Space to breathe: Allowing students to think outside the box through meaningful assessment

What was the activity?

The new video assessment on the Culture and Communication module, ‘My cultural Identity’, places the learner at the heart of assessment, develops real world digital skills, highlights the value of diversity and nourishes cultural awareness and sensitivity. The task aims to nurture a number of ‘sustainability competencies’; the knowledge, skills and attitudes seen as critical for navigating today’s sustainability challenges (Robinson and Molthan-Hill, 2021). The teaching and learning approach is grounded in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) pedagogy that promotes “student centred, transformative and action-oriented learning” (Advance HE and QAA ESD Guidance, 2021).

Student-centred, transformative learning

The educator perspective:

Students are asked to create a video that explores facets of their cultural identity. The module introduces core culture and communication frameworks and theories that students then apply to their own and others’ lived experiences. This requires reflection on diverse worldviews, beliefs, identities and cultural assumptions using frames such as Hall’s Cultural Iceberg (1982), Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (1982) and the concepts of prejudice and othering, which are used to critically evaluate some of the drivers and impacts of individual, group and mass cultures today. Through this praxis-based approach (Freire, 1970) students identify positive elements of their cultural identity and those they see as negative, requiring change. This invites critique of established cultural perspectives or ‘mental models’ (Mezirow, 2009) – an essential stage in enabling potential transformative learning and change. Cultural narratives that promote negative impacts on society and the environment are identified, critically analysed and potential ideas for change explored.

The student perspective: 

Valeria Bogdanova, Foundation student:

“I admit I wasn’t very excited about this course, I anticipated writing another essay or a dull business report. As a student, we have essays where we need to have 11 Arial font, double spacing and follow a set of requirements to get a high grade. Throughout our academic life, we are constantly told ‘write in a formal tone, never use ‘I’ in your academic writing’. With most of these assignments I write on the topic, then forget about it. It feels like if you ever try to be creative you will be punished for being yourself or trying to show your perspective. But this assignment was different”.

Innovative assessment and real-world digital literacy

The educator perspective:

For the assignment content, students were encouraged to be creative and develop their digital literacies. Digital workshops were provided which supported the skills required to design, produce, share and upload an assessment in video format. Collaboration was encouraged through a peer review to further scaffold this learning process. The assignment brief invites students to use images, sound clips, audio recordings and any other means of creative expression to communicate their individual cultural landscapes.

Valeria’s perspective:

Despite not being sure about exactly what I would do, this assignment seemed different, one that I felt I could finally show my potential in and tell my story not just as a student, but as a person. It was an assignment titled “My Cultural Identity” asking us to make a video to show others how we identify ourselves referencing theories and concepts around culture and social psychology. I thought that this was something where I could ‘go the extra mile’ and make others genuinely interested in what my cultural identity was and why this is so meaningful for me. I also felt interested in making a video.

The educator perspective:

The assessment design emphasises assessment for and as learning, as it focuses on the process of learning and working on real world, transferable skills that aim to be “more engaging, future facing and relevant” than traditional assessment types and tasks (Elkington and Evans, 2017). 

Students readily embraced the challenge. Valery chose to ‘dance’ her Belarusian identity, others sampled music, art and film clips to convey their diverse cultural backgrounds. One student adapted cartoon animations to comment on prejudice and stereotyping, concluding ‘We are all different, and that is amazing’. Despite some students having to attend remotely from other countries due to Covid-19, staff and students commented on how they managed to connect and get to know each other through working on and watching their cultural identity videos.

By integrating the learner into the assessment process, encouraging praxis-based reflection and developing real world digital skills, the assessment moves from merely measuring acquired knowledge to engaging sustainability competencies such as critical thinking, diversity, inclusivity, collaboration, empathy and cultural awareness (Vare, 2019). It also offers reflection on change.

Valeria’s perspective:

I remember a conversation in class when we were presented with the assignment brief:

‘Can I be creative?’ I asked. 

‘Yes, I think so,’ my lecturer replied. But I could see that no one quite understood what I meant. And, to be honest, neither did I. But I was inspired by the video idea and thought I would go for it and try to put everything into it. I am from Belarus and wanted to express the deep desire in my cultural identity to be free, and express this in a way that everyone could understand; I wanted to ‘dance’ my cultural identity.

I planned what I was going to do for the video assignment carefully. The plan included three stages: filming myself speaking about my habits and customs in my home country, (which was a good way to show my understanding of ICC theories), stage and film the dance in the centre of Oxford, and then collate and edit the footage and audio.

Why did I choose the city centre for filming the dance? Well, first of all, it wasn’t just about the dance performance. I stood in the middle of the street, wearing my national flag – white with a red cross – with a red cross painted across my mouth, as I thought it would be more meaningful to do this as a kind of social experiment. The dance lasted for about 20 minutes, and I don’t think I have ever had so much attention and interest in me. People came up and wanted to know what I was doing and why. It attracted a large crowd who watched me dance, in the centre of Oxford, in complete silence, and I could see the interest in people’s eyes. 

The educator perspective:

The meaningfulness of the assessment is evidenced not only in the competencies developed but in the personal nature of the submissions, the depth of reflection and the authenticity and creativity they show. Here, student-centred pedagogy, an authentic task and exploring new digital assessment media helps support students’ personal, creative, digital and sustainability literacies. A post grading ‘cinema screening’ session completed the assessment cycle, allowing celebration of learning and recognition of work produced.

Valeria’s perspective:

I presented my video at a class screening at the end of the module. I was impacted by the silence as all my classmates carefully watched my video, and after the last second, a round of applause broke out from our classroom. I believe it engaged everyone: my video telling people about myself and the challenges in my country Belarus got everyone’s attention, and this is the moment that I will remember forever. 

For that assignment, I got an A. But that wasn’t the main outcome for me. It was the space to breathe: this is so important, to let students think outside the box. No, not every essay or business report does that, regardless of how many lecturers might like to prove me wrong, as I am talking from a student’s perspective!

Not only did I complete the assignment using theories from the subject, but I told people about myself, what I do and what I like, and what my real personality is and why my Belarusian identity is so important to me. I also saw other videos that celebrated the culture and diversity of other members of our class too and learned a lot from them. 

This for me is what meaningful assessment is.

How did it impact students?

The educator perspective:

Students were very enthusiastic and motivated by this video assignment, gaining confidence in critical thinking, communication skills, digital literacies and crucially, the ability to apply theory to practice. Staff teaching on the module were similarly enthusiastic about its impacts on not only learning but how it connected us to students as people.

The External Examiner noted “Watching these was fascinating and compelling as students were sharing something very special to them, while relating it to broader theoretical frameworks and were obviously very invested and engaged. The relationship between the personal and reflective and the academic works – it seems well balanced, useful and pertinent. In many instances the quality of graphics and video production was outstanding”. 

A collage of the work was accepted for the Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference 2021; Digital pedagogies and innovative teaching’. This ten-minute collage clearly evidences the impact the assignment had on students – please do watch it!

Student feedback was really positive and many noted this was a challenging but fulfilling assignment. Sharing students’ work in the final ‘cinema screening’ valued work beyond a simple grade.

Valeria’s perspective:

I felt like that was my opportunity to have the freedom to express myself and say what I really think. Because I was given that opportunity to express myself, I still remember every single theoretical concept that I learnt because I reflected on it (I honestly do, even though I still don’t like Sociology!). 

Not only did this assignment allow me to tell people about my cultural identity, it also helped me to raise awareness about what is really happening in my home country Belarus.
Please watch my video assignment to see what you think!

Any advice for others?

  • It is a challenging process – make time for errors and mistakes and schedule dedicated digital workshop slots for both students and staff.
  • Be explicit about meta learning; explain why video assessment is a new and innovative way of encouraging assessment as and for learning.
  • Offer an alternative choice of assessment medium to ensure inclusivity – a narrated PowerPoint was offered here.
  • Maximise opportunities for student communication and collaboration, such as development discussions, draft workshops and peer reviews, for example.
  • Use exemplars – show students what they are aiming for. Ensure you have permission granted for this.
  • Provide supporting resources in multiple formats – links to online tutorial guides/text instructions.

Other contextual details

Further information on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) pedagogy and practice can be found in the latest QAA and Advance HE ESD Guidance document (2021) which provides deeper context for developing ESD competencies, and assessment as ESD learning. This digestible and accessible paper outlines the most recent developments in the sustainability education field relevant to all educators, regardless of discipline or learning level, and is an exceptionally comprehensive starter resource. Please also see the Future Pathways ESD website for further information and key documents.

Many thanks here to our DMELD Becky Horton for her time and guidance and for creating video tutorials on Turnitin submission instructions


d’Abreu, C. (2021) ‘Creative coursework: student-centred learning: Digital pedagogies and innovative teaching’, The art of the possible: reimagining learning and teaching in Covid shaped times. Brookes Learning and Teaching Exhibition and Conference (BLTEC), 17 June 2021 Available at: (Accessed: 21 January 2022)

Elkington, S. and Evans, C. (2017) Transforming assessment in higher education. A case study series. York: HEA

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury Academy.

Future Pathways ESD website (2022) available at:  (Accessed: 22 March 2022)

Hall, E. T. (1981) Beyond culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books

QAA and Advance HE (2021) ‘Education for Sustainable Development Guidance’. Gloucester: QAA;

and York: Advance HE. Available at: (Accessed: 20 January 2022)

Robinson, Z. and Molthan-Hill, P. (2021). ‘Assessing competencies for future-fit graduates and responsible leaders’, Assessment and Feedback in a Post-Pandemic Era: A Time for Learning and Inclusion, Advance HE, pp.196-213.

Tajfel, H. (1982) Social identity and intergroup relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Vare, P. (2018) ‘A rounder sense of purpose: developing and assessing competences for educators of sustainable development, Form@re – Open Journal per la formazione in rete, 18(2), pp. 164-173. DOI:



  • Cathy d'Abreu

    Cathy d'Abreu is a lecturer in Oxford Brookes Business School and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She leads modules on Global Issues and Culture and Communication. She is an Education for Sustainability practitioner, currently leading the Future Pathways ESD Project embedding Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) into HE and is Chair of SEEd (Sustainability and Environmental Education).

  • Valeria Bogdanova

    First year Business and Finance international student, who did a Foundation year at Brookes and who is very thankful for that opportunity.

How to cite

d'Abreu, C. and Bogdanova, V. (2022) Space to breathe: Allowing students to think outside the box through meaningful assessment. Teaching Insights, Available at: (Accessed: 21 September 2023)

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Posted in Edition 2, Recipes for Success