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An Alternative to Exams for Student Evaluation

Phil A. Arneson

Cornell University
Accepted for publication 21 February 2002.
Reviewed 2012. 

Arneson, P. A. 2002. An Alternative to Exams for Student Evaluation. The Plant Health Instructor. DOI: 10.1094/PHI-T-2002-0302-01 

After trying several different alternatives to in-class exams to evaluate student progress in a graduate-level class of 20-25 students, I have settled on a method I call the "interaction card system." The objectives of the system are: (1) to encourage students' active participation in the course rather than simple, passive note-taking, (2) to encourage students to keep current with the reading and review of the notes rather than simply "cramming" for exams, and (3) to provide the instructor an assessment of how the material is being received as it is presented, thus allowing for mid-course corrections. I use white and red 3x5 cards to obtain "fast feedback" (1) from my students.

White cards. At the end of each class period, I present a question or statement relating to the material just discussed. The student prepares a response and puts it on a 3x5 card to be turned in the following class period. The responses are not restricted to the given question, which is presented simply to stimulate the students' thinking. The students can prepare a response to anything said in class, anything that appears in the assigned reading, or any other relevant issue from another class, from the current news, or wherever he or she sees something related to the class. The response might be the addition of something omitted, a difference of opinion, correction of an error, or anything that seems pertinent and appropriate. It could be a short paragraph, a data table, a graph, a drawing, an annotated literature citation, etc. The only rules are that the response must fit on a 3x5 card (to encourage the clear thinking that brevity requires), must be legibly written, and must be signed. I return the white cards during the following class period.

I assign 0, 1, 2, or 3 points to each white interaction card and keep a running total of points for each student on a spreadsheet. To calculate the grade at the end of the semester, I divide the total points for each student by the total possible points. Students are not obliged to turn in an interaction card for every lecture; if someone misses a lecture or for some reason chooses not to turn in a card, he or she simply adds no points to the running total that day. A card returned late is downgraded one point. Periodically I give each student a confidential report of his or her running total and the percent of total possible points.

It generally takes me 3-5 minutes to read each white card, write my comments on it, and assign it a score. If the answer is complete and correct, I give it a 3; if it is correct but not complete or if it shows some minor misunderstanding, I give it a 2; if it shows serious misunderstanding or major deficiencies, I give it a 1. I give zeroes only if no card is turned in. Through the comments, I establish a dialog with each student, and this becomes a part of the learning experience.

Red cards. The purpose of the red cards is to provide timely constructive criticism of the course, the instructor, or the teaching assistant. Submissions on the red cards can be anonymous, and there are no restrictions on when they can be turned in.

I place stacks of blank white and red 3x5 cards at the entrance to the classroom, along with a box in which to drop the completed cards. The students quickly get into the habit of depositing their cards and picking up new ones as they enter.

The student response to the system on course evaluation questionnaires has been very positive; they like not having to deal with the stress of exams, and most think that the cards provide a better means of showing what they have learned. I find that the interaction card system is a very useful way to get an immediate assessment of what the students understand or, more importantly, what they misunderstand, and I can make the necessary corrections before they create further problems.


1) Davis, B.G. 1993. Tools for teaching. Jossey-Bass Inc. San Francisco, CA, pp. 345- 354.