Inclusive assessment aims to provide equal academic opportunities for all students. It acknowledges that some students have characteristics, distinct from their academic ability, which can make it hard for them to meet assessment requirements in a manner equal to their peers. It incorporates diversity and flexibility in the overall assessment profile, supported by special provisions where these are deemed appropriate and fair.
The UNSW student population is very diverse in its cultural, language and socio-economic composition. Additionally, some 1,000 UNSW students on average each year identify themselves as having a disability. When we adopt inclusive assessment design principles, students have a more equitable academic experience, whatever their background.
Inclusive assessment does not mean lowering academic standards. As long as the learning outcomes can be achieved through equivalent means, inclusive assessment is a mechanism for safeguarding standards while maximising the possibility of success for all students.
In this video, Leanne Dowse (School of Social Sciences & International Studies) discusses the principles of and strategic approaches to inclusive assessment, as well as the key processes for UNSW students and teachers.
When to use inclusive assessment
Students with a disability or ongoing medical condition, who require continual support and cannot be catered for under standard provisions for equivalence, can be granted "Reasonable Accommodation" of their needs. This is distinct from "Special Consideration", which is available to any student who has been affected by a short-term event.
Students must register with Equitable Learning Services to be eligible for Reasonable Accommodation. Equitable Learning Services will then liaise directly with academic staff regarding provisions.
In turn, the provision of Reasonable Accommodation must be equitable and balanced, so as not to disadvantage others in the class.
Usually, teachers set up alternative assessments as part of approved Reasonable Accommodation provisions. An alternative assessment is any change to:
- the standard form of assessment or
- the conditions relating to the assessment
that is made to accommodate the needs of a particular student.
Examples include allowing extra time for exams and assignments, setting assignments in place of exams or presentations, or providing assistive technology.
- minimise the effect of a student's disability on their performance
- allow the marker to see beyond the disability to the student's knowledge and skills
- place students with a disability on a more equal footing
- do not aim to give them any kind of advantage.
A student may fail an assessment task despite their teacher having made adjustments to accommodate a special requirement. This may simply mean that they have not mastered the course material to the necessary standard. If this is the case, a fail grade is appropriate.
In accordance with the right to privacy, students have no obligation to disclose a disability. However, for students to receive specialist services and support, they must register their disability status with Equitable Learning Services. The Unit can arrange any special provisions with academic staff on the student's behalf, including adjustments to assessment requirements.
Many students do not disclose their disability, and thus do not access the services that Equitable Learning Services offers. This is most common for students with mental-health issues.
If you adopt an inclusive approach to assessment by constructing an assessment profile that is varied and flexible, students feel less pressure to disclose aspects of their own background that they do not want known.
Many disabilities are invisible or episodic. For example, a significant number of students have mental health issues. Even if a disability is visible (wheelchairs or guide dogs may be obvious indicators) it is always preferable to discuss with the student what assistance or accommodation they may need, rather than make potentially inaccurate assumptions about how their condition will affect their learning. This principle holds true for all students, no matter what their social or cultural background is.
Inclusive assessment enables an equal learning platform for all students by:
- recognising student diversity and different learning styles
- maintaining academic standards while offering flexibility and assessment choice
- promoting the responsiveness of academic staff to the diverse student population
- establishing a clear concept of assessment that targets all students
- highlighting the need for academic staff to ensure the learning outcomes to be assessed are clear
- when formalised, allowing an alignment with relevant policy and legislative requirements (see below)
- drawing attention to the need to be mindful of assessment loading across courses and programs
- lessening the need for often resource-intensive alternative-assessment arrangements.
Meeting policy and legislative requirements
According to the social model of disability, the extent to which a person is hindered by a disability depends on the degree to which society fails to support their participation. Our society and our University provide formal support for people with disabilities. The following ways are just some examples:
- The UNSW Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2022-2025 asserts the need to enable good-quality learning and achievement for all students, irrespective of disability, gender or cultural and social background. This includes developing and using inclusive assessment practices that can accommodate adjustments, where necessary, without compromising the standards of an academic program.
- State and federal anti-discrimination and human rights legislation mandates inclusive practices in education. The Disability Discrimination Act (1992), through the Disability Standards for Education, requires institutions to take reasonable steps to enable students with disabilities to participate in education on the same basis as students without them. An adjustment is reasonable if it balances the interests of all parties affected.
- The 2008 Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education cites "social inclusion" as one of the key benefits of tertiary education throughout a society: "Social inclusion must be a core responsibility for all institutions that accept public funding, irrespective of history and circumstances."
Inclusive assessment practices require initial planning and considered implementation of assessment tasks. Teaching staff must be mindful of the diversity of their students, and the impact this diversity can have on their learning experiences and chances of success.
Students' backgrounds can sometimes be significant in influencing their academic learning experience and chances of success. We can make some generalisations about common barriers and issues that people with diverse backgrounds face (though it is important to note that individual differences are of primary significance):
- International students, or those from certain cultural groups, often feel socially isolated from other students in the classroom. This can affect their performance in group or classroom-based assessment tasks. They may also be uncertain how Australian academia works, as academic practices, including assessment practices, may be different from those in their own culture.
- Students studying in disciplines that are highly dominated by a gender or genders other than their own may also feel isloated.
- Culturally specific approaches to classroom behaviour can affect assessed group work or classroom discussion.
- Students from a non-English-speaking background, irrespective of their academic proficiency, can be disadvantaged in a range of assessment tasks.
- Students returning to study after a long break from education may be unprepared for university-level study and the demands of some forms of assessment tasks.
- Students who are primary carers for chronically sick family members or friends can become overwhelmed by a heavy assessment workload.
All students need to become literate in assessment practices and requirements, but the various cohorts discussed here can find it more demanding to do so.
Several UNSW bodies (primarily Equitable Learning Services, The Learning Centre and Nura Gili) can help academic staff achieve inclusivity in learning and teaching throughout the university. These bodies can advise staff both generally and on strategies for assessment, to ensure that all students are able to fulfil their academic potential.
An assessment profile that is diverse and flexible can address most requirements of inclusive assessment (see below). You may need to make additional adjustments for individual students, with guidance from Equitable Learning Services.
Anticipate student diversity
Anticipate and plan for a broad range of students at the course-design stage. Then you'll be less likely to have to make special arrangements mid-course, or to unfairly disadvantage students who are reluctant to disclose a disability.
Include a range of assessment tasks. Consider introducing a choice, when this is appropriate. Offer alternative assessment options where they are needed. If you can meet the inherent requirements of a course using these options, you won't compromise academic standards.
State requirements in the course outline
Telling students up front what the course requires of them will help them evaluate their ability to undertake the course. Be explicit in the course outline about:
- the overall aims of the course
- attendance requirements
- the learning activities used in the course
- assessment criteria
- online or software-specific course requirements
- any practical classes, field trips or work experience activities that will be involved
- the learning support that is available.
In the course outline, and again in initial lectures, let students know that if they need special arrangements made, they should speak to staff at Equitable Learning Services.
Develop students' assessment literacy
Many students need additional instruction in assessment practices and expectations. Make it easier for them in the following ways:
- Clearly identify key ideas in specific assessments.
- Summarise the main points of a topic and make clear how that topic will be assessed.
- Be explicit about the learning outcomes of the course, and assess students' learning and provide feedback in line with those outcomes.
- Provide opportunities for students to practise the types of assessment tasks you will set, before you use these tasks for summative grades.
Enable diverse perspectives
Where possible, permit or encourage students to draw on knowledge generated from their own experiences and background when undertaking assessment tasks.
Provide adequate feedback
Feedback is particularly important for those students who need to develop their literacy in academic assessment practices.
Strategies for specific tasks
Exams in particular can pose problems for a range of students. For in-class exams, consider the following.
- Check that the wording of the exam paper is as clear and straightforward as possible.
- Provide a reader or interpreter for students who need one.
- Provide the paper in large print, Braille or other formats if needed.
- Allow extra time for students who have learning difficulties so that they can spend more time ensuring that they understand the question, or checking their answers for spelling and grammar.
- Allow time for rest breaks. These will be invaluable for students who, for example, experience fatigue or have back problems and need to stretch.
- Allow a student to submit exams on a computer. This will entail making sure that the computer is "clean" and that technicians are on hand to deal with any problems that arise.
- Have students who are completing their exam with extra time or other arrangements sit their exam in a separate room, with a separate invigilator. This will prevent them disturbing or being disturbed by others.
- Adjust the examination timetable to keep a student in isolation and allow them to rest between exams.
The best way to accommodate specific students without giving them undue advantage over others is to allow ample time for all students to complete an assessment.
Providing breaks may assist all students to perform better at in-class exams.
- Students who use sign language, or who find standard means of oral communication difficult (because of either physical or mental issues, including anxiety) need to be able to make presentations in alternative ways, or be given additional time to communicate.
- Sign-language interpreters or other support workers must be highly skilled if they are not to disadvantage the student.
- When you assess student presentations to a group, consider the effect of a student's language or cultural background on their confidence.
- In the case of practical presentations, some students may need extra time, as well as assistants to act as extra "hands". For example, a student with a mobility difficulty may need extra time in a medical exam that requires them to move between patients.
Set up group work so that all students can contribute equally and demonstrate their abilities. When you prepare students for group work:
- Talk through with individual students any practical difficulties that might arise because of a disability, and make sure any appropriate adjustments are made. This includes considering students with mental health and/or anxiety issues.
- Where group discussions are assessed, make adjustments to ensure that students with communication difficulties can fully contribute.
- Plan for groups to include students from a range of backgrounds.
- Tell students clearly how you expect individuals' group-work contributions to be made and assessed.
- Make students aware of potential cultural and language barriers to equal group participation. Encourage them to address this in their groups.
- Check whether workstations with enabling technologies (for example, screen-reading software) are available. Ensure that you make assessment accessible for students using such technologies, or students who cannot use a mouse.
- Ensure that the publication format of the material supporting assessment is suitable for students with learning difficulties or with partial sight.
- Incorporate text alternatives or sub-titles into any audio clips used.
- Monitor automated marking to ensure that it does not, for example, interpret misspellings as wrong answers.
- Check that software allows students to have extra time or to take rest breaks during time-constrained assessments.
In this video, Felix Rodrigues discusses assessing inclusively from a student perspective.
Assessing students with a disability: Dr Leanne Dowse, School of Social Sciences and International Studies
Film transcript, July 2011
We see disability in a much broader framework that we ever have and we see that framework really to do with both the capabilities and capacities of the individual themselves but also what we as a community and as a society and as a university do to assist that person to participate in their education on an equal basis with all other students.
Disability is covered under both legislation at the federal level and legislation at the state level. So at the federal level we see the Disability Discrimination Act, which is the main act that oversees the way that education is delivered. We have a set of standards under that act called the Standards of Education and they set out broadly what universities and their staff need to do to create inclusive environments, where students with disabilities can participate on an equal footing with other students.
One of the key issues for a student with a disability, if you can put yourself in their shoes for a minute, is their right to privacy. So we don’t require that students who have a disability come and tell us. In fact they have a right to their own privacy. People are protected under privacy legislation. So we have a system here at the University of NSW where the disclosure of a disability is in no way mandatory. It’s about balancing rights and responsibilities. So a student’s rights are to privacy but their responsibilities are also to the rest of us in the sense that if we are to make reasonable accommodations or to ensure that we can assist them correctly then they need to be able to disclose, safely, to someone in the university and that is what the Student Equity and Disability Unit [now known as Equuitable Learning Services] does.
So one of things we do as academics is that we of course do the best to assist our students by providing as many inclusive opportunities so that we create our assessments particularly so that regardless of the skill set the person brings, that all students should be able to take part. So we don’t concentrate on one particular kind of assessment in a course, that we don’t always demand a particular sort of delivery, that we have some flexibility.
If an academic is concerned that a student is having an issue then the first port of call is to direct them to get some assistance and I think to be clear that the duty of care that academics have towards their students is to all students and also to themselves. It is not the role of the academic to provide that assistance, we are not trained counsellors, we are not trained to intervene in those kinds of ways, but most certainly to be able to point out to students when you’re concerned that whatever their issue is, is actually affecting their performance on their assessment tasks.
Inclusive Assessment, the student perspective: Felix Rodrigues (BA Design student, College of Fine Arts)
Film transcript, August 2011
As a deaf student coming from the deaf community, I use sign language, which has a different grammar from English. So, when it comes to doing essays or large parts of written work, it can be very difficult for me in terms of a language challenge. I will often need assistance in terms of understanding English, and also in producing it, particularly in long essay writing.
I go to The Learning Centre and have one-on-one tutorials to help me deal with language issues that I might be having, but the person who has been working with me didn’t really have a full understanding of sign language, the deaf community and the issues that I actually face. I had to do a lot of explaining about what issues arise from being deaf, and what Australian sign language is about, via an interpreter. I think that the people that work in a place like The Learning Centre, where they are helping students with their English and helping them with their assessments and their essays, those people really ought to be afforded the training and the education so they are prepared to deal with a wide diversity of students, including deaf students like myself, and give us the strategies to navigate and negotiate. And also, the one hour at The Learning Centre is up pretty quickly and sometimes it’s not really enough time for me to finish my essays. It’s frustrating for me as I’m often having to ask for an extension and not being understood.
I’m often asking my lecturers for extensions to my essays at COFA. Obviously the design elements of the assignments are fine for me, the same as the other students, but when it comes to written essays, yes, I am constantly having to ask for extensions due to the language issues I face as a deaf person.
All of my teachers are great. When you take the time to explain to them. I know that a lot of my lecturers have contacted SEDU [Student Equity and Disabilities Unit; now known as Equuitable Learning Services] here at the university. My lecturers are always very nice when you take the time to explain to them about the interpreters, you know, there are going to be two interpreters, I’m deaf, here is how it works. And some teachers go the extra mile, they prepare extra notes for me, and they give them to me in advance, so not only I can prepare but my interpreters can prepare. That is a system that works really well, that really helps back up my learning.
I think the first thing the staff should do is contact SEDU [Equitable Learning Services]. If they are wanting information about the deaf community and about working with deaf students. All my lecturers actually have meetings where they discuss strategies for dealing with me as a deaf student. So I would say that in terms of working with interpreters, what the guidelines are, how it works, how the classroom dynamics are going to work, what it is like having a deaf student, they should really get in touch with SEDU [Equitable Learning Services], they are the ones who are going to provide them with that sort of information.
- Inclusive Education: Design assessments to enable students to demonstrate their understanding
- New York University: Inclusive Curriculum Design and Assessment Practices
- UNSW Disability Resources
- UNSW Equitable Learning Services
- UNSW Learning Centre can advise academic staff how to address language and cultural diversity issues when they teach and assess.
- UNSW Nura Gili can inform academic staff as to the background and diversity of Indigenous students and associated learning issues. Nura Gili can help staff develop strategies to incorporate these considerations into a course or assessment profile.
- University of Queensland: Inclusive Assessment
Hong-Meng Tai, J., Dollinger, M., Ajjawi, R., Jorre de St Jorre, T., Krattli, S., McCarthy, D., & Prezioso, D. (2022). Designing assessment for inclusion: An exploration of diverse students’ assessment experiences. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2082373
Nieminen, J. H. (2022). Assessment for inclusion: Rethinking inclusive assessment in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 17. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2082373
Tai, J., Ajjawi, R., & Umarova, A. (2021). How do students experience inclusive assessment? A critical review of contemporary literature. International Journal of Inclusive Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2021.2011441