Student optionality within a written assessment format on an interdisciplinary module

graphic of hand choosing from options in a jigsaw

Instructor: Dr Sam Van Elk


Module: Government and Business (KBS+ module for students from other disciplines) level 4

Assessment activity: Students are given optionality of the format and focus of an assignment within the parameters of a written output.


Why did you introduce optionality for the assessment?

  1. Interdisciplinarity: The nature of a KBSPLUS module is that it is taken by a range of people from other faculties. KBSPLUS offers modules for students wanting to integrate some business or management modules within their degree programme. This means that my students are from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, and a lot of people who are doing Study Abroad (Exchange Undergraduate). While the Government and Business module does not need to fit into a specific programme assessment pattern, it has to fit into or cater to a range of programmes from which our students come. Not only does this mean that it is difficult to assess all students in the same way, but they are making their own choices about what to focus on, and it made sense to provide optionality of assessment format for them.


  1. Academic Writing: what is exciting about this module is that students come from a lot of different perspectives, but they also have lots of different sets of expectations about what assessment is, and what constitutes good academic writing. I was wary of attempting to teach to one particular style of writing; and saw that students were also concerned about having to fit into one particular mode which might not suit them or be appropriate for their home programme. I wanted to avoid fitting everyone into one mould and encourage students to instead make their own decisions about the best way to communicate their perspective in writing.


  1. Content choice: many modules will allow students to choose their own topic to focus on for an assignment, so this is not new. But I provide different assignment types and foci that allow students to either focus on particular areas of interest that relate to their own experiences/future plans or to focus on more academic general content.


Why was the optionality set within the parameters of written work?

I did consider allowing students to produce different outputs/media such as digital artefact etc. This is what is commonly meant by optionality.

But, firstly, some of the research (e.g. Jopp & Cohen, 2022) pointed to some of the negative consequences of providing a level of optionality that required students to ‘decode’ the optionality structure before they could engage with module content. This is why I chose my tempered creativity approach and took optionality in my module to mean type of written format.

Secondly, I find writing a peculiarly useful medium through which to assess the ability to understand and analyse academic material.


How did you set it up?

The written assessment is weighted at 90% of the module. Each student chooses from a list of given questions with specific foci. There are

  • some ‘typical/traditional’ academic genre questions, for example asking students to evaluate theories (e.g. ‘While New Public Governance was presented as a bold new way of running public services, in reality it preserved more of New Public Management than it rejected. Do you agree, and why?’)
  • some scenario-based case studies relating to policy areas identifying solutions to problems (e.g. You have been asked to advise the government of a country of your choice on efforts to reduce youth violence. What model or models of public management would you recommend they use to coordinate the initiative, how and why?)
  • some questions that ask students to engage closely with the experience of people working in and receiving public services;
  • a response to a guest speaker from a government policy area who presents a case to the students for them to solve for that organisation using material from the course.

Ensuring parity: All assignments are designed to allow students to meet the learning outcomes, even if their format or focus is different. I have a marking rubric that helps to aid with potential disparities
but still allows freedom to reward people’s strengths while making sure that they are achieving across the board. Certainly, there is a challenge comparing diverse students who have attempted different styles of question to foreground their differing sets of strengths. However, I do not think we avoid this challenge simply by asking them to address a single type of question – their strengths will still differ, but now we will only reward one set thereof. Accordingly, this module accepts and embraces diversity of means to achieve learning outcomes.


How do you give feedback?

Of course, all students receive some feedback at the end of the course on their summative submission , which we hope will feed forward to other modules as well. But we embed formative assessment and feedback opportunities throughout the course.  We don’t ask them to do full scale written exercises, but in class we do pieces of writing and pieces of essay planning to help build writing skills.

We do these within class as tutorial exercises, so students are continually working experientially rather than seeing formative assessment as only something to do outside of class. About half of our tutorials focus on case studies and the other half are involved in types of written work, so there are opportunities there both for feedback on that process. This feedback is both from me as the tutor but also I use peer-to-peer feedback  where students bring in extracts of writing and discuss them. For instance, in one tutorial, we focus on writing introductions. In preparation, students write an introduction to an essay question, then share with others who share their reactions and feedback. After sharing the types of reactions we are having and developing general learning points, students rewrite their introductions and share for a second round of feedback.


What benefits did you see?

Talking about writing: As mentioned above, one of the main issues students face is in understanding the expected writing convention of a particular assessment, discipline or national educational system. I find that students frequently ask questions about whether they have to write the same way as in their home department (e.g. by following a particular structure, or using/not using subheadings).  So, I have to be quite explicit at the start that all that matters in this writing exercise is answering the question and justifying that answer. I emphasise that there may be more and less effective ways of structuring a particular answer, but that this is for students to decide rather than being prescribed. I think the optionality helps force us to discuss these writing choices more explicitly as it is impossible to prescribe a standard boilerplate structure for an essay. Student comments have picked out that the ‘essay advice in tutorials was really useful’.

Ownership and motivation: Students have to make choices about the type of assignment that they will perform best in, which will be more relent to their degree programme or what they want to learn most in the module.  This facilitates self-directed learning as they take some ownership over their assessment.

Mitigating against improper generative AI use: the guest speaker scenario and some of the case studies are so specific that CHAT GPT etc would not be able to write them. This could provide me with an opportunity to discuss AI use where appropriate with students, but ensures that students are really doing their own work.



What challenges did you encounter and how did you address them?

Scalability: I need to consider whether parity of marking  would be more difficult to achieve if the module was scaled up and there was a larger marking team. At the moment there are only approx. 60 students on the module. If numbers increase, I would make use of calibration for marking sense checks and to establish standards, and perhaps develop a tighter rubric that specified certain things I was looking for in the different assignments.

But as with students, I think this is also a potential benefit in that these discussions amongst staff are not always done on modules with more traditional assessments, where expectations of standards are still not guaranteed between markers! This kind of assessment almost forces us to be less tacit and more explicitly engage with some of these issues.

Risk taking: it is possible that students could be attracted to certain types of questions or not take risks, whether or not these are actually best indicators of their actual skills. So far I haven’t noticed a strong differential in achievement between the less traditional and the academic submissions. This is something to continue to monitor. But, as mentioned above,  most of the exercises we do in class are intended to simulate the different types of assignment. So this allows students to try out different things and get feedback to see where their strengths lie before attempting the summative work.

Logistics and timetabling: the guest speaker is scheduled through normal timetabling so it is not ‘extracurricular’ for inclusivity concerns. But chief executives are not as flexible as academics about complying with the times they are allocated by timetabling. So, that may be an obstacle. However, the guest speaker session will be recorded so even if students are not able to attend they can still choose this assignment type.


What advice would you give to colleagues who are thinking of trying this type of assessment?

It isn’t as daunting to provide optionality as you might think! All I was doing was looking at my learning outcomes, looking at my students and providing a range of questions that oriented to the different skills to assess and different interests students had. As time went on, I became more aware of the bits of the course that really grabbed the students and could then frame assessment a little bit more through them.

I saw this module as a chance to experiment and see how adding optiopnality worked and so I started in a small way with one variant from that traditional academic mould and I’ve built up from there and that was a very comfortable way to do it because I could evaluate and refine. You can start with a small level of optionality and work form there without overwhelming yourself.

You have to be aware that some students might be daunted themselves by optionality and some are more risk averse than others, so to avoid all students going for the ‘safe’ option, try to build in opportunities for formative practice so everyone gets an opportunity to practice with a new form of writing.





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