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Academic standards are fixed - but how they are met doesn't have to be. Sometimes, giving students equal opportunity to demonstrate skill and knowledge calls for adjustment to standard exam and assessment practices. Alternative assessment should aim to simultaneously respect the student’s learning needs, defend academic integrity, and promote equity and consistency for all.
It is usually possible to make adjustments for students with disability to undertake the same assessment tasks as other students, however in some cases it may be appropriate to offer alternative assessment methods to prevent a student being ‘substantially disadvantaged’ and to ensure academic rigour is maintained.
Some students are disadvantaged in written exams because of the stamina required to continue writing or concentrating for a sustained period of time. In some cases, it may be the exam paper itself that presents a barrier, because the language in which it is written may be easy to misinterpret by a student whose first language is Auslan or who has dyslexia.
The material below provides details and suggested guidelines for the following exam adjustments:
- Additional time
- Rest breaks
- Using an interpreter
- Using a scribe
- Using a computer to provide exam answers
- Flexible time arrangements
- Oral exams
- Take-home exams
The most contentious and variable alternative assessment strategy is the provision of additional time. Research indicates that there is neither uniformity of decisions nor clarity about what are appropriate allowances for additional time across institutions, and that this particular strategy is perhaps the most difficult in which to set clear guidelines. Research into the effects on test performance of allowing examinees extra time indicates that little or no unfair advantage is gained over those who complete the exam in the standard time.
There are three main reasons why a student with a disability or health condition might require additional time to complete an exam:
- The nature of the disability. For example students who have physical, sensory (vision or hearing impairment) or learning disability may require additional time to formulate, write and/or check their exam answers. Similarly, students who experience impaired concentration because of chronic pain or conditions resulting in early onset of fatigue, may also require additional time to formulate, write and check exam answers.
- The form of alternative assessment may place additional demands on the student. For example, students with vision impairment using large print read more slowly because fewer words can be scanned by the eye at any one time and less content is contained on each page. If such alternative assessment strategies are to be used effectively, additional time for the examination is then also required by the student.
- The stress of assessment and exam conditions may exacerbate certain disabilities (e.g. students with a psychiatric condition). Students disadvantaged in this way may require additional time in exams to relieve time pressure.
Suggested guidelines for the provision of additional time
|Disability/health condition||Time allowance|
|Physical/ Repetitive Strain Injury||5 to 10 minutes per hour to accommodate slower writing speed|
|Learning disability||20 minutes per hour for perusal/formulating/checking answers|
|Chronic pain||15 minutes per hour for standing and/or moving around|
|Vision impairment||Double time for students who are blind, and time-and-a-half for students who have low vision|
|Hearing impairment||20 minutes per hour for perusal/formulating/writing/checking answers|
|Anxiety||10 minutes per hour for relaxation breaks|
Further consideration needs to be given to the impact of the disability/health condition according to the medical documentation.
Suggested extra time
5 to 10 minutes per hour
15 to 20 minutes per hour
30 minutes per hour
One and a half to double time
Rest breaks are provided so that the exam session does not become an endurance test for the student, particularly if additional time has been allowed. A student who has a disability that causes pain (e.g. a back condition) may require rest breaks to relieve pain by standing and walking around.
A student who becomes extremely stressed during exams because of a psychiatric or psychological condition may require rest breaks to reduce anxiety levels. The rest break may be used to move around the room or to take short walks outside (under supervision).
Some students may require rest breaks in order to attend to personal needs; for example, a student with diabetes may need to eat. Other conditions may necessitate medication or toileting during the exam period.
Suggested guidelines for the provision of rest breaks
Where rest breaks are allowed, it is useful for the supervisor and the student to have a clear understanding of the terms under which this strategy will be used, namely:
- whether rest breaks are included in the extra time allocation
- the role of the supervisor in monitoring and encouraging the use of rest breaks; and
- the activities permitted during rest breaks (e.g. walking, eating, toileting).
In some cases, the rest breaks are not predetermined and are taken when required by the student.
Using an Interpreter
Students who are deaf and who use sign language will require an Interpreter at the start of an exam if any instructions are delivered orally, as well as to allow the student to clarify information on the exam paper.
Suggested guidelines for using interpreters
- The interpreter should be approved by the tertiary institution prior to the exam (interpreters should be qualified to at least Level 2 by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters).
- The interpreter and the student should be familiar with each other, and the student should not be expected to use several different interpreters during successive exams.
- The interpreter and the student should be given copies of these guidelines prior to the exam.
- The interpreter should interpret the exact speech/sign as communicated by the student or the examining officer.
- The interpreter should interpret no other speech/sign, nor go beyond the student's or the examining officer's communications.
- The interpreter should not discuss any matters during the exam with the student or the examining officer unless it relates to the communication of exam questions/answers (the student asks the Interpreter to repeat a sentence).
- The student should be allowed additional time due to the extra demands (skills/tasks) for the student in using an interpreter.
Using a Reader
Students who are unable to read print, or access auditory information better than visual information because of a disability, may require a reader.
Suggested guidelines for using readers
- The reader should be approved by the tertiary institution prior to the exam.
- If possible, the reader and the student should be familiar with each other, and the student should not be expected to use several different readers during successive exams.
- The reader and the student should be given copies of these guidelines prior to the exam.
- The reader should read to the student the exact text of the exam question(s).
- The reader should make no other comment or use any intonation which emphasises any part of the exam question(s), nor make any interpretation of the exam question(s).
- The reader should not discuss any matters during the exam with the student unless it relates to the re-reading of an exam question (if the student asks the reader to repeat an exam question).
- The student should be allowed additional time due to the extra demands (skills/tasks) for the student in using a reader.
Using a Scribe
Students may be unable to write or type due to disability or health condition, for example severe back injury, arthritis, over-use injury, or learning disability, and may therefore require a scribe (also called a writer or an amanuensis).
Suggested guidelines for using scribes
- The scribe should be approved by the tertiary institution prior to the exam.
- If possible, the scribe and the student should be familiar with each other, and the student should not be expected to use several different scribes during successive exams.
- The scribe and the student should be given copies of these guidelines prior to the exam.
- The scribe should write the exact text as communicated by the student - orally, through interpreted sign language, by finger-spelling, or by any other appropriate medium.
- The scribe should write no other text, nor go beyond the student's communication.
- The scribe should not discuss any matters during the exam with the student unless it relates to the student's communication of exam answers (i.e. the scribe asks the student to repeat a sentence).
- The student should be allowed additional time due to the extra demands (skill/tasks) involved in using this strategy.
Using a Computer to Produce Exam Answers
Specific computer equipment generally used by the student during semester may also need to be available to the student to facilitate exam answers, and may include voice synthesisers, software for spelling/grammar checkers and on-screen print enlargement, and dictionaries and thesauruses.
Suggested guidelines for using a computer
- The supervisor should have sufficient computer knowledge to ensure that the student uses only those facilities that are specified in the supervisor's instructions.
- Where specified in the supervisor's instructions, the student should be allowed additional time due to the extra demands (skills/tasks) for the student in using this strategy.
- Extra time should be allowed for printing of the exam answers and checking the quality of the printout. Both these tasks should be carried out under supervision.
Flexible Time Arrangements
Some students with disabilities or health conditions may require flexibility in the scheduling of their exams. This may involve any of the following:
- Changes to scheduled exam times within a given day. For example, students with conditions which result in fatigue and impaired concentration may require morning exams in preference to afternoon or evening exams
- Changes to scheduled exam dates and times within the exam period. For example, a student with physical disability who requires double time to complete an exam (because of the use of special equipment), and who experiences fatigue, may find it difficult to manage a number of exams in quick succession. Exams may need to be scheduled so that, where possible, rest days are provided between exams.
- Exams split into more than one session. When additional time is provided for an exam which is already lengthy (three hours) the result may be too fatiguing, physically and mentally, for some students with disabilities. Splitting such exams into more than one session, either on the same day or on successive days, may be a more suitable arrangement
Suggested guidelines for split sessions over successive days
- The student will sign the mandatory statutory declaration normally required where exams are held at a different time to the scheduled time.
- The section of the exam paper to be answered in that session will be nominated and the remainder of the paper will remain unseen by the student and retained by the supervisor.
Oral exams may involve the oral presentation of exam questions and/or the student delivering exam answers orally, when the standard mode is in writing:
- Oral Questions. Students who access auditory information better than visual information may require exam questions to be presented orally (e.g. students with a learning disability or head injury).
- Oral Answers. Students whose ability to write and type has been impaired may need to provide their exam answers orally. Students who present information better orally than in writing may also need provision to supply exam answers orally (e.g. students with a learning disability or head injury).
Suggested guidelines for using oral exams
The guidelines below apply to the oral interview; that is, when both the exam questions and the answers are presented orally:
- Two academic staff should conduct the oral exam: one to administer the assessment and another to assess the student's performance. The student may elect for those staff members not to be their direct lecturer/tutor in order to minimise exam anxiety.
- The oral assessment session should be recorded on audio-tape for later reference to ensure comparability of grading. The audio-tape should then be handed over to the student, or erased, once marking has been finalised (where this is an equivalent practice to the treatment of written exam papers).
- In the marking criteria the examiners should be clear about the weighting given to the content of responses as opposed to the presentation of responses.
- The terms and procedures of the oral exam should be made explicit to the examiners and to the student prior to the exam (at time of approval of this strategy) to enable all parties to prepare adequately for the task.
- The examiners and the student need to have a clear understanding, prior to the exam, about whether the oral exam will involve queries from the examiner(s) that ask for elaboration/editing of material presented by the student.
The student should be allotted time for:
- reading or listening to questions and deciding on questions to be attempted
- preparing the answer to each question to be attempted
- presenting each answer orally
- after the final question has been answered, the student should be allotted time in which to revise or add to any previous answers.
The student should be allowed additional time due to any additional demands (skills/tasks) for the student in requiring/using this strategy.
One recognised alternative exam-based assessment strategy is a take-home exam, in which the exam may be undertaken over a number of days.
Suggested guidelines for take-home exams
- The student is interviewed by the disability practitioner and medical documentation provided which states the student’s need for this support.
- The lecturer is emailed by the disability practitioner requesting this procedure for the student and supplying details of the procedure as background information.
- The lecturer is also provided with the information concerning the student’s exam modifications.
- Take-home exams are emailed by the lecturer through to the student at the scheduled exam time via their student, email-copying in the disability service for confirmation purposes.
- The student then sends back an immediate email stating that they have received the exam, again copying in the disability service.
- When the student completes the exam in their allotted time (taking into consideration their extra time requirements), the student is then required to email back the completed exam to their lecturer immediately, copying in the disability service.
- If the student has not emailed through the exam by the time required, the disability service will contact the student by phone to ensure this happens. A 10-minute window is usually given to ensure the email has come through.