Assessing Creatively, or why I’ve embraced the #unessay

This post forms the basis of a presentation I gave at the Royal Historical Society and History UK’s ‘New to Teaching Event’ on 10th September 2019.
Figure 1: A photograph of card game

What is the Creative Assessment? 

For the past six years, third-year students taking my ‘Victorian Cities’ module have been asked to submit a creative assessment. They can produce either a 1000-word ‘faux’ primary source or a non-verbal output of any kind. This assessment is worth 50% of their final mark for this module. For official purposes, this assessment is called a ‘Portfolio’ because students submit both a creative output, worth at 40% of their overall mark, and a 1000-word critical reflection, worth 10%. My assessment descriptor is brief:

To keep the looseness of this assessment I don’t offer a tailored marking criteria. (Coincidently I’ve only been asked once by a student in the six years for one). Rather, to help set up this assessment, I always run a two-hour workshop with students in an IT suite. During this session, I talk them through the assessment and what I expect. They are then offered the chance to look at previous work submitted to the module and to look at their critical reflections. I will also walk around and speak to every student individually to ask them what they plan to do, and offer tips and suggestions.

Figure 2: An interactive children’s book on Victorian housing.

This is my favourite assessment. I am always struck by the creativity of student work and how much time, effort and energy they put into it. Like the historian Christopher Jones, I have found that students’ creative work has ‘continued to exceed my expectations’. It’s fascinating to see how students communicate the spirit of both secondary and primary sources into their outputs. I have had wide ranging outputs submitted to me including a song, boardgames, an interactive child’s book, exhibition panels, craft pieces, an array of panoramic models, radio shows, short documentaries, learning aids for children and so on. This has been coupled with ‘faux’ primary sources such as newspapers, diaries, letters, maps etc. [As an aside, I never thought I would receive such an array of tea stained material.] A handful of students have used digital tools such as blogs, twitter and Instagram. Nevertheless, social media outputs are surprisingly rare for students born into social media age.

The creative assessment that I developed above coincided with the development of the ‘unessay’ in North America. The unessay assessment moves away from a traditional assessment form that, according to Jennifer Travis, is a ‘static and rule-bound monster that students must master to achieve a good grade’. I see my creative assessment model as being part of this wider trajectory. It would not even surprise me if I had unconsciously picked up on wider discussion of the unessay through social media. Indeed there is a twitter hashtag #unessay that shows some excellent work students in North American and UK have produced.

Figure 3: A board game

So, why the Creative Assessment?

I would love to say that my decision to devise this assessment exercise was driven out of a commitment to expand students’ skills set. But it wasn’t. Rather, my decision to develop this assessment was pragmatic. I was working in an institutional context where I needed three assessments for my year-long module. I had already decided to offer an essay and a primary source gobbet. I wanted to do something different. I could have set an exam. It would certainly have been easier but, in the end, I decided not to.

Reflecting on this assessment now, I think there are three reasons why I think it is an important assessment model to me:

Firstly, I believe that assessment models can reinforce social and cultural power structures. As a dyslexic and dyspraxic scholar, I am keen to question our ableist structures and to think about reinstating creativity into curriculum design. As a feminist, with a working-class background, I believe that we should be careful not to replicate largely middle-class, white male practices that ultimately privilege the word over other forms of creativity and ownership.

This assessment for me is a quiet radical act in dismantling specific structures. It enables me to provide inclusive and diverse opportunities for all students.

Secondly, I wanted to empower students in their learning experience. I therefore ask students to think about what interests them and how they might use to this for an assessment purpose. This differs from traditional assessments because it asks students to display a knowledge and skill set they have crafted outside of the classroom. Ultimately, it places them at the centre of the experience and not me as the marker. One of things I’ve really enjoyed is seeing all students push themselves to achieve really good marks. For me, a side effect has been to see how this assessment empowers students who might struggle with traditional assessments. Similarly, I have found that I have used the whole range of marks on offer. Students can achieve marks in the 80% range. I have given one output 90%.

This is a transformative act because the assessment experience is no longer lecturer-led but student focussed, developed and owned. We too often assume that students come into the classroom to be made, to be told what they don’t know or to be skilled up. Yet, this assessment has made me realise that students’ experiences and skills are far more wide ranging than we give them credit for when assessing them. Rather, the outputs they provide offer a diverse and varied way to think about a) ideas surrounding active learning and b) how history can be communicated through a creative process. Many outputs speak to an audience beyond the academic community, something our impact and civic agendas (outlined in many strategic plans) are pushing us to do.

Thirdly (and finally), this assessment offers the students a different way to evidence their skill set to future employers. This is a transitional act. It might even enable them to develop confidence through ownership. As such, it enables some students to work through ideas or plans they might have for their future at a time when they don’t feel like they have the time. Assessments therefore need to be understood as not only testing for subject knowledge but also intellectual, professional and generic skills.

As Abby Padgett, a former student and collections trainee at a Northern museum, wrote to tell me recently: ‘It really allowed me as a student to be creative and use my interest to develop a project I was passionate about and really proud of. It has allowed me moving forward into museum work to be confident in creating ways to engage a variety of different people with different abilities.’

Things to consider with Creative Assessments

So far, I have highlighted the benefits of the independent creative project. However, it would be remiss of me not to tell you what issues have emerged:

1. Some students do struggle to know what to do for this assessment. I have generally noticed that students are more nervous in the run up to the assessment workshop. This is especially the case for students who feel that they have been trained to write essays and now in their third year are being asked to learn something else. To overcome this, I have been an extremely forward-facing lecturer around this assessment. You might not want to run this assessment if you don’t have the time to commit to helping students in this way.

2. Students do not always believe that they can do whatever they want and that they are active agents in crafting their assessment experience.

3. It can take a lot of time to mark and manage the submission of this assessment. I have to book a classroom to mark these assessments. I have to store them for the external in my office. It’s getting crowded in there; just ask my office buddy!

4. Students can spend quite a bit of money on their products.

5. I worry that I am not giving these assessments enough weighting in the assessment for the work and time spent on them. Linked to this I wonder if this work is showcased enough by me? Should I think more about ways this work could be moved beyond the assessment platform?

6. Different departments and institutions might not be able to accommodate this type of assessment. Some universities might ask you to write very detailed module proformas.

I loved hearing the ‘wow’ from one of the tables when I showed them the work I had brought. If you want to give this assessment a whirl or have any questions then get in touch. I’m happy to talk with you more about this.

You can find some student reflections on this assessment by Laura Fitzpatrick, Billie-Gina Thomason, Andrew Madden and Harry Coughlan on this site.