Katie Nelson, Ph.D., Inver Hills Community College

Marc Kissel, Ph.D., (Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Appalachian State University) regularly teaches two general education courses; Our Primate Heritage and Gender, Race, & Class. Tiring of the limited range of assessment options commonly used in higher education (such as multiple choice exams and formal essays), he has chosen to assign a different type of learning activity: the “unessay”. 

For this project, his students pick a topic that interests them and then they think of a way to produce something that addresses that theme. He lets students choose the topic, the format and final product. “The idea of having students choose not just the topic but the medium in which they can best present their ideas seemed to jell with the themes of my classes and would give non-majors a chance to explore the topic in a way that is meaningful to them” (Kissel). 



An unessay is a type of assignment in which students select a topic that interests them (related to the course content), conduct research and then demonstrate their understanding of the topic in any manner that is meaningful to them. The final form of the projects can vary greatly. Here is a sampling of some of the types of projects Mark Kissel’s students have submitted:

  • A Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing game about evolution
  • A magazine-style story on Homo floresiensis
  • A watercolor about breastfeeding
  • Comic strips about primates, the island rule, and pronoun use
  • Clay sculptures of hominin skulls
  • A play about life as Fa’afafine
  • A canvas about gender roles and fluidity
  • a lesson plan on primates designed for 8th graders

This sort of assignment aligns with anthropology learning because, as Mark Kisse states, imagination and creativity are inherently human qualities. Sadly, creativity has been ‘educated out’ of us. An UnEssay project gives students a way to creatively interact with the class themes (Kissel)”. The unessay allows students to use their creative abilities while also reflecting on how humans continually use creativity to solve problems in unique ways.

Unessays also allow for students to apply an anthropological lens to view their research projects from different perspectives. This may also allow students to engage with their arguments in deeper (and potentially more meaningful) ways as they have to present their ideas in a different format than an essay.  



This type of assignment is often new to students, so to introduce it, many faculty first provide an explanation for why they assign it and what students can expect to learn. Many also provide a range of examples of topics and final products to give their students initial ideas. Most require that students present their topic and project ideas for instructor approval prior to completing it.

Emily Suzanne Clark, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University), offers her students the choice of writing a traditional essay or an unessay. She then provides a prompt and a clear rubric for how she will grade the final projects. “…students choose their own topics, they present it in any way they choose, and we evaluate [it] based on how compelling it is. The idea is to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment” (Clark).   

In addition to the final unessay product, Holly Norton, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Cincinnati), also asks her students to prepare a two-page reflective paper that details what they learned in the process of making their projects. “This lets me learn more about what excited them, what they understood, and what I need to do a better job of teaching next time around” (Norton).

» Link to Dr. Clark’s grading rubric: https://esclark.hcommons.org/the-unessay/
» Link to Dr. Kissel’s assignment guidelines (at the end of the post): https://marckissel.netlify.com/post/on-the-unessay/


Unessays can be hard to grade and faculty that assign them often state that it involves rethinking the grading scheme. Without clear and measurable grading guidelines, grading can be challenging and frustrating for both students and instructors. Additionally, this type of assignment may not work as well for certain upper-level courses or especially large courses (ie: 100 or more students). Some students can struggle with coming up with ideas while others will thrive with this sort of freedom. For this reason, providing examples and assigning the project in steps can help all students complete the assignment successfully. 


Tips to Make it Work

  • Provide clear and measurable grading criteria
  • Explain the reason(s) you are assigning the unessay
  • Provide examples to students of high quality unessay projects
  • Ask students to reflect on what they learned
  • Work on the project in steps throughout the course
  • Allow students the choice of writing a traditional essay or an unessay
  • Consider having students present their final unessay projects to one another in a conference-style setting
  • Consider allowing students to work in groups




I would like to thank Mark Kissel, Emily Suzanne Clark and Holly Norton for generously sharing their experiences with unessay assignments. I would also like to thank Nina Brown (Community College of Baltimore County) for suggesting the topic for this piece.


Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.