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Promoting Student Agency in the Social Sciences with the Digital Unessay

Published onMay 03, 2024
Promoting Student Agency in the Social Sciences with the Digital Unessay

The following assignments are linked by this definition of the Unessay: a non-traditional assessment that meets learning outcomes by maximizing student choice and agency. They were heavily inspired by and/or adopted from the Unessay assessments provided by Dr. Saige Kelmelis (USD), Cara Ocobock (ND), and Marc Kissel (App State).

Similar assignments have also been conducted in a humanities setting.

Author(s) & Project Role(s)


  • Isaiah Cohen, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of South Dakota

  • Chris Adamson, Director of Faculty Development, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota


Isaiah Cohen, in his role as an education sociologist, was the instructor of record for SOC 100 (Introduction to Sociology), SOC 392 (Sociology of Gaming), and SOC 402 (Social Deviance). He had students in the SOC 100 and SOC 402 courses address questions about how and why society is organized as it is, how our life courses are shaped by social forces, and how aspects of our lives and statuses structure our experiences. His SOC 392 class investigated the impact of gaming on our society—in particular the growing influence gaming exerts on our everyday lives via gamification. Dr. Cohen designed each of the three courses to emphasize Universal Design for Learning principles, with the latter course (SOC 402) also utilizing an Ungrading assessment format.

Chris Adamson was a faculty technology integrationist at the University of South Dakota. He actively organized workshops on campus that promoted student agency and creative approaches while the Center for Teaching and Learning promoted a training sequence on ungrading and alternative forms of assessments.

Assignment URLs and/or Files

Explore the digital unessay in different classes across multiple disciplines (sociology, criminal justice, literature, and digital humanities) in the tapestry below.

The network above maps out the sociology and humanities assignments included in this article and this paired article with nodes dedicated to course materials and resources.

Each of the assignments in the tapestry are linked through synthesizing theories about promoting student agency and control, following Cavanaugh (2016), while emphasizing the Digital Humanities values of equity and experimentation proposed by Lisa Spiro (2016) Alternative assessment formats like the Unessay enable students to have more control over their learning as they experiment with ways to visualize their insights from their coursework and research. The sociological assignments here show how those core features and goals play out across different course themes and levels in the same discipline. They present a cogent contrast between generalized and focused/specialized Unessay variants.

Access assignments, related course materials, and sample student work at

Learning Objectives

What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?

Sociological Unessay

  • Construct creative projects utilizing a diverse array of modalities and creative forms of expression to illustrate core concepts in the field.

  • Apply theoretical conceptualizations in the field to both the selected topic and the medium used to express the topic.

  • Translate these often opaque concepts to an approachable form that the general public can easily interact with.

Game Creation Collaborative Project

  • Design a sociologically-focused game in teams from the ground up, with forms ranging from dialogue games to scripted tabletop/video games.

  • Conceptualize, develop, and deliver an academic pitch presentation for a product that addresses the game’s content, messaging strategy, and marketing plan.

  • Prepare a floor-ready game demo deliverable for a mock-conference setting that is approachable to even uninitiated audiences.

Technology-Dependent Learning Outcomes 

Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?

Sociological Unessay

This assignment allowed students to engage creatively with our disciplines in ways that are often underutilized in academia, specifically creative multimodal formats beyond the norm of the academic paper. It introduced students to a new way to approach critical thought and expression with a heavy emphasis on Universal Design for Learning guidelines for engagement, representation, and action/expression. Though the assignment allows for a great variety of student projects (following Cavanaugh's the control-value framework), a majority of students each semester have ended up electing to create and complete digital projects. For instance, students have composed/recorded original music and created filmed comedy skits, informational digital videos, social media content, video essays, digital artwork, podcasts, digital timelines, and more.

Game Creation Collaborative Project

To understand gaming as a sociological concept, students explored it in both its digital and analogue forms. In the field of sociology, we often focus heavily on concepts and theories as opposed to engaging in active concept application. To address this concern, students engaged in explorations on topics such as how interactions through online interfaces affected gaming communities and how phenomena like video game achievement hunting impact the general public through the understanding of gamification and goal-centric reward systems. Students applied these concepts by devoting a large fraction of the term (roughly ¾) to developing a sociologically-focused game. This assignment required students to visualize their understanding of sociological concepts and apply them in a nonstandard way through the creation of a marketable deliverable with design and publishing software. In line with Lisa Spiro's argument that the Digital Humanities values experimentation and play, students engaged in collaborative play testing of their games throughout the project.

Skill Level

What is the course title and level?

Sociological Unessay

The Sociological Unessay project was assigned in Sociology 100: Introduction to Sociology (a lower-level general education course) and in Sociology 402: Social Deviance (an upper-level elective topics course open to all students). A variant of that assignment (the Game Creation Collaborative Project) was implemented in SOC 392: Sociology of Gaming (an upper-level elective topics course open to all students and is sparsely found in nationwide course offerings). All three courses were designed to emphasize elements of experiential and tactile learning in the discipline.

Game Creation Collaborative Project

The Game Creation Project was assigned in SOC 392: Sociology of Gaming.

What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?

Sociological Unessay

Since SOC 100 (Introduction to Sociology) is an introductory course and SOC 402 (Social Deviance) has no prerequisite requirements, no prior knowledge beyond the information provided in the first couple of chapters at the onset of the semester is necessary to complete the assignment. A basic review of the sociological concepts that any sociology class will cover within the first couple of classes will be sufficient. Beyond that, the only knowledge that is required is reliant on the student’s raw creative drive. Students are actively encouraged to examine past successful projects to use as inspiration for their own deliverables. Tool training is provided on an as-needed case-by-case basis, depending on the project modality and focus.

Game Creation Collaborative Project

The students must have gone through (at minimum) 70% of the course content materials before finalizing the project. They will have been exposed to a multitude of games at this point through in-class activities, their own immersion activity selection, and instructor-directed lectures/class discussions. The information they take in from all of those elements will be key to the successful completion of this assignment. Following the principles of the Unessay in an attempt to maximize student control of the project, any/all tool training is on a project-by-project basis. When a student proposes a project, they consult with the instructor on what (if any) training they need to successfully complete their deliverable.

Assignment Description

Sociological Unessay

  • Students in SOC 100 were instructed to prepare an Unessay project on a topic of their choice that is related to sociology. This project was intended to be approachable for first-year students. They were required to inform the instructor of their topic and project medium/modality before they began the production process. Once they identified a potential topic, they were instructed to plan how they would present the information that they gathered about it over the course of the semester. Students were provided with a list of potential project mediums, though it was also made clear to them that they retained full agency in their expressive selection. The list included creating a music video, creating an art piece, creating a board/role playing game, writing a screenplay, making a series of Buzzfeed-style listicles, designing a lesson plan about the topic for K-12 instruction, making a comic strip, and making a podcast.

  • Students in SOC 402 were instructed to prepare an Unessay project on deviance and deviant behavior. This assignment was a redesign of the 100-level assignment to meet the needs of an upper-level course focused on an interdisciplinary address of an intersectional subject matter in the fields of criminal justice and sociology. It was inspired by McLuhan’s theory (1964) of medium as the message, with students instructed to imbue the concept of deviance into the form of expression they selected. They were required to inform the instructor of their topic and project medium/modality before they began the production process. Once they identified a potential topic, they were instructed to plan how they would present the information that they gathered about it over the course of the semester.

Game Creation Collaborative Project

This assignment was also a redesign of the 100-level assignment with a focus on gaming (broadly construed) for the purposes of the upper-level topics course. Students were split into pairs for this final project of the semester. Pairings were randomly assigned in the interest of fairness. No two pairs were permitted to do a project on the same topic. Each pair designed a game to express a sociological concept/topic/problem and its impact on society. The type and modality of the game required instructor approval at the onset of the project. Students could select and produce tabletop games, video games, athletic games, and board games, among other formats, that are paired with digital gaming supplements of their creation.  

Time Needed

How much time did you allot to this project?

Sociological Unessay

Both the SOC 100 and the SOC 402 courses have this assignment issued at the onset of the semester as their main deliverable, with the project coming due once the course has hit its first third–e.g. five weeks into the semester or three units into the course. At this point in the semester, there are few assignments and thus students are able to focus the bulk of their attention toward the preparation of this course project.

Game Creation Collaborative Project

The entire semester (in and out-of-class) is allotted for this assignment. It was issued from the first class of the semester, with pairings provided by the second week. To prepare for this project, students led discussion groups, analyzed existing games for sociological concepts, played and reflected on a wide spectrum of game types, and dedicated twenty hours of their time to immersing themselves in one gaming genre of their choice.

Support & Training

What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?

Sociological Unessay & Game Creation Collaborative Project

Since students were encouraged to work in genres and forms they were proficient in and evaluation focused on effort and application of course concepts, instructor support was dedicated to the understanding of course concepts, consultation regarding medium selection, and guidance in the development of the project itself. For instance, a student experienced with painting or developing a podcast would be encouraged to select a similar medium so that they could focus on expressing their insight about pop culture, gaming, and/or general sociology. One of the unstated goals of this assignment was also to maximize student enjoyment in the creative process, as this has been denoted to (in-turn) improve the end result.


Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.

Sociological Unessay & Game Creation Collaborative Project

A feature of these types of projects is that the required elements one needs vary drastically based on what exactly the students choose to do and how they choose to approach it. Students can ostensibly complete both of these projects for low/zero cost should they need to do so. For example, Sociological Unessays that are done through sculpture can utilize either purchased or scavenged materials; and Game Creation Projects that utilize a dialogue game as their framework could either require no materials at all or require subscription-based video game development software. Students who are in need of data visualization or digital scholarship resources could reach out to University of South Dakota (USD) Digital Scholarship & Research Services for assistance working with tools such as Tableau, VR technology via USD’s VR Lab, or preparing a podcasting project from the ground-up at USD’s Digital Editing Suite. As a result, these Unessay and Game Creation projects are accessible for those at the top and bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum.


How did you assess or grade this project?

Sociological Unessay

Students in SOC 100 were expected to provide the Unessay deliverable itself and a written synopsis that illustrated the creative thought process they utilized in the creation of said project. The grade was assessed (utilizing a five-point mastery scale) on three core elements:

  1. clarity of the synopsis,

  2. how much attention and effort were evident in the production of the Unessay, and

  3. how effective and compelling the Unessay project was–i.e. if it was interpretable sans synopsis. 

Students in SOC 402 were also expected to provide an Unessay deliverable and a synopsis but were instructed to select a topic related to deviance/deviant behavior as well as (importantly) to infuse deviance into the way the medium expressed the topic. Given that the subject matter of this class was deviance, the instructor opted to embed the concept of deviance into the course design itself by not only flipping the classroom but also the gradebook. Thus, grade assessment was based on ungrading principles laid out in Blum’s work. Students would then analyze and justify their own deliverable and synopsis through a page-long (minimum) prose that evaluated both the creative work and the synopsis itself—thus requiring a total of three deliverables. The instructor provided the student with feedback as well during one-on-one meeting sessions, but only overrode student assessments in specific circumstances (e.g. if the assessment provided was multiple standard deviations away from the instructor’s assessment).

Game Creation Collaborative Project

Each collaborative pair was expected to:

  1. provide the game deliverable,

  2. conduct a 10-15 minute academic-style presentation on the game concept, and

  3. demo the game with a 15-20 minute time limit to a public audience.

Each part of the grade was assessed via a five-point mastery scale. Elements expected of the deliverable and corresponding demo were

  1. concise rules,

  2. high quality props,

  3. a polished gaming experience, and

  4. a reasonable ratio struck between creator demo and client/player playtime.

The academic/pitch presentation was assessed on the basis of

  1. clarity of sociological connections/themes,

  2. overall game message clarity,

  3. marketing plan,

  4. evidenced preparation for the Q&A session,

  5. presentation organization/clarity,

  6. quality of audience engagement throughout the presentation, and

  7. adherence to time restrictions. 

Challenges & Opportunities

If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what?

Sociological Unessay

There are ongoing efforts to work with the local/institutional library and local galleries to develop a physical gallery with a digital component. Students would then be able to create gallery-style exhibits of their Unessay project creations for public display through online venues like Palladio and Omeka. Students in upper-level courses could reflect in the end on the interrelationship between digital and physical galleries and archives in light of Paul Fyfe's work on unplugged digital humanities. This could also lead students in topics such as SOC 392 Sociology of Pop Culture (for example), as well as courses in other disciplines (e.g. art, humanities, etc.), to have a new opportunity to evaluate the works as a separate course component.

Game Creation Collaborative Project

No students opted to utilize the video game format. The goal for the next offering is to develop a short course unit providing additional guidance and training as well as fleshing out examples for those outside of the game design field. There are a variety of relatively approachable (and free) software that can be utilized to accomplish this, such as BuildBox and Scratch.

Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.

Sociological Unessay

It is important for those who utilize a “big tent” Unessay medium spectrum approach to develop a series of baseline expectations for each creative project to meet (e.g. podcasts created in the SOC 100 class should be no less than 15 minutes in length and podcasts for the SOC 402 course should be no less than 45 minutes in length). These expectations are heavily driven by the Bloom’s taxonomy typology presented by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University.

Students are partially evaluated on the creation of a new or original work, regardless of the modality or medium. Elements from Fink’s significant learning typology can also be of assistance in assessing certain types of student projects, as it allows for integration of ideas across disciplines and learning about others. Initial and iterative deployments of this type of assignment for a faculty member will provide them with a wealth of examples for evaluation norming and for student inspiration in future semesters.

Game Creation Collaborative Project

It is easy for students to feel daunted by the project at the onset of the semester or find themselves lost/adrift without adequate support. If possible, provide students with an array of sample games/styles that have been utilized in the past. Make sure to inform students of the range of potential material costs in advance as well.

Background Image Credit: Valessa Storm Honomichl, "MMIW", 2023.

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