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21 March 2023

What is optionality in assessment?


  • Dr Miriam Firth, Senior Lecturer in Education Management and Leadership, University of Manchester
  • Professor Gabrielle Finn, Vice-Dean for Teaching, Learning and Students, University of Manchester 
  • Jesper Hansen, Lecturer (Education and Student Experience), UCL
  • Professor Martyn Kingsbury, Director of Educational Development, Imperial College London
  • Simon Walker, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Health Economics
  • Jill Webb, Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Students for the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of York


As our world continues to change, with new ways of working, technological advances and social progress, many of us in higher education are starting to consider whether we should design greater flexibility into our teaching and assessment. How we best offer this in our assessment, to suit diverse student needs, is a further conundrum to explore.


What does optionality in assessment mean?


Optionality in assessment is, put simply, student choice.


It is a novel practice, providing students with greater choice over how they are assessed. For example, this could mean choice around when students submit assessments, the format in which they submit assessments, or the choice to submit assessments as an individual or a group.


This could have several benefits for both the university and the individual learner - including more inclusive assessment, mitigating against malpractice, supporting individual learning needs, and improving the student experience.


A part-time student juggling work and learning could choose to submit an assessment at a time that works around their schedule, giving them more time to consider their thesis. Or a student with a full grasp of the course, but who struggles to get their ideas down on a page, may choose to submit an assessment in video or audio form where they can more accurately showcase their knowledge and ability.


However, there are also potential barriers to optionality, including poor student choice in the options presented, regulatory barriers to design optionality, accreditation issues to enable choices, and discipline cultures and norms not flexing to support novel assessment practices. These factors must also be carefully considered.


So how do we make optionality in assessment a reality?


The University of Manchester, the University of York, University College London and Imperial College London are working together to explore the feasibility, practicality and utility of optionality in assessment over two academic years. We want to understand the potential benefits, drawbacks and barriers.


Before we jump straight in to making changes to our assessment, we want to hear academic and student views on what they would need to benefit from greater optionality in a real-world learning environment – as well as exploring what colleagues are already doing in this area, and how we could empower and enable more colleagues to try it for themselves.


Using data from surveys and interviews (with teaching staff, students, external examiners, regulators, accreditors, administrators, and employers), we’ll develop tools to support teaching staff in developing inclusive, accessible and flexible assessments for their students. Outputs will include multimedia resources and case studies to showcase best practice - plus a practice-sharing conference, which will be held in November 2023 and will be open to QAA Members.


All outputs will be accessible via the project web page. You can also explore QAA’s other Collaborative Enhancement Projects.