School of Divinity, History and Philosophy - Documentary making for assessment

School of Divinity, History and Philosophy - Documentary making for assessment

""Dr Léon van Ommen tells us about how he assesses level 3/4 course Justice & Reconciliation students through making a documentary. Below, hear how Léon responds to some questions about how students and staff benefit from this novel assessment practice

What did you do?


I changed one assessment from an exam to making a documentary, for the level 3/4 course Justice & Reconciliation. The documentary could be in the form of a video, a webpage, a special edition for a newspaper, or any other form the students wanted to work with. Students had to work in groups of two or three. 

The assignment was the following: 
Students will ‘adopt’ a country where the issues of justice and reconciliation are particularly important, e.g. South Africa, Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Catalonia/Spain, Rwanda. Throughout the course students collect information about this country and its conflict(s). Students research how the conflict was/is dealt with, in particular with reference to the key themes of this course ((restorative) justice, reconciliation, forgiveness). Furthermore, as subtopic students study one more specific area of their interest, such as the use of social media, ritual, gender, storytelling, … in the conflict and peace-making efforts. 

For this assignment students work in groups of maximum three. The students attach a journal detailing the input of each student. They will work as ‘journalists’ or ‘consultants’ who need together produce ONE report in one of the following forms: a) a special edition of a quality newspaper (6000 words); b) a video documentary (15-20 minutes); c) a website (at least 8 pages). 

Presentation of documentary: 
In one of the final three seminars the groups present their report and respond to questions and comments.

Why did you do it?

By ‘adopting’ a country and producing a report the students need to work through the key concepts of the course themselves. This approach is more focused on student learning than the exam which fits better with a teacher focused approach. The proposed assignment enables students better to understand the key concepts of the course, whereas the exam focuses on information transfer with less possibilities for the students to explore the key concepts. Moreover, the proposed assignment fits better with a fundamental axiom in peace and reconciliation studies, i.e. that such a study should always be grounded in the practices of particular communities. Furthermore, the proposed assignment encourages group work, which is an important transferable skill.

On a personal note, when I did my MTh degree in Theology and Religious studies, I had to do a similar group project. This has been one the most impactful assignments in the (rather many) years I studied. I learned a lot from it and it was a lot of fun to do! Therefore, I wanted to pilot this with students in this course. The topic and content of the course are most suitable for such an assignment. 

How did you develop the idea?



The idea was based on an assignment I had to do in my own studies, as said above. Furthermore, I gained feedback from my colleague Dr Katie Cross, who co-taught this course with me. 

What were the challenges?


I was keen to give students the possibility to be creative and build on their strengths and interests regarding the format. That resulted in the challenges of deciding on the word count or time limit for the different formats that the documentary could take. Therefore, the word count and time limit was treated with some flexibility, which was feasible because this was a small class. 

Another challenge is the potential disparity in terms of individual contributions to the group work. Students were asked to keep a journal indicating their contribution and submit that independently, and they were invited to make comments about the contribution of other group members if they felt there were problems. This is not a 100% watertight solution to the potential problem, but it worked well. 

What were the benefits to you?




The students produced high quality documentaries. It was clear that they put a lot of effort and enthusiasm into the work. This made for interesting documentaries to see and read, and therefore grading was much more fun than grading exams! It was also gratifying to see students being very creative and to get to know more about their own interests. 

In terms of pedagogical strategy, not only did this assignment the opportunity for deep learning, it also gave the students more opportunity to co-create the content of the course, in particular by presenting their documentaries during the seminars. Also, throughout the course students started increasingly to think through the course content in terms of their own topics, which increased the quality of seminar discussions.

What was the impact on student learning?



Students clearly engaged with their topics and had the opportunity to pursue some of their own interests. Students were able to relate the course content to a particular case that they were going to make a documentary about. It helped students to think creatively about presenting particular content, which is an important transferrable skill. 

How did your students evaluate the experience?

Students generally liked the assignment and appreciated they could choose the format they wanted. They appreciated the opportunity to study a case of their own interest in depth. The group work went well in all groups except for one. 

Students reported that the instructions for the assignment were not clear enough in the beginning, which caused some confusion and possibly anxiety in the first few weeks. This was partly due to the freedom students had in terms of choice of topic and format. However, once students were clearer on what they were expected to do, they engaged enthusiastically with the assignment.  

What did your students say? (feedback/comments from students to share?)


Not many students filled out the SCEF form and this was a small class, so there are not many comments to share. One student said: ‘Good to have an innovative assignment, but instructions need to be clearer.’ Informal feedback at the end of the course was very positive. 

What hints/tips do you have for others in the future?


Additional information?

I would definitely do this assignment again. However, from the above it is apparent that students need very clear instructions from the beginning. It might be worthwhile to set a deadline for groups to share their ideas during a seminar, so any uncertainties can be detected and dealt with early on, and the group can receive peer and tutor feedback on their ideas. 

For further information contact:

Léon van Ommen,