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Blog post Part of series: A new ecology of higher education: Disability, access, participation and belonging

How might higher education providers make assessment more inclusive? The potential of Universal Design for Learning

Vikki Anderson, Teaching Fellow at University of Birmingham

Covid-19 resulted in a major interruption to routine assessment custom and practice in higher education. This interruption has placed higher education providers (HEPs) at a crossroads where they can either simply return to the status quo or take the opportunity to reconceptualise assessment and feedback practices through a process of inclusive, future-oriented design. This blog post considers the potential of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the development of inclusive assessment in higher education (HE).

Embedding the learner voice within change mechanisms is key to improving the student experience. A survey garnering the views of 473 disabled students during the pandemic revealed that many felt positive about assessment formats such as open-book exams held over a longer period of time and, for some, the ability to work from home (Disabled Students’ Commission, 2021). However, disabled students’ experiences of remote assessment did vary, highlighting the difference between equality of opportunity and equity. Equality means everyone is treated the same way, regardless of individual difference. Equity, on the other hand, means everyone has access to what they need to succeed. For example, while many disabled students will have welcomed the opportunity to type their exams when working from home, digital poverty will have placed some at a disadvantage; with others being hindered by ‘hard to focus, disruptive environments, not really an appropriate environment for someone with learning difficulties’ (Disabled Students’ Commission, 2021, p. 12).

‘While many disabled students will have welcomed the opportunity to type their exams when working from home, digital poverty will have placed some at a disadvantage.’

It is therefore essential to consider a range of equity, as well as equality, issues to ensure that all students can achieve the intended positive outcomes regardless of their starting point or the unique challenges they may experience. UDL aims to include all students and minimise requirements for individual reasonable adjustments (Martin et al., 2019). One of its core principles – to provide multiple means of action and expression – focuses on employing a variety of ways in which students can demonstrate their knowledge and understanding, and incorporates the concept of designing out opportunities for academic dishonesty. Examples include authentic assessment, e-portfolios, pod/vodcasts, verbal assessments and applied case studies, to name but a few. Offering simple choices to the whole class – for example to deliver either a traditional (face to face) or virtual (recorded) presentation – could provide a flexible approach for all students, enabling them to be assessed equitably without singling out difference.

‘Offering simple choices to the whole class could provide a flexible approach for all students, enabling them to be assessed equitably without singling out difference.’

UDL is a process of quality enhancement, which requires careful planning, adequate time and funds and is ‘…understood as fundamental and pervasive by senior staff and governors who are in positions of real influence’ (Martin et al., 2019, p. 21). For this reason, the Higher Education Commission (HEC, 2020, p. 8) recommends that ‘a senior leader in every HEP, such as a pro-vice-chancellor, takes on the responsibility and accountability for driving change to improve the experiences of disabled students attending their institution’. Integral to this process of change is the active engagement and formal consultation of disabled students to identify and respond to barriers within current systems. Acknowledging the ‘inequitable power dynamics’ of HE classrooms, Fovet (2018) found that ‘the only way to obtain genuine and earnest feedback from students was to entirely delegate interviewing to the students themselves as research stakeholders’. This approach would enable disabled students to play a meaningful role in co-designing inclusive assessment for greater accessibility, as well as in wider strategic decision-making.

The Disabled Students’ Commission (2021) survey revealed students’ disappointment, not that more flexible means of learning and assessment became available during the pandemic but that this was a reactive, crisis-led response: ‘Once online learning became the norm, it upset me to realise how many adjustments were possible to me that had been denied in the past’ (p. 13). The report from Disabled Students UK (DSUK, 2022), aptly entitled ‘Going Back Is Not a Choice’, advocates drawing upon Covid 19-related possibilities and challenges in order to make HE more accessible and inclusive in an anticipatory manner. Focusing on UDL principles as a strategic priority, discipline-focused work with a variety of stakeholders (including disabled students) aimed at embedding accessibility in the curriculum through course content design, together with inclusive teaching, learning, assessment and feedback practices, would meet the needs of a diverse student body and develop a strong evidence base going forward.


References

Disabled Students’ Commission. (2021). Exploring the impact of Covid-19 on disabled students’ experiences. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/exploring-impact-covid-19-disabled-students-experiences

Disabled Students UK [DSUK]. (2022). Going back is not a choice: Accessibility lessons for higher education. https://disabledstudents.co.uk/not-a-choice/

Fovet, F. (2018). Exploring the student voice within Universal Design for Learning work. The AHEAD Journal, 8. https://www.ahead.ie/journal/Exploring-the-Student-Voice-within-Universal-Design-for-Learning-Work

Higher Education Commission [HEC]. (2020). Arriving at thriving. Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all. https://www.policyconnect.org.uk/research/arriving-thriving-learning-disabled-students-ensure-access-all

Martin, N., Wray, M., James, A., Draffan, E. A., Krupa, J., & Turner, P. (2019). Implementing inclusive teaching and learning in UK Higher Education: Utilising Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a route to excellence. Society for Research into Higher Education. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Implementing-Inclusive-Teaching-and-Learning-in-UK-Martin-Wray/160b614f1cd771cf9286824925084ff69dda69d5