Assessment in higher education is neither value-neutral nor culture-free: within its procedures, structures and systems it codifies cultural, disciplinary and individual norms, values and knowledge hierarchies. (Dr Pauline Hanesworth, Advance HE, 2019)

Strategies to help students overcome barriers in assessment

The University's Assessment for Learning Design Principles introduce us to the 3 Rs (Remove, Reduce, Rethink) to help students overcome barriers to assessment. The following strategies can be used to ensure our assessment practices are more inclusive by aiming to remove, reduce or rethink common barriers (Physical, Cultural and Cognitive) to assessment.

When planning assessments at course level, consider whether the course provides a range of assessment types as identified in the University’s Assessment Taxonomy. This will help to ensure all students have the opportunity to engage with multiple means of assessment (CAST, Universal Design for Learning). Whilst variety will remove the frequency of barriers associated with a specific assessment type, try to avoid using so many different and unfamiliar types of assessment that students then become overwhelmed (Imperial).

When designing for a specific assessment, consider whether it is possible to build in flexibility and choice in terms of how a student can demonstrate their learning in order to meet the learning outcome. For example, rather than specifying a student must be assessed by a presentation, consider whether a poster or blog could also enable the student to meet the required learning outcome.

It is also possible to build greater choice into an assessment at design stage by ensuring questions enable students to draw on real world examples from their own experience or by using case studies which a diverse cohort can relate to (Oxford Brookes University).

Encourage students to make the most of opportunities for practicing a particular form of assessment. For example, a formative assessment task for presenting could enable students to practice and receive feedback before completing the summative presentation.

Remind students of the value of practicing the required skills in a broader sense, such as practicing speaking in front of peers in class or online break-out rooms. Setting small, incremental goals in this low-stakes way can reduce the daunting nature of presenting and help students to recognise the transferable nature of the skills they are developing across the course.

When building in formative assessment opportunities it can be tempting to introduce a like-for-like practice run. Sometimes, a more focused formative task can better prepare students for tackling the summative assessment (and reduce staff workload!) e.g. rather than asking students to produce a draft report or assignment, or to read several articles, select a focused version of the task such as producing a couple of paragraphs, or reading and critiquing part of an article.

Helping students to identify feedback opportunities which are not explicit or immediately obvious such as informal, verbal feedback in seminars or peer feedback, can help students to draw on a broad range of feedback.

Remind students that a summative assessment in one unit can provide a valuable formative assessment opportunity for other unit assessments. This works particularly well when a course-wide approach has been used to map the assessments.

Feedback, when not interpreted or understood correctly, can become one of the greatest hurdles to future assessments. Encourage students to identify patterns in feedback across a number of assessments or units.

Students may experience hurdles linked to assessment processes and procedures, rather than the actual assessment itself. New and unfamiliar software for an online exam or an unclear process for submitting work can create additional hurdles which may undermine confidence and detract from the assessment activity itself.

Explicitly communicating exam arrangements and processes to students in a timely manner will help students better prepare for the assessment. This can be particularly important for students who have a Disability Access Plan (DAP) and who may be entitled to special exam arrangements or the use of assistive software.

Mapping assessment deadlines across a course not only helps to ensure a reduction in assessment bunching, but also better enables students to transfer learning from one form of assessment to another.

Although there are many benefits to online assessments, not all students will have equitable access to a physical or digital environment which is conducive to assessment. Try to ensure students are able to access suitable alternative provision where required.

Online assessments can provide increased flexibility in terms of how students manage their environment to support their cognition; we tend to assume the ideal environment for students taking a test is in a silent, well-lit room, at a desk. The ‘ideal’ we envisage does not always create the right conditions for everyone to provide their best performance. Some learners may benefit from managing their environment to ensure their best performance. e.g. adjusting light, noise levels, standing or moving rather than remaining stationary (Osborne, Angus- Cole and Venables, 22).

Whilst there will always be students who may not pull their weight for group work, encouraging students to ‘rethink’ what equal contribution may look-like can be a powerful way of harnessing diversity. Some students take a back seat with group work because of a fear of being out of control, rather than because they don’t wish to contribute and participate.

For example, working pace differs for each individual. Some students will be good ‘starters’, some may pick up the pace as a deadline approaches. Some students may also work consistently and steadily clocking up a large number of hours whilst others may work faster but have peaks and troughs in terms of their motivation and output. Encourage groups to harness these differences rather than regarding this as a barrier.

Groups often aspire to an idealised form of teamworking and get frustrated when this goes awry. Preparing students for the pitfalls of group working can better enable them to manage challenges which arise.

Encouraging students to put in place a ‘Plan B’ can help them to consider how they will move forwards if things don’t go to plan. Getting students to break down tasks in way that is manageable, realist and sustainable can also better equip students to work effectively in teams.

Encourage students to produce a contract which is realistic and supports the members of the group to achieve its aims. Whilst a contract can encourage greater fairness, building in a degree of flexibility will help students to set realistic goals and expectations.

Assignment briefs can grow organically over time and as a result, key messages can become diluted or hidden. Spending time considering how a brief is put together and checking that the instructions are clear and explicit can help to ensure that students do not misinterpret the criteria or task.

Looking at criteria and assignment briefs as a course team can help to ensure greater consistency. Asking a colleague or peer who works in a different discipline to look at how a brief is organised and communicated can also enable us to view the documentation through fresh eyes.

We can ensure students have equitable access to both printed and digital forms of assessment by following some simple steps to using accessible font size style, background colour, captioning etc. See this resource for some tips to increase the accessibility of your work.

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Upcoming events

Find out about upcoming events and workshops related to key assessment and feedback themes:

Assessment for Learning

Assessing and giving feedback to learners (UKPSF A3)

Updated on: 01 September 2022