essay.

Samples of what this could be that you can use but that you are not limited to:

  • Artistic response: a visual, digital, or creative writing response to the prompt (a painting, drawing, digital art, poem, song, play-scene (written, not performed) etc.)
  • Interpretive guide: you could create a guide for readers that incorporates visual and written elements; a playbill or museum guide are good examples that you could model.
  • Social media style response (none of which has to actually be posted, but it should be created in the format of one of these styles): a meme collection, a tweet-thread or un-threaded set of tweets, an Instagram story or set of posts, a tiktok, etc. This can include video submissions.
  • An academic version of familiar children’s crafts: a lego response, a pasta mosaic, etc.
  • A crafted response in general: Knitting? Embroidery? Baking? I’m less sure about what this might be or how it might work, and you *really* have to keep in mind your time constraints… but maybe?

So far, though we have tinkered with the directions each semester, we have been impressed and invigorated by the student work and their discussion about the literature and the interpretation and argumentation they present. Further, many of the students have also been deeply engaged with the assignment.

  • “By doing this multi-modal way of thinking, it opened my eyes to how magical literary work can be. This gave me an opportunity to visually see my imagination in a more tangible way. It deepened my understanding of the author’s intentions … Writing in a less restricted form also made it less painful and I did not feel trapped. … It also gave me some of the passion I had for writing back, which I thought I would never feel again.”
  • “Understanding the poems was the hardest task for me because it was so difficult to find the embedded meanings behind the text. However, through this project, I learned the joy of discovering the meanings, and I enjoyed the process of visualizing the meanings with the tools of my choice.”
  • “This Un-Essay gave me a deeper understanding of the novel that I otherwise wouldn’t have with just a regular essay. It required me to go beyond just reading and writing about the book and required me to form not only a connection with the words but read more about how the author relates to her own narrative and how she sees her own writing.”
  • The multi-modal way of interpreting and analyzing the text has allowed a greater understanding of how a text can be viewed and interpreted. In analyzing a text for an essay, it is only the thesis, evidence, and overall structuring of a paper that needs to be accounted for when writing an essay. However, this format requires the argument to be turned into something less structured but still efficient in communicating the overall argument. The artifact we had to create needed to be experimental and creative yet relevant to the idea and to make sense. I found that the project pushed me to go outside my element with my argument, yet I also found it easier to focus on the motifs, themes, and symbols of the text. With the visual aspect of the project, it made it easier to make connections to outside sources in an analogous sense as well as to directly visualize the argument I was making.

The students here remind us that content need not be at odds with creativity. While we need students to meet the SLOs for a class, we can also give them the space to express them in ways that are personal and meaningful and joyful to them. In our Community of Practice over the years, our colleagues have in various ways emphasized the importance of recognizing and honoring who our students are outside of the classroom and outside of their role as students. Through this work, our students get to showcase themselves and their learning. They are skilled and artistic, inspiring and inspired, scholars and more – also, not instead of!

We would like to share with you an informal gallery of our students’ work and invite you to a brief discussion about alternative modes of assessment across and beyond our discipline of English. Join us May 4 to see student work from our classes and chat about ways to encourage students to find their creativity and deepen their thinking in our disciplines.

Dr. Jan Andres
Dr. Kelly Douglass
Dr. Kathleen Sell

One thought on “Also, Not Instead Of: Providing Students Opportunities for Alternative Modes of Assessment

  1. Most of what I read lately about chatgpt and related tech is that the written essay is no longer a suitable measure of intelligence or grasp of concept. These ideas address the significant issue posed by large language models (LLM) in higher eduction. I’ve deemphasized the essay and the results in student engagement and confidence is better this term.


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