18 Alternatives to Essays

As a history teacher, I've always struggled with the idea of giving students essays.

My struggle isn't with essays themselves. Essays can convey amazing amounts of information, persuade an audience to your side, or analyze topics in depth. Writing is pretty cool, after all.

My trouble with them deals more with student expression -- and the percentage of my students that will be required to actively write them as part of future jobs or careers. For some of them, the very few students I'll have that want to go on major in literature, history, or other liberal arts, essay writing is to be expected.

However, the vast majority of my students aren't going to go on to major in history or want to be writers--as much as it breaks my heart 😉.

And so, I decided a couple of years ago to stop giving essays.

Yeah, completely.

It sounds crazy--a history teacher who doesn't give essays. But it's possible. And ultimately, it's more equitable.

To help make this a little more clear how/why I made this change, I'd encourage you to ask yourself why we give essays in the first place. We give them so students can:
  • Express & demonstrate their content knowledge.
  • Demonstrate and build supporting skills around writing (vocabulary fluency, argumentation, research, etc). 
So, then ask yourself: is there a method or project other than an essay that can do the job?

Yep. Definitely.

How can I start "not giving essays"?

Once I figured out that essays didn't have to be the sole method for learning expression, I became laser-focused on three points. It's where I'd recommend getting started too:
  1. Boil down the complex content and skills that I wanted to assess into student-friendly learning objectives. Rubrics, introduction documents, and lots of models were really helpful for showing students what needed to happen and what was possible. 
  2. Brainstorm methods/projects with students that they could use to express their learning. In fact, I have students brainstorm ideas before I show them any models so that I don't affect their self-generation of ideas.
  3. Assess projects using a student-friendly rubric that is directly based off of the learning objectives. One of my favorite ideas to show students how a specific project rubric works is to "live grade" older student-submitted models in front of them so they can hear my thinking/assessment of student work.


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