Dr Jo Wilson
Optionality in assessment has recently come under the spotlight, with the QAA highlighting the need for Higher Education to develop more inclusive, accessible, and flexible assessment choices. In response to this, the University of Manchester recently led on a QAA funded project which gathered insights from over 1200 academic and professional services staff and students across a number of UK Higher Education institutions regarding the expectations and challenges of providing flexible assessment. In their final report, published on 31 October 2023, they set out the key findings and themes that emerged from that research, and make a series of recommendations to the sector (Firth et al 2023). In this article I will consider some of those findings and recommendations in the context of my own experiences of, and student reflections on, the introduction of optionality in a final year law module at the University of Sussex.
What is optionality in assessment?
Waterfield 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.” Adopting a slightly broader approach, Firth et al (2023) define optionality in their report as giving “some level of control over student decision-making about when, how, and in what format they submit assessments, and whether this is individual or collaborative.” As such, this flexibility could relate to, for example, the subject-matter, mode, word length, weighting, and timing of the assessment, or whether it is an individual or group effort (see, e.g. Wanner et al 2021; O’Neill 2017).
Introducing student choice in Advanced Contract Law in Practice
Advanced Contract Law in Practice is a 15 credit, final year optional module which I convene at the University of Sussex. This module, which ran for the first time in the 22/23 academic year, is broadly split into two parts; drafting commercial contracts, and interpreting commercial contracts. The assessment in question relates to the former topic.
In terms of the assessment brief, students take on the role of a Trainee Solicitor and they are asked to produce, for the purposes of their employers annual research seminar, either a poster presentation, or a pre-recorded oral-presentation on a commercial contract clause/phrase of their choice. Below are the instructions students receive:
|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
I designed the assessment in this way for two reasons. First, I wanted the assessment to be authentic, so that students could develop skills that will benefit them in their lives beyond university (McArthur 2023), 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).
Second, and most importantly, I wanted to embed an element of student choice, both in terms of subject matter and mode of assessment. I chose these particular aspects of flexibility because I wanted to maximise engagement, and give students the opportunity to tailor the assessment to their strengths as a learner (O’Neill 2011). These benefits are also recognised in Firth et al’s (2023) report, which highlights greater inclusivity, supporting diverse learning styles, and enhancing the student learning experience as some of the positive traits of student choice in assessment (p2).
At the end of the Spring term in 2023 I invited students on the module to complete a short survey on their experiences and perceptions of optionality in assessment practice. Of the 40 students enrolled on the module 23 completed the survey. In terms of results, 100% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that optionality creates a more inclusive learning environment and, interestingly, 100% also agreed or strongly agreed that optionality makes a final year module more attractive. To gain a deeper insight into these perspectives, I then asked students to comment first on the benefits of optionality, and then on the potential drawbacks. The discussion that follows will analyse this data in the context of some of the findings and recommendations of Firth et al’s (2023) report, focusing first on two key benefits, and then on two key drawbacks and the steps I have taken to mitigate them.
Benefits of optionality
Inclusivity was one of the key themes to emerge from Firth et al’s (2023) study in relation to the benefits of optionality. Both staff and students agreed that assessment optionality could enhance inclusivity, though it was important that students could access the relevant resources, and be supported in the development of the skills necessary to complete the different assessment formats (p17). Accordingly, Firth et al (2023) recommended that:
“Educational institutions should prioritise the introduction of diverse assessment formats to explicitly address accessibility and concerns about fairness, ensuring access to necessary resources and skills development to prevent the unintentional widening of awarding gaps.” (p17)
Unsurprisingly, inclusivity was most commonly cited by the students completing my end of module survey as the key benefit of optionality, with many of the sentiments from Firth et al’s (2023) report mirrored. Students recognised that they have diverse learning styles, with different strengths and weaknesses, and allowing student choice in assessment levelled the playing field, in the sense that it gave them the opportunity to pick an assessment mode or subject matter that played to their strengths. One student summarised the benefits of student choice well, stating that:
“It does not limit students. Everyone (especially those with learning disabilities like myself) has different strengths and ways of learning. Through optionality, everyone is given the chance of success when they might have previously been limited. It equals the playing field.”
These notions of inclusivity and fairness, I argue, are the key driving forces behind the adoption of optionality in assessment; we must give our students the opportunity to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have gained in a way that makes sense to them as a unique learner.
Another key theme to emerge from Firth et al’s (2023) study in terms of the benefits of optionality, and something that is inherently linked to inclusivity, is the impact of choice on student outcomes. In their study, students argued that by allowing them to select an assessment method that aligns with their backgrounds, abilities and skills, they are able to tailor their learning experience and potentially improve their academic performance (p18).
In my own survey, many students made the same connection between choice and improved student outcomes. One student commented that “People do better in different types of assessments so they are more likely to get higher grades in an assessment type that they prefer” and another argued that it “Allows individuals the opportunity to attempt the assessment mode they feel most comfortable with, which consequently could help them to achieve the best grade possible.”
Interestingly, one student stated that optionality “Means we can play to our strengths and lets people with other skills (such as creativity) succeed.” This is really poignant, and demonstrates the importance of giving students the opportunity to be assessed in non-traditional ways.
As a word of caution, Firth et al (2023) found that academic staff were concerned that students might consistently opt for assessments they felt more comfortable doing, and potentially miss out on valuable learning experiences and skills development (p20). I agree with this concern and think it highlights the need for conversations and planning around assessment choices to be taken at year or course level. This will ensure a holistic approach where students have the opportunity to explore and develop a range of skills across their modules.
Drawbacks of optionality
One of the key concerns demonstrated in both Firth et al’s (2023) study, and my own survey, related to perceptions of fairness between different types of assessment. Firth et al (2023) reported that students thought assessment methods should be fair, and that no method should be punitive or disadvantageous. From an academic perspective, concerns were raised regarding the perceived differences in the difficulty of various assessment types, and the need to maintain trust in the assessment process (p18).
Similar views were demonstrated by the students completing my survey, many of which focused on the potential inequity across different modes of assessment, and the role of the teacher in ensuring a consistent approach to marking. One student commented that it is “Difficult to assess both modes in the same way”, while another was concerned that students might be “marked to different standards…if one option was easier than the other.” Similarly one student argued that optionality “requires the professor to be extremely aware of how to even out the playing field between the two assessments so that marking is equivalent across the board.” Finally, another student responded that “The assessment modes may vary in difficulty which might make the module a bit more unfair than if there was only one mode of assessment.”
At first glance, these responses are concerning, and could serve to undermine the core aim of optionality which is to create a fair and inclusive assessment environment. However, the anecdotal evidence from my own module, is that students have very differing views on which assessment modes are more difficult than others. Many students commented that the poster presentation was the easier option, whereas others argued the same to be true of the oral presentation. This observation feeds usefully into the narrative regarding the diverse skills, experiences and capabilities of our students, and therefore, I argue, actually reaffirms the importance of optionality in giving students the opportunity to play to their individual strengths.
The other key concern raised by students related to feeling confused and overwhelmed by the options. The burden of choice was discussed in Firth et al’s (2023) literature review, though it did not emerge as a key theme in their final report, which is interesting, given that many students commented on this as a concern in my survey. For example, one student commented that “Students may feel overwhelmed with the choice they have to make”, and another commented that “It may be difficult and sometimes overwhelming to decide what to choose.” This reflects the findings of Brown et al (2020) who highlight that some students can find greater choice time consuming, overwhelming and challenging.
In response to both of these drawbacks, it is imperative that 1) marking criteria is tailored and clear, and 2) students are fully supported in making their assessment choices.
Regarding the marking criteria, Firth et al (2023) recommend that:
“When offering students the option to choose their assessment format, academics should prioritise transparency and consistency. This means creating and communicating well-defined grading criteria that align with learning outcomes. This approach ensures that students will have a clear grasp of expectations and how their work will be assessed.”
I agree that transparency in relation to the marking criteria, and how it will apply to the different modes of assessment, is key. For my module, I have created a set of bespoke marking criteria for each assessment mode – the poster presentation, and the oral presentation – so that there is transparency, and clarity, regarding how their assessments are marked. To accompany this, I created two visuals on Canva which summarise in simple terms how the marking criteria applies to each of the assessment options.
Further, and most importantly, I think it is important to dedicate time within the teaching framework, to support and advise students regarding their assessment choices. As such, I have embedded into the module design, a two-hour seminar which is dedicated to preparing for the presentation assessment. The seminar is broken down into two parts. First, I discuss with the students information regarding the expectations for the assessment, we go through the marking criteria and together we 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. This session was very well received, with students commenting that it helped to clarify expectations and relieve assessment anxiety.
Firth et al’s (2023) research provides some incredibly important insights and recommendations regarding inclusive assessment practices in Higher Education. My own experiences of introducing optionality, and the results from my own student survey, reflect and build on those findings. While the benefits of student choice are clear, some of the drawbacks could potentially undermine those benefits. However, with careful planning, adopting a transparent approach, and providing adequate support, I argue that those concerns can be largely mitigated.
Dr Jo Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Commercial Law at the University of Sussex
Brown, N., Morea-Ghergu, D. & Onwuka, N. ‘Assessments: letting students decide’ in: Mawani, S., & Mukadam, A. (eds). Student Empowerment in Higher Education: Reflecting on Teaching Practice and Learner Engagement (Berlin: Logos Verlag 2020)
Miriam Firth 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)
McArthur, J. ‘Rethinking authentic assessment: work, well‑being, and society’ (2023) 85 Higher Education 85
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), available at: http://www.ucd.ie/teaching/resources/assessment/howdoyouassessstudentlearning/
O’Neill, G. ‘It’s not fair! Students and staff views on the equity of the procedures and outcomes of students’ choice of assessment methods’ (2017) 36(2) Irish Educational Studies 221
Wanner, T., Palmer, E., & Palmer, D. ‘Flexible assessment and student empowerment: advantages and disadvantages – research from an Australian university’ (2021) Teaching in Higher Education 1