Introducing optionality in assessment modes

Dr Jo Wilson

In this case study, Dr Jo Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Law, talks about how she introduced optionality in assessment modes in her final year module, Advanced Contract Law in Practice, to create more inclusive and accessible assessment practices. 

What I did 

Law students are predominantly assessed through critical essay writing in their final year at Sussex. As such, I wanted to give students the opportunity to try alternative assessment modes while incorporating student choice. To do this, I ask students to take on the role of Trainee Solicitor, and they can choose between producing either a poster presentation or a pre-recorded oral presentation on a commercial contract clause/phrase of their choice. Accordingly, this assessment incorporates optionality, both in terms of mode of assessment, and subject matter. Students are given the following instructions: 

You are a Trainee Solicitor at Carlill & Partridge LLP. Your firm is hosting its annual research seminar, the theme of which this year is ‘Drafting Commercial Contracts’. You have been asked to pick any legal/commercial/boiler plate clause/phrase that features in commercial contracts and produce EITHER a poster presentation, OR a 10-minute pre-recorded oral presentation with accompanying visuals. Your presentation should cover: 

  • What the clause/phrase is; 
  • The function of the clause/phrase; 
  • How such clause/phrase should be drafted/written; 
  • (If applicable) relevant litigation relating to drafting issues of the clause/phrase; 
  • Critique of the commercial/legal issues raised by the clause/phrase 
  • References 

When offering optionality in assessment, it is imperative that there is transparency and clarity regarding how assessments are marked. To ensure this, I created a set of bespoke marking criteria for each assessment mode. I also created two visuals on Canva which summarise in simple terms how the marking criteria apply to each of the assessment options.  

Further, and most importantly, I embedded into the module design, a two-hour seminar which is dedicated to preparing for the presentation assessment. In terms of timing, the presentation is due for submission in Week 9, and this seminar takes place in Week 7. This timeframe was chosen deliberately so that students can get information at a crucial time, but also so that they could have some breathing space to work on their presentations, rather than having to use their time to prepare for another substantive seminar. 

The seminar is broken down into two parts. First, I provide students with information regarding the expectations for the assessment, and then we go through the marking criteria and look at exemplars. Second, students are put into pairs/small groups with other students who are working on a different clause/phrase, and they are asked to present and give feedback to each other on their work in progress. 

Why I did this     

It was the benefits of authenticity and optionality that were the driving forces behind the adoption of this approach. First, in relation to authenticity, I chose this approach so that students could develop skills that will benefit them in their lives beyond university, including their ability to be creative, to present information clearly and succinctly, and to deliver their ideas orally. By giving the students a role to play, and by giving the assessment an authentic purpose, I found that students were much more engaged in the learning process, because they were able to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way to a real-world context (Mueller 2005). 

In terms of optionality, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has recently highlighted the need for the higher education sector to design more inclusive, accessible, and flexible assessment choices (Firth et al 2023). Waterford and West (2006) define inclusive assessment practice as ‘a flexible range of assessment modes made available to all, capable of assessing the same learning outcomes in different ways.’ In recognition of this, I was keen to incorporate optionality on this module, so that students can take control of their learning and pick a mode of assessment that lends itself to their strengths (O’Neill 2011). 


The assessment design itself was fairly straightforward. However, time and resources were required to develop the material to support the students in the planning and execution of this non-traditional, authentic mode of assessment.  

Impact and student feedback  

The student response to using optionality has been overwhelmingly positive. At the end of the module, I invited students to complete a short survey. Of the 23 students that responded, 100% agreed or strongly agreed that optionality creates a more inclusive learning environment. Unsurprisingly then, the qualitative comments very much so spoke to the benefits of this approach in terms of accessibility and inclusivity: 

  • “It equals the playing field” 
  • “Students can choose the best suited assessment mode to get a fairer academic assessment of them” 
  • “As different students have their strengths and weaknesses, optionality allows more inclusivity and room to prove your best effort.” 
  • “People are able to be assessed in formats they are more comfortable with and suit their learning style.” 
  • “Students are allowed to choose a mode that tailors to their strengths” 
  • “Means we can play to our strengths and lets people with other skills (such as creativity) succeed.” 

Future plans 

This approach worked incredibly well, and I received excellent feedback from students, both formally and informally, so I intend to continue with it, just as it is! 

Top 3 tips 

  1. Embed a teaching session that is dedicated to preparing for the assessment. 
  1. Create bespoke marking criteria for each assessment mode for transparency. 
  1. Think carefully about the different assessment modes and the skills that will be required of students. 


Firth, M. et al, ‘Optionality in Assessment: A cross institutional exploration of the feasibility, practicality & utility of student choices in assessment in UK higher education (QAA, Oct 2023). 

Mueller, J. ‘The authentic assessment toolbox: Enhancing student learning through online faculty development’ (2005) Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 1 

O’Neill, G. (Ed) ‘A Practitioner’s Guide to Choice of Assessment Methods within a Module’ (2011, Dublin: UCD Teaching and Learning, 

Waterfield, J. and West, B.  ‘Inclusive Assessment in Higher Education: A Resource for Change’ (2006 University of Plymouth: Plymouth) 

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