A student blog by Sumayyah Patel.
Assessment and the awarding gap
For readers unacquainted with the terminology, the degree awarding gap is the difference in proportion between students receiving a first or 2:1 (sometimes called a ‘good degree’) compared to other groups of students based on characteristics like ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and age.
Data shows that at a sector-wide level, there is a clear awarding gap, particularly for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and mature students. Notably, in academic year 2019/20 a higher percentage of white students (87.1%) received a good degree, whereas only 77.2% of BAME students achieved this. Similarly, there is a 9.6% point difference between young and mature students gaining a good degree. (85.2% and 75.6% respectively).
Awarding gaps are significant due to the life-altering impacts it can have on students, while also limiting diversity in academic research and the broader job market. It is therefore vital that we take action to close this gap.
A nod to the importance of terminology
In recent years, the acronym BAME has come under scrutiny. While often employed by policy makers for the sake of convenience, the monolithic nature of the term masks significant differences between ethnic groups (Sewell, 2021) and acts as a marker of difference through ‘othering’.
In the same way as ‘people of colour’ was once used as a catch-all, the acronym implies individuals captured by it are a homogenous group (Aspinall, 2021). The casual use of the term therefore is not only inaccurate but neglects the diversity of lived experiences for those of minoritised backgrounds.
A range of terms are adopted in this area, from ‘global majority’ through to ’minoritised backgrounds’, but each of these has its own issues. While we use BAME within this blog, we recognise that engaging in critical dialogue on the efficacy of racialised terminology is vital (see DaCosta et al., 2021).
Assessment is more than just grading
Both formative and summative assessment facilitates student learning and motivation at all levels of education. It is not simply concerned with “grading and examination” (Sawand et al., 2015, p. 162) but a major driver in the teaching-learning process.
Of course, assessment can also act as a barrier to learning, inducing considerable anxiety and stress for students. Koudela-Hamila et al’s (2022) multi-modal psychophysiological study of examination stress revealed an association between examination periods and indicators of dysphoria, social withdrawal and altered physiological processes.
Adding to this, the recent COVID-19 outbreak introduced remote assessment delivery for all. Though online assessment comes with its own set of unique challenges (Slack and Priestley, 2022), it has been shown to significantly reduce test anxiety for some (Jaap et al., 2021) while also perhaps reducing the awarding gap. However, digital poverty can also be a problem, as not all students have access to digital devices within their home environments (Office for Students, 2020).
Thinking about Inclusive Assessment Practices
Originally focusing on disabled students, inclusive assessment is ‘the design and use of fair and effective assessment methods and practices that enable all students to demonstrate to their full potential what they know, understand and can do’ (Hockings, 2010, p 34). It involves consideration of all aspects of assessment design, from the development of criteria to delivery of feedback.
As a good pedagogic practice for all, inclusive assessment may include but is not limited to student choice, authentic assessment, clear communication of marking criteria and expectations, opportunities for feedback and feedforward and the development of assessment literacy. As such, there is no one approach to inclusive assessment. Rather it is an umbrella term which encompasses institution-wide adaptations that should be implemented at all levels (Hanesworth, 2019).
The power of student voices
Bearing in mind the significance of assessment in the learning process and the existence of the awarding gap, it is essential for Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) to understand student perspectives.
While the evidence base for student experiences of contemporary inclusive assessments is quite small, one review by Tai et al (2021) highlighted student choice regarding the topic, tools, means of expression, and even the type of feedback received was rated particularly valuable. Similarly, assigning groups for international and local students rather than leaving group member selection to individuals helped students improve on a range of areas from cognition to emotional and interpersonal skills.
Understandably, improvement to inclusive assessment practices cannot be made without the inclusion of student voices. Student-staff partnership is integral for the understanding of different student needs and may be used as a sounding board for existing work in inclusion.
So, what does this all mean?
Inclusive assessment is not something with a clear end point. The incorporation of inclusive practices in HEIs is a complex, continual process requiring institute-wide provisions but also programme-level thinking.
While previously, accommodations and individual access plans have been used in relation to students with disabilities (Lawrie et al., 2017), such an approach is problematic given the current diversity of student populations. Instead, inclusive practices must be adopted at every level in the assessment process, from assessment design to assessment literacy and feedback (Evans, 2016).
Aspinall, P. J. (2021). BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic): the ‘new normal’in collective terminology. J Epidemiol Community Health, 75(2), 107-107.
DaCosta, C., Dixon-Smith, S., & Singh, G. (2021). Beyond BAME: Rethinking the politics, construction, application, and efficacy of ethnic categorization. Higher Education Research Action Group (HERAG).
Evans, C. (2016). Evans Assessment Tool (EAT). University of Southampton.
Hanesworth, P. (2019, January 24). Inclusive Assessment: Where Next? Advance HE. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/inclusive-assessment-where-next
Hockings, C. (2010). Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education: A synthesis of research. York: Higher Education Academy. https://equality.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/64/2021/01/Degree-classification-Breakdown-2020_21.docx
Jaap, A., Dewar, A., Duncan, C., Fairhurst, K., Hope, D., & Kluth, D. (2021). Effect of remote online exam delivery on student experience and performance in applied knowledge tests. BMC Medical Education, 21(1), 1-7.
Kaur, A., Noman, M., & Nordin, H. (2017). Inclusive assessment for linguistically diverse learners in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(5), 756-771.
Koudela-Hamila, S., Smyth, J., Santangelo, P., & Ebner-Priemer, U. (2022). Examination stress in academic students: A multimodal, real-time, real-life investigation of reported stress, social contact, blood pressure, and cortisol. Journal of American College Health, 70(4), 1047-1058.
Lawrie, G., Marquis, E., Fuller, E., Newman, T., Qiu, M., Nomikoudis, M., ... & Van Dam, L. (2017). Moving towards inclusive learning and teaching: A synthesis of recent literature. Teaching & learning inquiry, 5(1), 9-21.
Office for Students (2020). ‘Digital poverty’ risks leaving students behind. Downloaded from: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/digital-poverty-risks-leaving-students-behind/ 1 February 2023.
Slack, H. R., & Priestley, M. (2022). Online learning and assessment during the Covid-19 pandemic: exploring the impact on undergraduate student well-being. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 1-17.
Tai, J., Ajjawi, R., & Umarova, A. (2021). How do students experience inclusive assessment? A critical review of contemporary literature. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1-18.
Example of student-staff partnership initiative at the Office for Students.
Developing a Set of Inclusive Assessment Design Attributes for use Across the Higher Education Sector at The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).