Staff understanding and perspectives on inclusive assessment practices

A student blog by Sumayyah Patel.

Assessment in higher education is undoubtedly a social construct, comprised of practices and processes through which student ability, learning, and understanding of subject knowledge and skills is evaluated. Though it is subject to disciplinary requirements and biases, assessment is seen as a standardised procedure that is unquestioned and habitual, normalising its production of attainment differences across racial and age groups.

As a sector, we have long been aware of the relationship between a student’s ethnicity or age (mature learners) and the degree class they are awarded. In 2019/20 for instance, a greater proportion of white students (87.1%) received a First or 2:1 compared with students from ethnic minority backgrounds (77.2%). This difference was also apparent between young (85.2%) and mature students (75.6%). The Office for Students (2022) reports that while this gap has narrowed over the last few years, there is still a way to go.

What about inclusive assessment?

Inclusive assessment practices aim to consider all aspects of assessment, from design to feedback. As there is no one approach to inclusive assessment, the incorporation of such practices in higher education institutes is a complex and continual process – a journey rather than a destination.

In recognition of existing degree awarding gap in minority ethnic and mature learners, the Leeds Institute of Teaching Excellence (LITE) commissioned a fellowship supervised by Dr Pam Birtill, the academic lead for LEAF (Leeds expectations for assessment and feedback), to explore current practices at the University of Leeds. Undergraduate researcher, Sumayyah Patel was recruited to explore the existing literature in this area and undertake qualitative research.

The current research

Following an extensive literature search, it became clear that the evidence base for contemporary inclusive assessment is small, with studies often referring to inclusivity as a side effect of other interventions rather than an explicit aim. Furthermore, much research was focused on student perspectives of inclusive practices like assessment choice and time limit extensions. There was limited research on staff understanding of inclusive assessment practices, and so the question was posed: “What are staff perspectives and understanding of Inclusive Assessment, particularly in relation to the impact on the Degree Awarding Gaps for minority ethnic and mature learners?”

Online, semi-structured interviews of eight academic staff were conducted. Reflexive thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2021) was used to analyse the data. This analysis developed three key themes and emerging subthemes, each of which are detailed in the following:

Avoidance of discussing race

This theme captures staff hesitancies surrounding discussions on race and experiences of ethnically minoritized students.

  • Lack of ‘safe space’ refers to staff feeling unable to comment on or have discussions with students about their experiences a student from an ethnic minority background.
  • Conversing with students is a subtheme which captures staff’s self-perceived ability to converse with students of both minority ethnic and mature status. Staff feelings of being able to relate with students is evidenced to be an influential factor in approach. 

Staff empathy and understanding of experience

This theme taps into staff insight into student experience and the ‘knock-on’ effect this has on their compassion and responsiveness towards students seeking support.

  • Hidden curriculum and staff assumptions refer to the assumptions of student knowledge and skill base when commencing with degree-level study. This subtheme highlights the hidden requirements of culture capital which impacts on student access to support.
  • Hidden student experience follows on to mirror the concept of a ‘hidden curriculum’ by acknowledging that just as students may lack insight into say, module expectancies, student experiences too of assessment and assessment support structures are inaccessible to staff.

Staff endeavouring and willingness to support

This final theme acknowledges staff attempts to support all students as best as possible in the face of a complicated and multifaceted nature of individual experience.

  • Staff-student partnerships draws on current practice of utilising the student as a medium through which staff work to support students. In questioning this partnership, this subtheme indicates there is a potential ‘dark side’ to co-creation.
  • Hesitancies (innovative assessment practices) indicates towards current staff engagement in a mixture of traditional and innovative assessment practices, demonstrating a tentative willingness to drift from the status quo towards more a more inclusive landscape of assessments practices.
  • Staff pedagogical philosophies covers individual practice as a result of differing perspectives of staff role in Higher Education Institutes, as educators or facilitators of student learning.
  • Discipline-specific assessment culture recognises the intra-school differences in assessment cultures, bringing to question where disciplinary requirements end, and disciplinary habits take over.

So what? There is much to consider in adopting and introducing inclusive assessment practices. While it involves a process of continual reflection and improvement, there are some key actions that can be taken immediately. The first of which is to ensure strategic alignment between different policies and guidelines across universities explicitly including Inclusive Assessment as necessary for student success. Alongside this, must come a more widespread understanding and awareness that inclusive assessment is not solely about the diversification of assessment but is a complex process that requires inclusion in all aspects of assessment design.