Assessment & Marking Case Studies

Assessment Optionality case study

Two students working on a desk on individual PC's in MECD

Emily Cooksey is an Associate Dean for Student Experience and Graduate Outcomes and a lecturer in Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science. Emily talked to Teaching Academy about her experience of running optionality within her assessments.

What did you do and why?

Optionality is the practise of giving students choice within their assessed work. It is also one of the 6 key themes for Flexible Learning Pilot Projects (FLP).

Optionality can be done in many ways:

  • choice of questions or task.
  • choice in working alone or in a group.
  • choice of submissions format.

A recent QAA project led by the University of Manchester highlighted optionality as an opportunity to:

  • increase inclusiveness of our assessments, notably for our disabled learners.
  • prevent academic misconduct
  • enhance student experience. 

For this academic year I trialled optionality for a summative assessment in Chemical Engineering. The students were assigned a task to complete but given an option for the submission format, either a written report or a pre-recorded presentation. 

How did you do it?

The Task

The task was for students to produce an optimised schedule for a complex batch process. The main outcomes of the work were to produce a Gantt Chart of their final schedule and a detailed explanation of their methodology with justification for their decision making. 

Mark Scheme and guidance

I set up the coursework to include an additional assessment format, which did take longer than previous years. Additional time was needed to produce marking scheme and instructions for both formats. The FSE eLearning team provided additional support and guidance to ensure that the submission portal was set up correctly.

Students were provided with details of the expectations for each assessment format and a mark scheme. For the mark scheme, 90% of the marks available were identical and based on their work with the remaining 10% on the quality of the report or presentation provided. Students were given clear details on a page limit for the written report and a slide limit plus time limit for the presentation. Clear guidance helped to enable parity across the alternate assessment formats.

Additional support

I provided extra office hours to allow students opportunities to get additional support on the task. For example, offering an additional office hour before the deadline to support students submitting video files of their pre-recorded presentation, in case of any technical difficulties.

How did it go? What was the feedback.

The class had a cohort size of 140, of which only 4 opted to use the alternative format which was lower than hoped for. This makes it difficult to draw comparisons between the academic performance of students for each format. 

After the coursework, a survey was sent out to the cohort to get feedback. Of the students who responded to the survey, 89% agreed that providing options for different assessment formats, added value to their education and should be offered more widely.

What influenced student choice in picking an assessment format?

Students indicated that they were not particularly influenced by the choice of their peers. When asked about their approach to choosing an assessment format, the biggest concern for most students seemed to be confidence and familiarity with a different assessment format. Issues at play included:

  • Less practice and experience in writing, delivering and recording presentations.
  • Less experience in using presentation tools (which was not fully mitigated by providing guidance).

“I enjoyed the video process, it was a nice switch up from the usual.”

Student feedback, video submission

“I believe most people chose to stick with the report structure as it is what we have been used to throughout the course. We have only done a handful of presentations and they were all in person, so no previous experience of recording presentations. However did feel better to have a freedom with the coursework.”

Student feedback, written submission

“Providing some examples of alternative formats may help students familiarise themselves with the new format.”

Student feedback, video submission

What would you change for next time?

From student feedback, it is clear the main ask was additional supportive materials for the alternative format. So, for next time I will add in some examples of pre-recorded presentations for students to have a clearer idea on how to approach the task. If students have a better idea of what a good presentation looks like, this should give them confidence choose a different assessment format. In turn choosing a different assessment format may allow them to demonstrate their skills and knowledge more effectively.

Anything else you think we should know about what you did?

The technical aspects did require extra work, but once set up was straight forward and can easily be rolled forward for future assessments. One aspect that still needs to be addressed is an approach to checking for collusion or plagiarism within the videos as they cannot be run through Turnitin in the way that written reports can. Students are required to upload their videos to the video portal as part of the submission process, so one possibility is to run the automatically generated transcripts through Turnitin to obtain similarity scores. 

I also had to ensure that this approach to assessment fit within our accreditation requirements which it does.

Thanks to Emily for sharing her experiences, Teaching Academy are always interested in hearing the experiences of colleagues who are innovating and trying new ideas and approaches within Teaching and Learning, if this is you please get in touch with Teaching Academy.

Interested in using Optionality in your unit?

Optionality is one of 6 key themes in the The Flexible Learning Project (FLP). For further information check out the Staffnet pages on FLP pilots and funding or contact Teaching Academy directly.

For further information on the QAA Optionality Project led by University of Manchester check out Optionality in Assessment ( The QAA web pages include the report and some videos with key findings.