Flexible Assessment for Deeper Thinking and Active Learning

In his OneHe course Working with Flexible Assessment, Dr. Sam Elkington makes a simple but important distinction: “In flexible assessment,” he says, “assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning is placed at the center of the curriculum and learning design.” 

The distinction may be a familiar one — it is, in essence, the difference between formative assessment (for learning) and summative assessment (of learning). Elkington’s twist is the idea that by asking students to actively choose how to demonstrate their learning, we can tap into the benefits of formative assessment (particularly increased metacognition) while promoting engagement, boosting motivation, and improving access for diverse learners. 

I recommend the course — I found the whole thing worthwhile. This blog post highlights a few of Elkington’s key ideas and builds on them to describe three models of flexible assessment someone new to the practice might consider adopting (or adapting).

A figure in the middle with an ear above (North), lips to the right (East), a pencil below (South), and a book to the left (West) all of which is above the text, Flexible Assessment
Flexible Assessment considers Multiple Means of Expression represented by the ear, mouth, pencil, and book in the image above.

Flexible Assessment Type 1: Binary Choice

Description: Students choose one of two specific tasks to submit for evaluation. 

Example: Students can choose to complete a ten-minute poster presentation or a 1500-word written report for a midterm project.1

Evaluation Methods: The instructor sets the standards for each task, with an eye to ensuring that the standards are appropriate to the task but equivalent in rigor, and then evaluates the work according to those standards. 

Works Well For: Allowing some choice in mode of response when the task will be assessed summatively and standardized evaluation is crucial.

1This example is taken from Elkington’s OneHE course

Flexible Assessment Type 2: Self-Selected Portfolio

Description: Students create multiple pieces of evidence of their learning throughout the course and receive formative feedback. At the assessment point, students select a sample of their work to revise and submit in a portfolio for evaluation. 

Example 1: Students write five creative writing pieces over the course of the semester, participate in writing workshops for each one, and then choose three pieces to revise and submit for evaluation in a portfolio at the end of the course. 

Example 2: Students respond to weekly content in different modes each week — e.g. written analyses, video commentary, infographics, academic posters, discussion questions — and choose a subset of these responses to revise and include in a final portfolio for evaluation. 

Optional Elements: Portfolios often include a reflection piece that synthesizes portfolio elements and documents the student’s learning process. 

Evaluation Methods: The instructor may assess the portfolio holistically or use individual task rubrics. 

Works Well For: Encouraging repeated practice and active engagement with feedback, making space for risk-taking and experimentation.

Flexible Assessment Type 3: Self-Designed Project Outcomes and Co-Created Rubrics

Description: Students propose their own method of demonstrating what they’ve learned about a particular topic, and, in collaboration with the instructor, develop a rubric to evaluate the planned project. 

Example: Students must demonstrate their knowledge of a particular concept or theory. One student might propose creating an academic poster, another a podcast, another an interactive lesson for the class, etc.


  • Instructor explains the task and its purpose, gives students a primer on concepts that might support their understanding of the task goals, e.g., metacognition. (When I use this method in a class for aspiring teachers, we also discuss UDL.) 
  • Instructor sets clear expectations for the kinds of knowledge students will be expected to demonstrate. 
  • Class collectively brainstorms possible modes of response. Depending on the course level, the instructor may provide examples to get the group started. 
  • Instructor guides the students to think about what they know, what they need to demonstrate, and what mode of response would allow them to achieve those goals. 
  • Students narrow down possible modes of response and write a reflection or notes on each of their choices before making a final selection. 
  • Instructor provides sample rubrics and reviews their purpose. 
  • Students develop a rubric specific to the task and mode of response they’ve selected. Instructor provides feedback and helps students revise the rubric as needed. 
  • Students submit projects and rubrics. 

Evaluation Methods: The instructor evaluates submissions according to the students’ rubrics. 

Works Well For: Encouraging higher-order metacognition, increasing students’ sense of ownership of their work, encouraging creativity, teaching about learning. 

Additional note: Flexible assessment is a great fit for the multiple means of expression principle in Universal Design for Learning. More information about UDL and how it can make education more equitable is available in Tom Tobin’s Shifting from Systems to Interactions OneHE course, as well as in CI’s resources on UDL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *