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When it comes to assessments, giving students a choice can help them take ownership of learning as they select the best way to demonstrate mastery via an assessment.

4 engaging assessment ideas for middle and high school

Varying assessments can not only engage students, but assist educators in collecting more datapoints on students' skills that may flourish within different assessment types

Key points:

  • When students have different ways to demonstrate learning, educators can collect more accurate data
  • Middle and high school students benefit from choice, and different assessment options can lead to better engagement
  • See related article: 3 new trends in student assessment

As an educator and leader who grades holistically, it becomes important to consider how to create well rounded assessments that offer students myriad different opportunities to demonstrate their learning.

Providing students with authentic and varied assessment opportunities helps educators gather datapoints on a student holistically. What is equally important is that we provide varied assessment opportunities so students can demonstrate understanding in different ways. This article offers ideas that are outside traditional essay writing and test taking mediums.

Here are 4 ideas I have found to be successful in my educational context, which is the IB’s Middle Years Programme.

1. Speech an expert

Students can write speeches on a particular topic that connects to the unit being studied. Presenting these speeches in front of an expert in the field augments the authenticity. Finding an expert can be difficult.

Enter: Skype a Scientist. This website has been a goldmine for us at our international school. The site acts as a repository of scientists who have volunteered their time to discuss topics with students of interest. The scientist is either working within the field of study or degreed in that particular field, giving students the opportunity to meet and work with experts.

Best of all: The website is free! Check out Skype a Scientist and try having a virtual expert visit to watch students’ speeches or presentations on a topic. Any subject could connect to science–in literature, we discussed symbolism and how it impacts our brains.

2. Debate

Teenagers love to argue and have avenue for voice. Students are encouraged to argue with each other and also negotiate with the teacher as part of the approaches to learning skills in our MYP IB program. A debate provides students with an opportunity to demonstrate the approaches to learning the Middle Years Programme. Fruitful research opportunities also exist; students can defend their arguments with research. This idea adds substantiation and an opportunity for an educator to teach research literacy skills.

I suggest structuring the debate using methods that are suggested by other organizations or countries. Some examples you may want to consider are below:

You could also debate multiple times per year using different structures each time. This way students see, through an international lens, different debate styles that are used throughout our shared planet.

3. Filming a YouTube-style rant

A quick story on why I decided to share this assessment in this article: After a grade 7 student finished filming her rant on her laptop and was packing up to the leave our classroom, she stated the following: “This was the most fun assessment I have ever done in my life”

This was a turning point for me as I realized I had to share this idea with other international school leaders and educators, because it was the first time in my career where a student made a comment about an assessment.

Rants are an excellent way to give students an opportunity to use an informal register. Students can also watch expert ranters on YouTube to glean insights on how rants are used. As an educator (and if you are given leeway to do so), students can even explore political diatribes to gain a sense for how to be professional (and not professional, if students watch certain political examples) when ranting. Deepening students’ understanding of formal and informal register can also be done through compare and contrast.

A nice complement to this assessment could be to have students research the topic they ranted about and see if there is alignment between their opinions and what research has to say. Students can then use this research to write a more formal speech, paragraph, or argumentative essay. Doing this gives students an opportunity to see how formalities and informalities operate within different text types (such as an essay compared to a rant video)

A rant also gives students a chance to let out their emotions in video form, which is something students will appreciate.

4. Court trial

Studying a novel where a particular character does some possibly illegal actions towards another character? Reading Ender’s Game as a class where one of the characters goes through a court martial in the story? Studying a famous historical person who may have committed war crimes? Looking into a scientist who may have taken the world’s scientific discoveries two steps further, but did some throat-cutting along the way that may require retroactive legalities? No matter the subject you teach, there is likely a place for a court trial for your classroom and students. And from my experience, students have enjoyed experiencing a court trial.

Pitting students in a court room provides a lot of opportunity for student agency and empowerment, and as the professional educator, this assessment offers you a lot of space to make adjustments based on the students you serve.

Students can choose to be either prosecuting or defense attorneys. Allow objections (or not), get students to handpick their jury (or not), give students power to use preemptory strikes on a jury member if they feel that person is biased (or not), have students role-play different characters from the novel studied, from history, or from science (or not), and ask a student to take the role of judge (or not). Options are plentiful; the possibilities give educators much liberty to make professional judgments to suit the learning needs of their students.

A small bit of reflection from me: I found that allowing unlimited objections for my MYP grade 9 class was a bit too much. In the future, I would limit the number of objections, because some students dropped non-sequiturs.

Each teenager we teach is unique. I am in a professional capacity where, according to the IB, I must grade holistically. Varying assessment styles and types is one way to make sure that I am seeing students demonstrate learning in myriad different assessments. Consider these assessments to support the students you teach.

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