How do I ensure my assessments are equitable and inclusive for all students?
Our students come to college from diverse contexts with variable experiences. Some students arrive with or develop physical and mental health challenges. Because of this, it is important to consider if our assessments are equitable and inclusive for all. This section provides some suggestions and strategies to consider when creating assessments.
- Use multiple assessment types
- Provide reasonable accommodations and deadline expectations
- Provide options/choices for students to demonstrate their learning
- Ensure your materials are accessible
- Use clear language that is understood by all
- Be specific and transparent about student expectations
- Counter any implicit biases when creating and grading assessments
Use multiple assessment types
Use more than one assessment type to provide students with different opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. Variability in students’ cultural, linguistic, and disciplinary backgrounds affect their interpretation of, performance on, and motivation for engaging a given assessment type.
Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may have working memory issues that would make taking long multiple choice assessments challenging. If this is the only way students are assessed in a course, those students will have more demands and fewer benefits on assessments. Additionally, if writing long responses to posed questions is the only option for assessment, students who are not native English speakers will have more demands and fewer benefits, especially if they do not have access to aids such as a glossary or dictionary or if there is time pressure to respond (Adapted from UDL and Assessment).
Thus, providing varied forms of assessment helps level the playing field for all students.
Universal Design for Learning is an educational framework to guide the design of learning aims, assessments, materials, and methods while keeping a diversity of learners in mind. This approach recommends that assessments provide multiple means of representing and assessing knowledge for students.
Web resource: UDL and Assessment (Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education)
Provide reasonable accommodations and deadline expectations
Students in our courses may come with requests for disability accommodation from the Disability Resource Center (UMTC) or requests for exam rescheduling in accordance with University policy. The Disability Resource Center lists the following as the most requested accommodations for students:
- Extended testing time
- Short breaks during testing
- Modified deadlines
- Semi-private testing
- Modified attendance
Note that three of the five requested accommodations are related to assessments. One way to approach this as an instructor is to make accommodations for individuals on a case-by-case basis guided by their accommodation request letter. In these cases, instructors are asked to consider ways to meet the accommodation request while still ensuring the student demonstrates the ability to meet course learning aims.
Another way to approach this is to design your assessments with accessibility in mind, thereby eliminating the need for some students to make accommodation requests. This can be done by clearly outlining your learning aims and assessing for competency rather than the capacity to demonstrate knowledge in a particular way.
Suggestions to consider
- Increase the time allowed for all students to take assessments or move away from timed exams
- Build flexibility into the course structure, such as allowing students to drop one or more of their lowest quiz or assessment scores
- Assess the role that deadlines play in your course
- Provide an exam window (especially for online exams) in which a student can begin their exam at any point over a period of time, for example, over the period of 3 days, or a take-home exam over the period of several days.
- Use a "deadline window" in which a student can choose what date they will turn in their assignment over a period of time
- Clarify expectations with respect to deadlines for assignments and assessments in the syllabus
- Tell students why some deadlines are firm - e.g. students need to be evaluated on one skill before moving on to the next skill
With either approach, instructors do not need to abandon appropriate high standards in their course, but rather prevent unnecessary challenges and stress related to assessing course outcomes. For example, is a timed exam necessary for students to demonstrate competency?
Provide options/choices for students to demonstrate their learning
For each assessment type you use, consider offering students some range of choices in how to complete it. A key Universal Design for Learning principle suggests that we provide students with multiple means for action and engagement in our assessments. You might begin this consideration by reviewing a planned assessment with these questions in mind:
- Will students be asked to communicate their understanding of new ideas/concepts? In what ways? Will they need to speak, write, or draw? Are there alternative ways students could communicate their understanding?
- Will students be asked to demonstrate an action or skill? Is it essential to meeting the learning aim that students physically demonstrate the skill or action? Are there alternative ways students can demonstrate their mastery?
- Is it critical that students perform the task in a time-limited setting without aids or can certain aids be available to students?
Consider which actions are relevant to the learning aims being measured and which ones can be supported or varied to gain an accurate picture of what each student has learned.
Web resource: UDL and Assessment (Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education)
Ensure your materials are accessible
Ensure your assessments are accessible to students with disabilities. The United States Department of Education (US DOE) Office for Civil Rights defines that students with disabilities “must be provided the opportunity to: acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as students without disabilities, with substantially equivalent ease of use.”
Web resource: Technology Accessibility (US DOE Office of Civil Rights policies)
7 Core Skills of Accessibility
Familiarize yourself with the UMN 7 Core Skills of Accessibility in order to create digital materials that are accessible and can be easily used by as many learners as possible:
- Add alternative text or “alt text” to every image that conveys meaning.
- Ensure a strong color contrast between foreground and background text.
- Structure your document, webpage, or Canvas Site using paragraph styles or headings tags.
- Make links concise, descriptive, and meaningful out of context.
- Present key concepts as lists instead of a wall of text when possible.
- Create tables that are simple, rather than complex, have an identified header row, and include a table summary, either as a caption or as alt text.
- Ensure videos include accurate captions and audio descriptions and audio-only content includes an accurate transcript - Video and Audio.
Consider also accessibility of print materials and physical accessibility when designing and administering your assessments.
Use clear language that is understood by all
Examining language usage and choice is an ongoing process, as we learn about emerging changes, inclusive terminology, and evolving student contexts.
As you evaluate your assessments and instructions for clear, understandable language here are some questions to consider:
- What happens when my assessment contains references that may not be understood by students from different cultures or for whom English is not their first language?
- What happens when my exam and assignment descriptions are unclear or confusing to students?
- Have I proofread my assessments, especially timed exams, for typos or mistakes in grammar?
- What happens when my language choices seem disrespectful to students?
- What happens when I don't offer and welcome opportunities for students to seek clarification and for me to receive feedback on my language choices?
- What happens when I am not open to adapting my language choice based on changing recommended practices?
Web resource: Bias-Free Language (APA Style Guide)
Video resource: Inclusive Language (Association Of College And University Educators Inclusive Teaching Practices Toolkit)
Be specific and transparent about student expectations
“In the real world-unlike schools-there is little if any secrecy about the goals or the criteria for success.”
– Wiggins, 2005 p 154
Inform students of the What, Why, and How of your assessments
What must students be able to do on the assessment?
Rather than telling students what will be “on” an assessment, tell them what they should be able to “do” in the assessment. Students should know which learning aims will be tested on an assessment, the standards, and level of detail required. For example, instead of telling students that the exam will cover chapters 10 – 14, reframe this in terms of the appropriate learning outcomes e.g. For the following list of drugs be able to identify their molecular target, their effect on the target, the role of the target in a physiological process, and intended and unintended effects of the drug. This allows students to prepare in a way that aligns their efforts with your stated learning aims.
- Learning aims study guide for civil engineering assessment – Dave Saftner - UMN
- Learning aims study guide for chemical engineering assessment – Michael Prince - Bucknell
Why does the assessment support their learning?
This is your opportunity to inform students of the connection of the assessment to their learning. You can also describe the benefits of completing an assessment. For example: this portfolio provides evidence of your skills and learning which some students have used in job application materials.
How should they complete the assessment?
Provide students with the format and logistics for the assessment using clear language that is understood by all.
Counter any implicit biases when creating and grading assessments
Implicit bias refers to the unconscious attitudes, stereotypes, and reactions we all have that may affect our behavior. These biases may affect how we interact with students and may be reflected in the assessments that we create and grade. To design assessments that promote learning for all students it is useful to consider if our unconscious biases may result in assessments that are not equitable and inclusive for all students. Below are some suggestions to consider when creating and grading assessments.
When creating assessments:
- Include diverse representations of people and ways of knowing.
- Consider which students are privileged with any approach that you chose e.g. native English speakers for oral or written assessments.
When grading assessments:
- Ask yourself if you can fairly and equitably grade the assessment approach that you choose.
- Using a rubric to grade (which is provided to students ahead of time).
- Removing student names if possible when grading (Moss-Racusin, 2012).
- Designing and Using Rubrics (Center for Writing)
- Creating and using rubrics in Canvas (Instructure Community)
- Awareness of Implicit Biases (Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning)
- Implicit bias association test (Project Implicit)
Reference: Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(41), 16474-16479.