Alternatives to the Essay

We have compiled a list of examples of various types of assignments that you can use as alternatives to a standard essay that help students develop their critical reading and writing skills.  You may find that some of these assignments are better used as activities that act as formative assessments that are ungraded, but many can be used as formal graded assessments that can be designed to assess your students’ writing ability and replace the traditional essay.  All examples listed are adapted from (Barkley, 2010).  Additional resources are also provided.

Reading Response Assignments

Focused Reading Notes (pp. 164-166)

When assigning a reading, accompany the reading with 3-5 themes or concepts for the students to look for in the text.  Students can create columns for each theme/concept and write keywords, thoughts, phrases and evidence from the reading that connects with the theme/concept

Quotes (pp. 167-169)

Identify different quotes from a reading and ask students to contextualize and/or analyze the quote, connecting to course concepts.

Believing and Doubting (pp. 195-198)

Ask your students to read the reading with two different perspectives:

“Believing” – student reads the text empathetically and makes a conscious effort to understand and appreciate the author’s points, values, beliefs and perspective.  The student makes a list of their own points, supporting the author’s perspective and writes an argument ‘for’.

“Doubting” – student reads the same text looking for weaknesses, makes a list of points refuting the author’s points, values, beliefs and perspectives, and writes an argument ‘against’.

Seminar (pp. 181-185)

Provide each student, or group of students, with a prompt to accompany a reading and ask students to prepare for a discussion (seminar) by marking passages they wish to discuss and writing a short response, connecting the passages to the prompt they were given.  In class, students read their passage and share their thoughts, engaging in discussion with peers.  Alternatively or in addition, you could ask your students to prepare discussions questions to pose to their peers.

Analytic Teams (pp. 207-211)

Team members or individuals assume roles when critically reading an assigned reading/assignment, listening to a lecture or watching videos.  The roles include ‘summerizer’, ‘connector’, ‘proponent’ and ‘critic’.

Writing Assignments

 Frames (pp. 191-194)

Give your students a template or collection of sentence stems that provide the shape of a short essay but do not provide content.  Students complete sentences, or fill in the template, expressing their ideas in their own words, essentially filling in the ‘content’.

Directed Paraphrase (pp. 285-286)

Ask students to take a concept or idea covered in your course and describe it so that a particular audience can understand.  For example, a nursing student describing a procedure to a patient or a legal studies student describing a law to a client.

Insights-Resources-Applications (IRAs) (pp. 287-288)

This written assignment can be applied to a reading, concept, topic or theme covered in the course.  The assignment consists of three parts:

Insights – students describe their new understandings or perceptions connected to the reading/concept/topic or theme of the course.

Resources – students find and cite at least one additional resource that relates to the reading/concept/topic or theme of the course.

Application – students describe an example from their own personal experience that relates to the reading/concept/topic or theme of the course.

Contemporary Issues Journal (pp. 276-279)

Students make connections between course material and recent events in the news, writing in a journal, or posting on a blog, how course material applies to current events.  You may consider structuring the entries as a three- part entry: (1) date of the journal entry and citations of the news source, (2) a description or summary of the article (who, what, where, when, why, how), and (3) explain the principles, ideas and concepts from the course that the event reflects.

Cubing (p. 228)

Students look at a stimulus from varied perspectives and respond to a topic from six different directions (analogous to the six sides of a cube): (1) describe it, (2) compare it, (3) associate it, (4) analyze it, (5) apply it, and (6) argue for and against it.

Letters (pp. 229-231)

Students assume the identity of an important or famous person and write a letter explaining their thoughts on an issue, theory or controversy to another important or famous person who holds a different perspective.

Proclamations (pp. 264-266)

Students identify and analyze a problematic situation in the local community.  Then students write a speech as a government official that persuades others of the urgency of the problem and offers strategies and solutions.

Case Studies (pp. 272-274)

Design a case that involves an in-depth analysis of a single situation or set of circumstances over time and requires analysis, problem solving, decision-making and justification on the part of the students.  Case studies often involve collaborative learning, where students work on the case study in teams, but this can also be an individual activity.


Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Fancisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Chick, N. (n.d.). Beyond the essay: Making student thinking visible in the humanities. Retrieved from: