The Fun Case for Alternative Assessment

“I had so much fun grading papers last night!”  Not a sentiment frequently heard, expressed, or even thought. Yet this legitimately describes my experience a few weeks ago after reading my students’ Beowulf quizzes.

Over the last several semesters, I have shifted my idea of what evaluation should look like. We are so accustomed to one type of exam or paper (especially in literature fields), that it can be hard to imagine another way to do it. After all, as scholars we write a certain type of paper and therefore expect shorter versions of these of our students. But as few of our students will continue in our own career paths, why force them to demonstrate their learning in the same way we do? So I started thinking less about exams/quizzes as ways to evaluate what they did and did not understand or retain, and more as opportunities for them to show me what they learned. This is, of course, exactly what alternative assessment intends to do. This shift opens the door to so many possibilities!

This particular assignment came from the struggles students were having understanding the poetic language of Beowulf, even using the relatively readable Healey translation. By asking them to recount details of their own regular lives in a style imitative of the poem, they improved their understanding of how to read the text’s heroic language and difficult-to-decipher kennings. They were asked to write a 10-15 line poem in the heroic Beowulf style and include at least 3 kennings.

Here are just a few of the results:

Hannah B

In times gone by, the great knowledge-givers bestowed upon me
many quests, tasks both lofty and many in number.
A mind both sharp and patient, and my mighty lead-sword,
were to be my only weapons in these battles to come.
Upon learning of my quests, I mounted my wheeled-ship
and traveled home, home to the Creek of the Bears.
Far over the tar-and-gravel-sea I went,
longing to reenter my hall and home.

Upon my arrival, my most-trusted thane, Elise the Short,
greeted me with warm welcomes.
She, too, had honorable quests and tasks,
for she, like me, is a book-warrior.

Undaunted, sitting atop our pillowed-thrones,
I drew my lead-sword, she her ink-spear.
Without a second glance out
toward the meadows and squirrel-havens,
our struggles thus began.
From dusk till dawn we labored on,
exhausted in the fray.
But finally our glory had been won,
our legacy secured.
At dawn we would ride out again
to the hall of CU Boulder.


Stars and moon leave the sky as Katrina the Half-Roman awoke from slumber.
Staring into the image-reflector, she placed the lenses of seeing into her eyes. She exclaimed,
“With these lenses, no fiend is a match for I, Katrina the Strong and Advisor of Residents.”
The machine of calls sounds and the Half-Roman answers.
The Queen of Baker Hall spoke in distress, “Daughter of Ann the Fearless, I call upon you to uphold your fealty.
The people of Baker Hall are in need of help. Grace me with your presence at once.”
The Half-Roman donned her light mail and tamed her golden mane.
Thus prepared for her journey, Katrina the Strong knelt before the Queen.
“I am honored to be in your presence and I uphold my fealty.
What would you have me do, Director of Halls?”
The Queen replied, “This resident has lost their door-unlocker. Go, help them in their quest to find it.”
“I, Katrina, daughter of Ann the Fearless, finder of keys, will aid this resident in her quest.
I will bring honor to your house and Hall, my queen.”
Accompanied by the resident, the Half-Roman set off on her quest for glory.

Dan (a metapoem about the online quiz itself!)

In the end, each man crafted a letter of rhymes,
To be handed in by the hour of academia.
I awoke in the morning and stepped in the waterfall of cleanliness.
Too long it has been, my old friend.
I placed my rear end on the rectangle of cushion,
Then opened my folder of electricity.
Thus I arrived here, at the portal of knowledge.
In the portal of knowledge, I found three challenges.
The first, a question of truth.
The second, a question of history.
The third, a question of the abstract.
After I had slain the noble challengers, I arrived here.
Here, the cemetery of quizzes.

(For a bigger selection of student poems: The Epic of Hellems 141)

Though hesitant at first the students were encouraged when I shared my own example in class. They engaged with material and got excited about their work and sharing their work with others. I compiled them into a group document and the class enjoyed sharing and talking about them for weeks after. The majority of the class legitimately enjoyed writing them, and I was thoroughly excited reading them. Instead of grading becoming a chore while reading through the same answers 40 times in a row, I got to experience my students’ reading of the text and gain insight into their own lives. The short assignment deepened the sense of community in the classroom and turned grading into a fun evening for me!

See also my previous post on creative short stories: A Song of Medieval Boulder, vol.1

For useful tips on creating alternative assessment in higher education from the BYU Center for Teaching & Learning, click here.

For a list of alternative assessment ideas for K-12 from, click here.

Or see Joan L. Herman’s 1992 book A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessment, full text available on ERIC here.

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