The Unessay: Diversifying Assessment & Making Space for Creativity and Innovation in a Diverse Student Cohort

Dr Akil N Awan, Department of History

College Excellence Teaching Prize 2019

Students were asked to critically engage with any one theme through an Unessay; a creative optional alternative to writing one of the three conventional essays during the 2018/19 academic year for the Further subject course, HS2298: A History of Terrorism.

Students were encouraged to respond to the prompt in any way that they saw fit and be creative in their responses. Illustrative examples of potential responses included, a short story, graphic novel, poem, a film or play script, a tv/radio documentary, an oral history project, an interactive game/quiz, a work of art in a chosen medium, a performance, a song or musical composition. However, these options were intended only to illustrate the possibilities rather than be exhaustive and students were encouraged to think beyond these ideas.

The Unessay was introduced to address four key areas that I felt were partly neglected in our current assessment offerings and which, unsurprisingly, also intersected with College priorities too. These were:

1)      Increasing student inclusivity and engagement in learning activities by making space for creative engagement with the subject; by encouraging students to engage more personally with the subject; and providing a much broader range of learning activities.

2)      Diversifying assessment by developing imaginative assessment strategies & getting students and fellow staff to think more innovatively about broadening assessment

3)      Developing employability and transferable skills outside of the range of transferable skills already developed within the History programme, by fostering creativity, flexibility, and even resilience amongst students, particularly when encountering unconventional or unfamiliar tasks.

4)      Catering to a wider skill set amongst an increasingly diverse student cohort, particularly as Joint Honours students and those students on the Liberal Arts degree now contribute to around 40% of the History student intake. The appeal of the unessay is that its open format is particularly appealing when considering approaches to addressing various dimensions of student diversity. For example, the possibility of moving away from traditional essays towards aural, visual, and other creative forms of engagement with the subject may help to address educational diversity in students’ abilities or learning approaches. Similarly, the ability to produce coursework other than in written form may accommodate both dispositional diversity and cultural diversity, particularly for students who may be lacking confidence or skills in conventional academic writing.


Assessment criteria

The distinctiveness of the Unessay, and the potentially unlimited range of options available to students, also meant that considerable attention had to be given to the formal assessment criteria, particularly in the interests of marking parity. Consequently, students choosing the Unessay were informed that they had to discuss their plan with me and gain my approval before proceeding. Student Unessay projects were then assessed on the following criteria:

  • Suitability: Unessay uses a format and medium that suits its topic and approach.
  • Meaning: Whether implicit or explicit, the deeper meaning of the piece is clear.
  • Engaging: Unessay is readable/watchable/listenable (i.e. the production values are appropriately high and the audience is not distracted by avoidable lapses in presentation or mechanics and usage).
  • Originality: adds something new to the conversation rather than just summarizing old information.
  • Development of the thesis/main ideas are evident throughout the Unessay. 
  • Structure/Organization is logical and supports development of main ideas.
  • Coherence: Unessay is as complete as its topic and approach allows and has an internal coherence.


500 word statement

The Unessay also had to be accompanied by a 500 word statement, explaining the rationale for the chosen form of the Unessay, how it critically engaged with the theme, and how the student self-reflexively engaged with the process of producing it. The accompanying statement contributed 25% of the final mark.


Unessay projects

The Unessay was never intended to cater for all students, but rather for those who may have felt neglected or stifled by existing assessment regimes. In this respect, I was very pleased to see the high levels of engagement with, and enthusiasm for the Unessay projects.  6 students out of the class of 19 chose to undertake an Unessay project and I was highly impressed by the innovation and quality of the projects. They displayed not only a deep and powerful engagement with the themes of the course, but also a gravitation towards modes of output that appeared to accommodate educational, dispositional and cultural diversity,

The projects were:

  • A musical composition on remembering the victims of terrorism (a joint History & Music student).
  • A US newspaper article the day after the Hiroshima bombings from an alternative viewpoint.
  • A multimedia website comparing Western and Russian coverage of Chechen separatist terrorism (a History & PIR student who is also a Russian speaker).
  • A black and white comic strip/graphic novel recounting Shamima Begum’s story.
  • A debate between a perpetrator and victim of terrorism in Northern Ireland written as a play.
  • A legal correspondence between a defence lawyer, and the defendant accused of being the founder of an eco-terrorist group.


Student feedback

I set up a feedback forum on Moodle to solicit student views on the project. 10 students left feedback, including some who had not opted for the unessay. A few illustrative comments from student feedback:

  • “Personally, this is a really exciting piece to be able to explore and present. As creative writing is a hobby of mine, it's a rare opportunity given during the History course.”
  • “I am not amazing at writing essays so this gave me a good creative way to prove I have retained the knowledge of this course”
  • “It's a very interesting way to demonstrate our understanding of the topic, and provides a sense of variety within the course!”
  • “I found the Unessay option an exciting addition to the course.”
  • “I chose to go forward with an unessay, as it was a way to be creative during an essay heavy degree. Doing an unessay also means going beyond the reading list and regurgitating knowledge.”
  • “Moreover, the task opens your mind to other careers and futures to in the history discipline other than just teaching and academia.”
  • “Also I think it is relevant for post-university employment such as journalism due to its creative nature a good idea for other courses.”
  • “It allows students the freedom to creatively engage which the course on a different level compared to the (at times) rather monotonous essay writing process, and approach history from a different angle.”
  • “The unessay route forces students to think outside of the box, and perhaps their comfort zone for university work, they as a result produce much more memorable, independent work that you can tell they have thought a lot about, engaged with and devoted significant time to.”


Of course not every student was attracted to the opportunity!

“Meh maybe stimulating for those with an artistic side or what not but not for me.”


See other case studies on our Assessment and Feedback page