Using an “Optional Memo” to Give Students a Second Chance

By Scott Tanaka

Several assignments in my “Office Administration – Legal” courses require students to follow detailed instructions to create legal forms and documents using specialized software.  Although universal design for learning promotes diversity in assessments, I find there is little opportunity for creativity because the legal system’s requirements are almost always rigid.  Still, I aim to provide students with an alternative way to demonstrate their learning. 

I often give students the opportunity to submit an “optional memo” in which they can explain their rationale for having made specific choices in their submissions.  If students have completed the assignment correctly – awesome – the memo is less relevant.  However, if I have deducted marks, I will read the memo to gain insight into each student’s thought process.  If I am persuaded that they had a good reason for completing some aspect of the assignment differently than I had contemplated, I will “return” marks to them for having demonstrated their reasoning.  (I adjust the quantity of marks that may be achieved through the memo according to the individual evaluation.)  When discussing this in person, I verbally explain “you can’t tell me to double check the spelling of the client’s name because it is correct in the instructions and you know how to reproduce it and proofread”, and I also give some examples of things that I would consider as “reasonable errors” in the context of the specific assignment.  For example, after reading the textbook and analyzing precedents in class, a student might be unsure about whether they should follow the style of one example versus another if they are different.  I find that this approach assuages some anxieties among my students because they experience less pressure to get everything right the first time that they tackle these tasks. 

Threatening students about the demands of the so-called “real world” is a familiar cliché in higher education, but people who work in offices know that it is sometimes prudent to ask colleagues for advice about work while it is still in progress.  Yet when it comes to individual assessments in college, we insist that students complete their work independently for reasons of academic integrity.  I believe that it should always be possible for students to score 100% on any individual assessment, provided that they have completed the necessary coursework in advance.  This optional memo gives my students an alternative way to provide evidence of their skills and knowledge even in situations where it might have appeared, at first, that there was no wiggle room for innovation. 


You are expected to complete this assignment to a standard that is reasonable considering that you are a student in the third semester of the “Office Administration – Legal” program.  If you are concerned about specific aspects of your submission, you may include a memo to Scott that explains why you made certain choices throughout the assignment.  Be as specific as possible so Scott can understand your thought process. 

If you address reasonable errors, then you may recoup up to 10 marks.  Remember to keep the tone professional as though you were reporting to your manager in a real law office.  Therefore, you must be concise and bring only important issues to Scott’s attention.