Teaching & Learning


Assessments: letting students choose

Dr Nicole Brown, Head of Research Ethics and Integrity at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society, explains how students choose their assessment type in her module.

7 December 2022

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One of our responsibilities as an institution and as educators is to assess. But we all know that assessments are often superficial, and in many cases not necessarily playing to our students’ strengths.

Some students enjoy oral presentations or exams, others prefer writing essays, some want to get their assignments over and done with quickly, others would much rather have time throughout the term to develop their thoughts and build their arguments.

Yet, most often assessments take a one-size-must-fit-all approach.  

How do students want to be assessed? 

For my module “Disability, Chronic Illness and Neurodivergence in Contemporary Society” I have developed an assessment approach that allows students to choose how they want to be assessed – either in written form or via a presentation.

Throughout the spring term students learn about what it feels like to be disabled, chronically ill and/or neurodivergent in contemporary society by applying different disciplinary lenses. For example, we look at medical and legal definitions, we critique disability studies approaches, and we consider representation of disability in film and media. 

Presentation or essay 

For the assessment students create a representation of a concept taught in the module or an experience of otherness, which they then critique in their own commentary. The critical commentary is then either a recorded presentation or an essay, and the representation can take any form they would wish.  

There are also challenges when instituting such a choice: 

  • The workload for the assessors, module tutors and module leaders are higher because students do require more support, initially, as they are not used to the freedom and flexibility offered to them. 
  • There are potentially concerns that this form of assessment is so radically different from other forms of assessments that it may feel “at odds” and potentially less rigorous or not fully comparable. 

In reality, these so-called challenges are quite minor. Firstly, even when setting essays, students often require significant support or guidance, exemplars and detailed success criteria. The workload with my approach is different, not necessarily increased. And secondly, the module went through validation processes like all other modules and programmes would at UCL, and therefore was scrutinised for all these criteria.  

Advantages to offering a choice 

However, in terms of the assessment, there are significant advantages of offering the choice: 

  • students do not feel under pressure of performing in ways they are not comfortable with, 
  • students can navigate the assessment period in their own times, ways and on their own terms,  
  • students feel empowered to take responsibility for, contribute to and indeed shape their own educational experiences, and 
  • students spend more time on their assessments, and thereby engage much more deeply with the module contents.  

What my module shows, is that students do embrace opportunities to take responsibility for their learning and to take a more active role in shaping their educational experiences, that students benefit from being challenged to leave their comfort zone, and that introducing variety in assessment enhances students’ learning.  

Top tip: Do not let yourself be daunted by institutional processes. If you feel strongly about your proposed assessment or delivery, you will have a good rationale for why you want to do things that are perhaps a little unusual. Although institutional processes may feel like a barrier there are significant opportunities for development as long as you know what you do how and most importantly why. 

Related resource

  • https://www.nicole-brown.co.uk/assessments/ (open access version of chapter: Brown, N., Morea-Ghergu, D. & Onwuka, N. (2020). Assessments: letting students decide. In: Mawani, S., & Mukadam, A. (eds). Student Empowerment in Higher Education: Reflecting on Teaching Practice and Learner Engagement. Vol. 2. Berlin: Logos Verlag. 487-498. Book available via UCL Library

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