One Objective, Four Ways to Meet It; Replacing High-Stakes Exams with Multi-Option Creative Assessments

A recent pile of grading for my introductory course in Modern Art History featured a fact-filled (but fictional) short-story about Odilon Redon’s best friend, an ink drawing of a Mexican folktale completed in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, a video-presentation in which a student walked her viewers through the main characteristics of several late-19th century trends in European painting, and a research paper comparing two Suzanne Valadon paintings with two by Henri de Touluse-Lautrec. This lovely mix is typical for me these days; a few years ago I stepped away from the high-stakes exams + research paper model for my art history classes and began giving students options for how they could show what they’d learned. Every few weeks, students in my classes get to choose between visual art, fiction, non-fiction, and presentation or video formats for a project that assesses their understanding of the material. Over the course of the semester they do this many times (with a different set of style and time period options for each project, in order to reflect what we’ve most recently covered in class). Aside from in-class writing or group exercises and the occasional as-needed quiz, these multi-option projects account for the students’ entire grade.

When I design these projects, I always start with a specific objective, which helps me to insure that all students are learning the same ideas (even though they are demonstrating that learning in different ways).

Here is an example of one such objective: Make connections between 19th century French Realist painting and the way that people in that time and place experienced social class.

 After I’ve established the objective, explained it to students, and stressed it through in-class lecture and discussion, I present them with their project options: four ways that they can further explore this objective and demonstrate that they fully understand it. For this particular objective, I offered the students the following four options:

Option 1: Choose an artwork from our study guide that offers insight into issues around social class in 19th century France. Complete a short (2-3 page) research paper in which you discuss your chosen artwork and explore the ways that it connects to and reflects the social or political climate of the period.

Option 2: Choose an artwork from our study guide that offers insight into issues around social class in 19th century France. After researching the artwork and preparing written notes, record a 5-7 minute voice-over video in which you present your artwork and topic to your classmates and teach them about the connections between your artwork and the social or political climate of the period. Your completed video will be shared with the class via an online discussion board.

Option 3: Compose a 2-3 page short story on the topic of social class in 19th century France. The main character in your story should be either the best friend of one of the artists we studied this week, or one of the characters that appears in a painting or sculpture from your study guide. Your narrative should be fictional, but you must research the time period and shape your story around at least five specific facts related to social class in that time and place.

Option 4: Create a visual “remix” of two artworks that relate to social class in France. One should be from the Realist movement (this week’s study guide), and the other can be from any of the earlier French styles we studied in this unit. Remix the two paintings in a way addresses issues related to social class. Collage, (with scissors and tape or with photoshop) may be a good way to go with this, but you can also make it a drawing or painting if you’d prefer!  After you’ve created your “remix,” compose a short imaginary dialogue between the characters… imagine what they would say to one another if they were actually face to face (and be sure your dialogue includes specific facts that relate to the historical contexts for each of the artworks you’ve remixed).

[Student example courtesy of Emily Park (it is a remix of Millet’s  L’Angelus with Lancret’s La Camargo Dancing).]


At first, it was painful for me to let go of slide ID, in-class essay questions, and the other elements of art history testing that I had been so accustomed to; like most art history professors, I loved (and excelled at) those types of assessments in college, and I knew that I personally had gotten a lot out of them. But despite my initial concerns, this change in how I structure my courses has been positive for my students (and for me) in every respect.

Some of the main benefits I’ve noticed since I’ve adopted this method…

  • Students work harder since they feel more ownership over their choice
  • In class discussions are more complex and more people participate, often because they are making sure they understand the material well enough to apply in in their projects.
  • Students who want a challenge pick options that are more difficult for them.
  • My grading is more fun (and it feels like it goes faster since there is a lot of variety).
  • Coming up with new project options—sometimes with the input of students—has given me new perspectives on artworks and styles I’ve been teaching for more than a decade.

These are anecdotal observations—I have yet to gather much hard data in terms of comparative grading statistics— but I’ve so far been really pleased with the improvements I’ve seen in student engagement and success, and the room for adjustment and flexibility that is possible within this course structure has helped to keep me freshly engaged with the material.







8 responses to “One Objective, Four Ways to Meet It; Replacing High-Stakes Exams with Multi-Option Creative Assessments”

  1. Brava! I think this type of approach should be applauded by all. Yes, I got a ton out of the ID-based exams, but there *was no internet* then. I just think that everything has changed in terms of CONTENT AVAILABILITY and now students need new ways to navigate and engage with material that is more available than it was in my day.

  2. Alexandria Nanneman says:

    This is wonderful, but I a curious how you grade students and how you explain the grading system to them. Is it a rubric? If so, I would be very interested in seeing how you grade them across such diverse media.

    • Cara says:

      Hi Alexandria! I give them my grading criteria for each option (and then I use those when I score the projects). You are right, that part is especially important since everyone is doing their own option.

      Here are some examples of grading criteria I’ve used for various options! I keep them pretty simple:

      Option 1 (Research essay) Grading Criteria
      The paper is 2-3 double-spaced pages and includes images of the artworks discussed: 10
      The paper is clearly written and error-free: 10
      The paper uses three reputable sources, cites them in-text when appropriate, and includes a bibliography: 15
      The paper discusses examples that were not seen in class and includes accurate information about them: 10
      The paper includes an in-depth and informed discussion of how the artist you picked fits into their larger art movement and historical context: 15
      The student includes their own interpretations and opinions: 15

      Total points: 75

      Option 2: Visual Project

      Grading Criteria (below)
      The student’s artwork demonstrates a clear and convincing connection to the chosen art movement: 20
      The student’s artwork and explanation indicate a strong understanding of the chosen art movement: 20
      The student’s artwork demonstrates significant time, planning, and effort: 20
      The student composes a clear and error free two-paragraph explanation of their work: 15
      Total points: 75

      Option 3: Mini-Presentation

      Grading Criteria (below)
      The student has prepared a professional, error-free visual presentation of 5-8 slides: 25
      The timeline that the student creates accurately represents each art movement: 25
      The student’s presentation introduces the class to artists and artworks that we did not already see in class: 25
      The student has prepared a five-minute speech with accurate information about the artworks they have chosen: 25

      Option 4: Creative Writing

      Grading Criteria (below)
      The student has composed a clearly written 3 page, double-spaced short story that meets the parameters of the assignment: 15
      The story demonstrates an accurate understanding of the artist and time period 20
      The student integrates at least 10 specific historically accurate details into their story: 30
      The student includes an MLA bibliography of reputable sources that shows where they got their historical details: 10

      Total points: 75

  3. Muffet Jones says:

    This is a wonderful idea. I had just finished my study guide for the modern survey I teach and now I may throw it out and start over! Thank you. As always, website a very good resource.

  4. Jolien Vandenhaute says:

    Wow, these are all very good ideas! I think I’m going to try a variation on these (my students are in higschool on the highest level of education and they have only 1 hour a week about art). I think they might like this kind of assignments! :D

    • Cara says:

      Thanks Jolien! I think they could be pretty easily altered for a high school class— I hope it works well for you!

  5. Lauren says:

    Hi Cara,
    A HUGE thank you for this blog post. I haven’t done a typical art history test in awhile, but I’ve been struggling with finding a method of testing that I like and this was the inspiration I needed. I teach in an art department so I ran with your suggestion of the visual remix and research paper and added in a couple of other options of my own. It was a hit with my 19th-century class and I just got the sweetest note from a student thanking me for an assignment that challenged her but was also fun. So I just wanted to applaud you for your creativity and thank you for sharing what you’re doing.

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