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02 September 2022

Embedding Inclusive Assessment


Professor Sam Elkington

Teesside University (Project Lead)

For higher education, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a focusing event, forcing universities to reconsider how the significant resources devoted to learning, teaching and assessment might be reconfigured to support and maintain an inclusive student learning experience across different modes of delivery.

In this blog post, we introduce and discuss a QAA-funded Collaborative Enhancement Project that aimed to explore and understand the relationships between student outcomes and inclusive assessment design for different groups of students during the pandemic-affected academic years 2019-20 and 2020-21. While this area of assessment practice in these complex times has garnered some initial scrutiny and evaluation (Baughan, 2021; Sambell and Brown, 2020), there have been few large-scale empirical studies of this kind conducted and shared.


The project brought together eight institutions from across the University Alliance mission group: Teesside University (lead), Oxford Brookes University, University of Greenwich, University of Hertfordshire, University of Brighton, University of the West of England Bristol, Kingston University, and Birmingham City University.


The aim was to examine and understand the impacts of large-scale assessment change triggered by the COVID pandemic and resulting educational pivot. A key feature of the research project has been student partnership. Each institution appointed a student researcher to work actively across the data collection and data analysis stages of the project. Conducting research about the student experience in partnership with students has added considerable value to the research process, as well as the overall quality of the project outputs and resources produced. By engaging with student researchers in this way, we have observed reciprocal benefits related not only to the student researchers’ professional development, but also to the process of collaborative knowledge production in the context of institutional research.


The research process itself comprised a three-phase approach:


1) An analysis of assessment outcomes for specific cohorts across each partner institution to identify course/programmes displaying the largest percentage reduction in attainment/awarding gaps (for 2019-20) and improved student continuation rates (for 2020-21).


2) Partner institutions conducted interviews with academic staff and focus groups and interviews with students from those courses identified. This was facilitated by a cadre of student researchers employed by each institution to garner student feedback on the inclusivity of assessment arrangements.


3) All staff interview and student focus group/interview data were subjected to a process of thematic analysis to capture key emergent themes and sub-themes at a course/programme level. Thematic data across each partner institution was then curated and reviewed to generate overarching themes representative of student and staff experiences of inclusive.


Final overarching thematic data were then used to inform a phase of collaborative development via a series of tailored (online) sandpit events with the aim of producing four main project outputs: a set of inclusive assessment attributes, a reflective toolkit and associated collection of case studies, and a final project report.


These project outputs were all published on the QAA website this week. They have been developed as practical resources with the aim of supporting HE leaders, academics and students in higher education to review, plan for, and evaluate enhancement-led inclusive assessment policies, initiatives and interventions.


As a collection of University Alliance institutions, we support a distinctive and diverse student body and share a collective ethos that values equity and inclusion where students’ differences are considered and valued within mainstream curricula, pedagogy, and assessment. We developed an overarching position statement for the project that offers the lens through which we now invite universities and practitioners to critically consider their own assessment policies and practices.


We believe inclusive assessment …


‘… is realised through holistic and flexible approaches that recognise value and reflect student diversity, facilitating choice and enabling every individual to demonstrate their achievement with respect to academic/professional standards and empowering them to take ownership of their learning journey. To achieve this, assessment needs to be strategically designed as an embedded element of the curriculum to proactively consider students' needs and to remove systemic barriers in institutional policies, processes and practices.’


Through institutional case-studies, continuation and attainment data, policy analysis and conversations with students and staff, the project has produced a series of practical, evidence-based insights into the impact of alternative assessment arrangements on student outcomes, highlighting areas of good practice and creative implementation. This led to the development of a shared understanding of inclusive practices and practical changes that have enhanced assessment experiences, and the ways these can continue to have a positive impact on all students. A set of inclusive assessment attributes was collectively developed to reflect the insights generated through the research work undertaken. The intention is to share these attributes and associated toolkit with the sector, providing a framework to assist colleagues in reflecting upon their current institutional policies and practices.


The project itself has been illustrative of how clear, positive outcomes can develop from adversity and how agile thinking and responses to change have allowed institutions to put creative solutions and inclusive practices in place within a short period time with the culminative effect of positively impacting student outcomes. Project partners developed a suite of case studies as a way of illustrating the types of approaches that were deployed, alongside their impact on student learning and performance. Each case study is designed to provide actionable insight into how institutions might practically approach the development of enhanced inclusive assessment practices and policies. It is recommended that the case studies be used in conjunction with the reflective toolkit, to facilitate deeper understanding of the inclusive assessment attributes in context.

All outputs can be accessed via the project web page. You can also explore QAA’s other Collaborative Enhancement Projects on the QAA website.