Miriam Groen-Vallinga about unessay assignments

Miriam Groen-Vallinga
I want to give students the chance to master the course content in their own way
Miriam Groen-Vallinga
Current role
Assistant professor at the History programme

Miriam Groen-Vallinga makes use of unessay assignments in her education. These are assignments that can be anything but an essay. This results in more active students and creative, diverse final assignments.

‘Writing essays is a central part of the History programme, and an integral part of many courses. This sometimes leads to students who are tired of writing. I then started thinking about how I could involve the entire group in my course, instead of just the students who love writing. There are many ways to master your knowledge of a course besides writing an essay. Students are talented, with diverse qualities, interests, and hobbies. I wanted to give them the chance to master the course contents in their own way. After some online investigating, I found out my idea already had a name: an unessay assignment.’ 

‘I started using unessay assignments in the course Ancient History at the Greek and Latin Language and Literature programme. This was the first time I used them, and I decided to not assess the assignment, hoping to give students the freedom of choosing something that peaked their interests, without the added pressure of a grade. The basis of an unessay assignment is quite simple: the assignment is allowed to be anything by an essay. In the course Roman Empire, which I currently teach together with colleague Olivier Hekster, the unessay assignments are graded. I only present students with the assignments and an accompanying case. After this, they are basically free to choose how they'd like to incorporate the case into in assignment. Not all students like having so many options to pick from. That is why students are still free to write an essay, if they want to.' 

‘An element we have taken into consideration well, is the appraisal. In the case of an essay, the appraisal is straightforward, but with an unessay assignment, it could be that you are simultaneously appraising a podcast, video game, and board game. To ensure a good and fair appraisal, you need to make sure the assignment and case are well-documented beforehand, and that it is clear on which criteria you will be appraising. We use a rubric for that. Students discuss with us in advance what type of unessay they want to use. The design and execution of the unessay do need to add value to the final product.’ 

‘Personally, I think unessay assignments have many benefits. Students are more creative, better master the contents, and more actively participate during meetings. In addition, they make use of skills, such as video editing, which can be very useful in practice, but are not covered in the curriculum. As a lecturer, I am very positive about the way unessay assignments appeal to students. I notice that students who are normally a little quieter and passive during lectures, now flourish and enthusiastically participate. That is great to see. And the education itself also thrives. Students think about different ways to interpret sources, and the course contents are used more thoroughly than normal.’ 

‘For lecturers who have doubt, I can really only say one thing: why not? Just give it a try, for example as an ungraded assignment, like the way I started using them. Implementing an unessay assignment is practically always possible, as long as you document everything well in advance, and clearly describe the assessment in the course manual. I think the benefits speak for themselves.' 


Would you like to know more about the use of unessay assignments? Don't hesitate to send an email to Miriam via miriam.groen-vallinga [at] ru.nl (miriam[dot]groen-vallinga[at]ru[dot]nl)