Inclusive assessment incorporates diversity and flexibility in the overall assessment profile, supported by special provisions where these are deemed appropriate and fair.
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.
The UNSW student population is very diverse in its cultural, language and socio-economic composition. Additionally, some 1000 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.
Principles and strategic approaches
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
To adopt an inclusive approach to teaching and assessment, teaching staff must be mindful of issues of inclusivity at all stages, from assessment design through to implementation. (Refer to the Benefits section for information on the University's obligations to provide an equitable and accessible learning environment for all students.)
Inclusive assessment provisions that UNSW has put in place for staff and students include Reasonable Accommodation and Alternative 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 the Student Equity and Disability Unit (SEADU) to be eligible for Reasonable Accommodation. SEADU 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 Assessment as part of approved Reasonable Accommodation provisions. "Alternative Assessment" is any alteration 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.
- minimises the effect of a student's disability on their performance
- allows the marker to see beyond the disability to the student's knowledge and skills
- places students with a disability on a more equal footing
- does 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 SEADU. 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 SEADU's services. 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. Inclusive assessment practices:
- recognise student diversity and different learning styles
- maintain academic standards while offering flexibility and assessment choice
- promote the responsiveness of academic staff to the diverse student population
- establish a clear concept of assessment that targets all students
- highlight the need for academic staff to make clear the learning outcomes to be assessed
- when formalised, allow an alignment with relevant policy and legislative requirements (see below)
- draw attention to the need to be mindful of assessment loading across courses and programs
- lessen the need for often resource-intensive "Alternative Assessment" arrangements.
Meeting policy and legislative requirements
According to the predominant "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 and Diversity Policy Statement (2006) and the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee Guidelines Relating to Students with a Disability (2006) assert 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, through the Disability Standards for Education, is one example. It 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."
The report's authors call on the sector to provide greater financial and academic support for those most under-represented in higher education:
- Indigenous Australians
- people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and
- people from regional and remote Australia.
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.
- Female students studying in highly male-dominated disciplines can sometimes face similar issues.
- International students may also be uncertain how Australian academia works; academic practices, including assessment tasks, may be different from those in their own culture. This can give rise to issues for them.
- 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 by weaknesses in their English language proficiency.
- Some Indigenous students may face particular challenges in mastering academic practices. This can in turn affect their approach to 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 SEADU, 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 SEADU.
Anticipate student diversity
Anticipate and plan for a broad range of students at 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, tell students that if they need special arrangements made, they should speak to staff at SEADU.
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 further 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. (UNSW Examinations are responsible for special provisions during the formal exam period.)
- 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 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.
Additional exam time
Extended time, section breaks and assessment alternatives in exams have been found to be useful to students with disabilities or disadvantages because:
- Students with learning disabilities perform more poorly in exams than other students.
- Students whose first language is not English consistently perform more poorly in timed, closed-book exams than students whose first language is English. With alternative assessment methods, this gap is not an issue (Smith, 2011).
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 them any practical difficulties that might arise because of an individual's 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.
Student perspective on inclusive assessment
In this video, Felix Rodrigues discusses assessing inclusively from a student perspective.
The UNSW Student Equity and Disabilities Unit (SEADU) provides services, support and advice to help students overcome barriers to education, including:
- economic hardship
- geographical isolation
- difficult social circumstances or
- English language problems.
SEADU can work with academic staff to implement strategies and make adjustments to help these students meet their goals. A student must register with SEADU to receive specialist services and support, including "Reasonable Accommodation" in assessment (see the When to use section of this page for information on Reasonable Accommodation).
The Learning Centre (UNSW) helps all students to develop their academic skills. This includes advising academic staff how to address language and cultural diversity issues when they teach and assess.
The Nura Gili (UNSW) centre supports Indigenous students. It informs 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.
UNSW Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has developed series of PowerPoint presentations on inclusive curriculum and assessment design:
- FASS Disability Initiative Seminar 1
- FASS Disability Initiative Seminar 2
- FASS Disability Initiative Seminar 3
- FASS Disability Initiative Seminar 4
The Australian National University's "Alternative Assessments for Students with Disabilities" provides an overview of different forms of disability and relevant alternative assessment strategies.
The Teachability project, at Strathclyde University in the UK, provides a series of guides on creating an accessible curriculum for students with disabilities.
The University of Queensland's "Inclusive Assessment" page provides a series of staff interviews, as well as quizzes on aspects of inclusive assessment.
In her own investigation, Learning and teaching for social diversity and difference in higher education, principal investigator Chris Hockings (University of Wolverhampton), Hockings et al. (2009) identifies principles that may be applied to the design of inclusive learning environments.
Ashworth, M., Bloxham, S. and Pearce, L. (2010). Examining the Tension between Academic Standards and Inclusion for Disabled Students: The Impact on Marking of Individual Academics' Frameworks for Assessment. Studies in Higher Education 35(2), 209–223.
Ball, S. (2009). Accessibility in E-Assessment. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 34(3), 293–303.
Brown, N. and West, M. (2010). Creating Accessible Teaching and Support (CATS). Strawberry Hills: University of Tasmania and Australian Learning and Teaching Council.
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (2008). Review of Australian Higher Education. Canberra, ACT.
Hockings, C. (2010). Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education: a synthesis of research, EvidenceNet UK.
Hockings, C., Cooke, S., Yamashita, H. McGinty, S. and Bowl, M. (2009) Learning and teaching in two different universities within the context of increasing student diversity – complexity, contradiction and challenge in David, M. Improving Learning by Widening Participation to Higher Education , Routledge.
Jackson, M., Watty, K., Yu, L. and Lowe, L. (2006). Assessing Students Unfamiliar with Assessment Practices in Australian Universities. Strawberry Hills, The Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.
Johnston, P.M.G. (2010). Towards Culturally Appropriate Assessment? A Contribution to the Debates. Higher Education Quarterly 64(3), 231–245.
Smith, C. (2011). Examinations and the ESL student: more evidence of particular disadvantages. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 36(1), 13–25.
Sweeney, A., Weaven, S. and Herington, C. (2008). Multicultural influences on group learning: a qualitative higher education study. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 33(2), 119–132.
The contributions of staff who engaged with the preparation of this topic are gratefully acknowledged, in particular Dr Leanne Dowse and Dr Brooke Dinning in the School of Social Sciences and International Studies.