After universities quickly moved to redesign their 2020 summer assessments, many of us were left wondering what the future of Higher Education assessment might look like.
The widespread use of online and contingent assessment strategies this year would have been unimaginable just six months ago, but does this mark the future course of assessment in Higher Education? The sector will certainly change and the challenges of summer 2020 undoubtedly create new opportunities to address questions that have gone unanswered for too long. Online discussion groups, for instance, have rightly highlighted the sudden willingness of institutions to roll out alternative assessments for students in summer 2020 when for years many students had been seeking – but were often denied – these same options as Reasonable Adjustments. But far from seeing this point as a fork in the road – whether to return to the assessment approaches of 2019 or to use the strategies employed in 2020 – universities should take the months ahead as an opportunity to rethink not only what assessment strategies are available, but crucially how and why they are used.
Maintaining Standards by Challenging Norms
The steps being taken across the sector to encourage a far more diverse student body are among the most important successes in Higher Education in recent years. But despite taking active measures to diversify who studies at university, there has often been an odd reluctance to rethink teaching and learning strategies once students arrive. The desire to maintain academic standards is often erroneously conflated with the preservation of academic norms. Far from being a synonym for rigour, at times tradition may actually lead to artificial and unequal practices that fail to provide academics, future employers or indeed students themselves with a clear picture of individuals’ knowledge acquisition. By undertaking a long-overdue review of Higher Education practices, we can ensure that academic approaches recognise and value difference, and reflect the dominant modes of knowledge production and exchange in the twenty-first century.
For too long, universities have sought to mould twenty-first-century students according to twentieth-century – and in some cases, even nineteenth-century – models of success. The need to rethink existing practice is particularly acute in the assessment modes used across the sector. Universities have traditionally relied upon procrustean strategies to achieve parity whereby students requiring additional support have largely been supported through a mixture of Reasonable Adjustments and alternative assessment type. As well as carrying the potential for universities to fall short of their anticipatory duty under the 2010 Equality Act, a reliance on the retrospective repositioning of individuals depending on each assessment type risks recasting difference as disadvantage. It is important to stress that inclusive is not synonymous with homogenous. An inclusive assessment approach does not call for the abolition of Reasonable Adjustments; these support structures will always and rightly play a role in achieving parity of opportunity, experience and outcome for students. However, Reasonable Adjustments should always be the final step to achieving parity and never the starting point. An inclusive approach looks to where an institution has physical, pedagogic, cultural and linguistic barriers in its practices and seeks to remove them, and then supports students to achieve parity of opportunity and experience through additional or alternative means as necessary.
The critical examination of university norms and practices is particularly important given that some barriers inherent within current approaches cannot be overcome through additional or alternative provision. Students’ prior learning experiences, their age at entry and whether they are from backgrounds – familial or geographical – with high or low participation rates in Higher Education are just some of the factors that can influence their success in undertaking assessments at university. Yet there are no Reasonable Adjustments that take into account cultural capital. Targeted discussions with students, learning support tutors and student support teams prior to assessment design can help reveal the points and practices that present barriers to students undertaking assessments that are not always visible to the academics setting them. Inclusive Assessment then allows us to implement solutions to these barriers which, wherever possible, move the response from additional support for certain students, to a targeted redesign for all.
Embedding Inclusive Practice
Inclusive practice allows us to identify ways in which all students, irrespective of background, can be supported so that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. No student should be predestined to under-perform on any assessment before they embark on it. Ensuring that experiences and outcomes are aligned plays an important role in ensuring clarity and parity. The starting point when designing any assessment should always be to ensure that it corresponds to the learning that underpins it. A student’s first experience of a given assessment mode should not be during the assessment itself. The type of assessment used should correspond to how students have engaged with the material during the module. For instance, oral presentations are often used as a means of diversifying assessment modes, but the advantages offered by mixed assessment portfolios are of limited impact if students are not afforded the opportunity to develop the key skills they need over the course of the module and to receive feedback on these in advance. This also applies to written assessment modes. Essays are frequently employed as alternatives to exams, but unless students have been supported in the development of their academic writing skills, there is still often a discrepancy between the mode of assessment employed and the forms of knowledge mastery that take place over the course of the module. Seemingly small steps can be important interventions in addressing such gaps. For example, the introduction of a series of low-stake assessments in advance of an essay means students can receive feedback on core ideas prior to applying them in an extended piece of work.
Inclusive practice also offers us the opportunity to reflect on the implications of using any given mode of assessment as a means of assessing mastery of a specific body of knowledge. The two-hour written exam has long served as a core component of university assessment, but the ways in which it tests knowledge acquisition and application are certainly questionable. Exams remain heavily dependent on information retrieval rather than knowledge application and can even contradict what students are told about best practice elsewhere. Students handwrite their responses (despite the insistence that coursework be word-processed) and the limited time available works against the argument that best practice requires careful planning. Meanwhile, students are sequestered in an environment divorced from most real-life professional contexts. The inability to consult scholarly or technical texts and aides – let alone to work collaboratively – leads to the assessment of students’ command of a body of knowledge in a largely abstract context. This raises the important question: if such approaches are seen as poor (or even bad) practice outside the lecture hall, why do universities continue to use them as a hallmark of subject mastery?
Opportunities for Change
If we use the contingent measures employed in Summer 2020 as a means of creating a parallel assessment strategy for specific groups of students in the future, then little will have been learnt from this opportunity. Some of the measures introduced will rightly be used in the future. For example, the ability for students to record presentations rather than deliver them live is an option that every course should consider from September. But if we are to use this opportunity to develop our individual teaching and to change the sector in which we work for the better, then we need to forge a different path. The lesson to take away from the Summer 2020 assessments is not, “however stressful it was at the time, at least we now know what Reasonable Adjustments we can use”. Rather, we need to ask why we have been so reliant on certain assessment forms and whether these truly reflect not only what we teach, but crucially how and why students engage with the material.
A number of universities across the UK have already been taking important steps to develop and embed inclusive practice at the heart of the institution. Where this is truly sector-leading, institutions are rethinking the explicit and implicit structures that shape their approaches to anticipate where inequality may be experienced, rather than simply accommodating inclusive practice within existing systems. The rigid insistence on “traditional” forms of assessment overlooks the fact that these were created to serve a very different student body, and one that was originally characterised by exclusive rather than inclusive principles. Inclusive Assessment allows us to align how students are assessed with assessment modes that recognise and support diversity. By embracing these changes, universities not only ensure that the assessment modes they use are underpinned by best practice principles, but they also signal clearly to today’s student population that difference belongs to diversity, and not to disadvantage.
Dr Elizabeth Ward
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.