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Alternative Midterm Exams: 5 ideas for high school science teachers

alternative midterm exams

I’ve been in several different teaching situations that have required evaluations and others that did not. But for the majority of my teaching experience, some sort of midterm and final exam were required (even in courses with state EOC exams – but don’t even get me started about that 🤣 ). There can definitely be value (and ease!) with a traditional multiple-choice-based test – especially midyear when we could all use a break (bless you, Scantrons!!) But there have been times where I have loved having the opportunity to do alternative midterm exams with my students instead.

What do I mean by alternative midterm exams? I mean ANYTHING other than your traditional multiple-choice, or multiple-choice with a few open response questions, tests. As I said, I am not against these types of tests at all (I actually offer them for biology, anatomy, and physical science) but there are times when both my students and I could REALLY use something different – and that is when I love the chance to use alternative midterm exams instead!

If you and your students are incredibly burned out (if you need a pandemic pep talk, this is for you), these alternatives might help you ALL to end the term on a more positive note. None of these options require spending days reviewing, and all of them are fun and authentic ways to assess your students’ learning for the year thus far.

I especially encourage trying one of these ideas if you are in a virtual setting, as I have never found a way to REALLY prevent students from cheating when they can’t be monitored in person. All of these opportunities don’t have “answer keys”, making them a great way to assess students with integrity from afar!

I am going to share my top 5 favorite ideas that can be used in any high school science class! I hope these pique your interest and get those wheels turning if you, too, are looking to try something new to assess your students midyear!

Alternative Midterm Exam Idea #1: Children’s Book Project

alternative midterm exams

This is one of my all-time favorite ways to assess students. Essentially, you have students select any topic you’ve covered thus far in the year (I recommend providing a list of choices) and make a children’s book that explains the topic with words and visuals on a level that an 8-year-old can understand.

It is a GREAT way to challenge them to think creatively, and most students learn the topic so much better when they are required to explain it on a simple level. You can have them do this in class for a few days leading up to “midterm day” and then share with their peers on the actual day they are supposed to take the exam. These are fun to refer back to, too, at the end of the year when you are reviewing for final exams or EOCs.

Want to try this with your students? Check out my version of the Children’s Book Project for free!!

Alternative Midterm Exam Idea #2: Teach the Class Project

alternative midterm exams

I feel like the whole purpose of a midterm exam is to assess where they are midyear. A GREAT way to do this is by requiring them to teach the class about a key topic you’ve covered thus far! I love it too because it takes reviewing ENTIRELY off of your plate and puts the responsibility back on students!

I love to do this as a group project to help students who aren’t as comfortable in front of the classroom in the role of a teacher. As with any group project, I ALWAYS recommend including a peer evaluation as part of your assessment, and components of the rubric apply to all students in both the group and individual parts. You can create your own write-up for this, or check out mine here.

Alternative Midterm Exam Idea #3: Make a Midyear Review Game

alternative midterm exams

If the goal of your midterm isn’t necessarily to assess where your students are midyear, but to review content you’ve covered thus far in order to make sure they are solid before moving on, having students make a review game that covers what you’ve learned so far is a great way to do that!

Assign students to a group and a topic. Have them make ANY type of game to review essential information on that topic – board game, card game, digital game – doesn’t matter! On midterm exam day, have groups rotate in a circle and play each other’s games! You can save the best ones to pull out around the final exam and EOC time to review content from the first half of the year!

Alternative Midterm Exam Idea #4: Independent Research Project Proposals

alternative midterm exams

One of my favorite ways to challenge and really stretch my students is by having them work on project-based learning style independent research projects. These can stretch out over the course of a semester or an entire year.

If you want to have students do a project like this over the course of your 2nd term together, introduce it as an alternative midterm exam option midyear. Explain that you are setting them up to do an independent research project throughout your final term together – and use the midterm exam as an opportunity for them to submit their initial plans and proposals for their research projects!

There is a TON of information about PBL on the internet, but if you want something planned and ready to go, I’ve got you! Check out my biology independent research projects, anatomy independent research projects, and physical science independent research projects.

Alternative Midterm Exam Idea #5: Open-Ended Reflective Essay

alternative midterm exams

You may be in a situation where your school requires a traditional midterm exam. I get it. I’ve been there. But that doesn’t mean you have to do your standard 50-question multiple-choice test (unless you want to – then go for it!!)

If you are looking to try something different but that would still qualify as a “test” for your admin, do an open-ended reflective essay as an alternative midterm exam.

Ask yourself – looking back over this semester, what is the BIG PICTURE main idea I want my students to know? Make your essay question exactly that!!

The beauty of these types of questions is that there isn’t necessarily a “right answer”. This allows for the integrity of the assessment to be retained, even if used in a virtual or hybrid teaching setting. This is one of those exams you really can’t cheat on!

Here are a few ideas for questions for some of my favorite subjects:

  • Anatomy: Describe 3 examples, in detail, of how the organ systems we’ve learned about thus far work together to maintain homeostasis throughout the entire human body.
  • Biology: Make an argument for which macromolecule* is the most essential for life. Defend your claim with at least 3 examples of evidence backed by reasoning.
    • *Could also have them do this about an organelle, or have them argue between decomposers and producers as the most essential to the food chain (if you’ve had a chance to cover energy flow).
  • Physical Science: Describe 4* examples of physics in action in the real world – one from each unit we’ve covered thus far. Clearly describe the physics you’ve learned in class that explains the real world phenomenon.
    • *This number will vary depending on how many units you have gotten through so far in the year!
  • Chemistry: I’d give students a chemical reaction in words that I would have them write the equation for (with states of matter), balance, and classify. I’d have them explain what a chemical reaction is and how it is different from a physical change. Then I’d give them a known amount of each reactant and how much of one of the products was made in lab and have them find the limiting reactant and the determine the percent yield. This would really cover a lot of the skills and content we have done in the first half of the year to this point! For non-honors students you could break this up into chunks to scaffold it and support them in getting to the final answer.

I hope these 5 ideas get you excited about alternative midterm exams you can do with your high school science students this year! Done something different that’s been really effective? I’d LOVE to hear about it. Reach out and tell me about it here!

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