Every time midterm season arrives, the pressure begins to rise. One small issue? Educators can get so caught up in maintaining rigor and high standards that the academic and social-emotional needs of students may be overlooked in the process. But as Dr. Daniel Alati, Assistant Professor of Sociology at MacEwan University found, there’s a relatively simple way to administer high-quality assessments without losing students. His solution: shifting weights from high-stakes tests in favor of smaller quizzes and content reflections. 

We recently spoke with Alati to understand how alternative assessments were proven to boost academic integrity and equity across his three Sociology and Law courses. He also shared why an empathetic approach to grading is needed to keep students afloat.

→ Webinar: Dr. Jesse Stommel on alternative assessments

High-stakes tests trigger an urge to cheat

Two large exams aren’t necessarily effective in accurately or fairly measuring student understanding. In fact, this assessment format only boosts the likelihood of plagiarism and cheating—especially true in hybrid or blended courses. Data show that 93 percent of faculty believe students are more likely to cheat online than in-person.1 Software such as ChatGPT has made it even easier for students to generate pre-written essays and short-form assessments. But as Alati notes, the urge to cheat begs a larger question: is it time to rethink assessments altogether? “Exam writing brings with it a certain anxiety. It’s an outdated mode of evaluating students. Performance is just one metric: it’s better to spread it out over multiple assessments,” he says.

Alati reminds us that it’s possible to still improve academic integrity, without diminishing the equity and flexibility students need today. He shares some best practices below.

Tip #1: Swap memorization for application

It goes back to the basics of Bloom’s Taxonomy: remembering and understanding concepts only goes so far. Make your assessments too memorization-heavy and you’ll create a fertile ground for cheating to occur. Alati recognizes the importance of solidifying basic course principles in first-year courses, but urges professors who teach second-year students and above to emphasize application, analysis and evaluation.

In Alati’s fourth-year Criminal Law courses, he lets students bring in an outside resource on test day, effectively eliminating the pressure to memorize complex facts. “I understand that my students aren’t lawyers. So I let them bring in a one-page formula sheet with the basics of certain cases and legislations,” he says. The formula sheet enables students to study in advance for the exam, thus reducing the likelihood of last-minute cramming and test anxiety that often feeds into cheating as a last resort.

A second way to move past memorization involves embracing open-book tests. Though it may seem controversial, this mode of testing may actually require students to prepare even more compared to closed-book tests. “There’s a stigma around open book exams, but they’re not easier. Law schools have exams that are open book and they’re incredibly strenuous. If anything, these exams might be more tough as they’re heavily application-based,” Alati says. You might also consider using testing windows as a means of granting students more flexibility and autonomy. Students can decide when to write an online quiz over a 48-hour window, so that they can avoid running into potential distractions or connectivity issues.

Tip #2: Vary your grading techniques

Offering a more equitable testing experience doesn’t mean overhauling your entire assessment model. Nor does it mean sacrificing academic integrity. Instead, empathetic grading approaches can reduce stress while, better yet, help students understand why they’re being quizzed on a particular topic. “Ask yourself what the purpose behind your assessment is. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to assess and reflect on why we use certain assessments, and made it clear that it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game,” says Alati.

Letter grades can only fuel the fire when it comes to student anxiety and stress around midterm season. It’s why Alati has also embraced a modified pass-fail model when marking weekly content reflections in Top Hat. “I’ve found that when the stakes are low, performance increases quite significantly. Reducing the pressure lets their creativity really shine through,” he shares. Students reflect on something they watched on TV or a news article that they read, relating their observations to course material, in exchange for a single number. A zero denotes incomplete work, where a student may earn a ‘1’ if their work is partially completed with missing criteria or a ‘2’ if their reflection is fully completed and meets all requirements. 

Alati notes that this assessment had the twin benefit of keeping him connected to his students outside the classroom while giving students ownership over how their assessments relate to their daily lives. 

Tip #3: Use education technology to give frequent feedback

If you’ve used a Scantron sheet for your latest midterms or exams, you’ll know that not only do they force students to play a waiting game in receiving their marks, but educators have to manually input grades. Instead, Alati uses Top Hat to administer weekly quizzes that account for 25 percent of the final course grade. It’s a win-win for both him and his students. 

Top Hat offers a lockdown browser that prohibits students from navigating away from their quiz and potentially cheating. Better yet, both Alati and his students are given instant feedback that helps shore up learning gaps. “If students want an explanation on a certain question, I’m able to easily dig up that information. And with feedback given pretty easily to students, the amount of time it takes to grade has significantly decreased,” he says. Alati also notes that students have overwhelmingly favored this method of test taking to traditional, paper-written tests.

Alati also relies on Top Hat to offer the equitable testing experience his students have come to expect. For instance, he uses the platform to grant extra time to students with special accommodations. “Students with Access to Disability Resources (ADR) accommodations have shared that they prefer using Top Hat versus submitting a formal request through our school’s exam service. It’s made life easier for everyone,” Alati notes. 

After three years of using Top Hat for quizzes, Alati has successfully found a middle ground between flexibility and academic integrity. “I’m more confident with Top Hat in maintaining academic integrity than any other form of software. Even with concerns about ChatGPT swirling in higher ed, I know that there’s features in Top Hat to prevent cheating in class,” he shares.

→ Webinar: Get assessment and grading ideas to deepen learning


  1. Wiley (2020). Academic Integrity in the Age of Online Learning. Wiley. https://www.wiley.com/en-us/network/education/instructors/teaching-strategies/academic-integrity-in-the-age-of-online-learning-3
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