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ADCET Webinar: Inclusive assessment for students with disability

ADCET was pleased to welcome Dr Joanna Tai, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) at Deakin University as the presenter of this webinar. 

Educational institutions are legally required to ensure their assessments are not discriminatory, hence adjustments are implemented for students with disability. However, these students still report difficulties with exams, and some avoid them altogether (Grimes et al., 2021).

Substantial changes to exams in higher education occurred during the COVID pandemic. A research grant from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education explored how examination arrangements in higher education impacted on students’ experiences of inclusion.

In this presentation, Dr Tai shared findings from her research on how examination arrangements in higher education impact on students’ experiences of inclusion and ways to improve inclusion in exams as part of a holistic approach to Universal Design for Learning.


Headshot of Joanna Tai smiling and wearing a purple summer top

Dr Joanna Tai is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) This link takes you away from the ADCET page at Deakin University. Her research interests include student experiences of learning and assessment from university to the workplace, peer learning, feedback and assessment literacy, developing capacity for evaluative judgement, and research synthesis.

Joanna is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, co-convenor of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Assessment and Measurement Special Interest Group. She is also Treasurer for the Australian and New Zealand Association for Health Professions Education.

Her doctoral work won the Association for Medical Education Europe (AMEE) inaugural PhD prize in 2016. She has a background in medicine and health professions education.

Questions Answered after the Webinar

Dumb question: are we talking higher education here (excluding vocational education assessment)?

yes, my research took place within two higher education institutes and the literature and statistics I presented all related to work done in higher education (Australia for the statistics, globally for the literature)

Can you give an example of how to balance flexibility to support students with disabilities and equity among all students, please? How do educators make sure they don't disadvantage other students while providing support to a particular group of students, like students with disabilities?

I answered this live, but it's worth making a few points here: 1, students with disabilities have already had to do extra work to get adjustments or accommodations arranged. Other students, however, haven't had to put in this work (usually bureaucratic in nature) and have had more time to learn content, practise skills etc. So we shouldn't make it even more difficult for adjustments to be implemented. 2, the point of universal design - and assessment for inclusion - is that we should consider who is in our student cohort and design assessment in a way that means that all students can demonstrate their capabilities. This might mean that there are options in the task for how things are done to suit strengths and abilities. Hopefully this reduces "extra work" and the perception that anyone is getting "special treatment" - which they're not, adjustments are the bare minimum required by law and often there are different and better ways to demonstrate learning outcomes.

Was there any research done on when ākonga/learners communicated their disability, how user-friendly/disability friendly was this experience?

The project focussed particularly on the assessment experience. Generally, students spoke of three main times when they had to communicate about their disability: firstly to the student accessibility service, where the team are well equipped to respond and develop a plan for those students (so they found this supportive), secondly, to individual lecturers in charge of their subjects they were studying. This was much more variable in that some people were supportive and proactive in asking what could be done and if they were tracking okay in their studies, and others where lecturers were questioning of the  necessity of accommodations or dismissed their needs and concerns, or responded rather slowly so students weren't confident their adjustments would be implemented. The third was in traditional exam settings where invigilators/exam administrators in the exam hall were the point of contact. Whilst students reported this group did their best, sometimes arrangements hadn't been made in advance which required a lot of last minute stress.

University students come to higher education from Secondary schools where adjustments are for example in Queensland allowed under AARAs - so if a student is used to these adjustments and then not provided at Uni this could result in stress. My question is are Uni's studying what is provided in secondary schools with adjustments?

I responded to this live - but succinctly, it hinges upon students being aware that similar services exist at university, and actually using them.

Some degrees have “inherent capabilities”. How do assessment adjustments intersect with these “inherent capabilities”?

This hasn't been my main area of research so far, but colleagues have published some papers considering inherent requirements:; A thinking point might be - well, do you really need to this thing, in this particular way, to fulfil the role?

What's the most important thing teachers need to know about creating inclusive classrooms for students experiencing mental ill health?

There are so many aspects of mental ill health that I don't think there's one specific thing, aside from accepting that students do have mental ill health and that it is a medical condition like any other, and like other conditions, can fluctuate.

Providing assessment adjustments can create a lot of extra workload for staff. I am a unit coordinator. I would like to better provide adjustments, but I find it really stressful to find he time to do this. For example, this semester an increased number of students had a provision to their exam in a room with no other students present. I had to supervise all these exams individually, creating a lot of extra workload for me. How can we balance the time available to staff with the needs of students to have these adjustments?

This dilemma illustrates one of the problems with continuing just to provide accommodations for an increasing number of students, in the context of the pressures educators are facing. 1. Do you really need an exam - can the knowledge or skills be assessed in other means and in a more inclusive way? 2. Exams are a financial burden to the university in themselves, and this is an additional burden - this also points to reconsidering the assessment type, but your budget-people might not realise the additional impact of adjustments and you might need to make this known to them also. 3. Often Disability Liaison Officers who work with the students have identified something that they know could help, and they know is possible. IT could be worth talking to a DLO at your university about other strategies that you'd be open to which provide the conditions that students actually need, not just something off the "checklist of common adjustments" (which students have said help a little, but don't always remove barriers entirely)

Hello, you touched upon OSCEs and some basic adjustments – what about when a student requires extra processing time, or is unable to read hard copy without the use of an electronic device

Yep, the OSCE example was really simple but surprising at how easy it was to change and what a difference it made. In other circumstances, OSCE stems/topics have been made available to all students where there was the need to hold the OSCE over more than one day. This might be more equitable for all students (instead of those who have 'friends' in an earlier session who might pass on a message - even with sequestering!) and would support those who need extra processing time or an electronic version. Contrary to the concept that you are 'giving students all the answers', this encourages them to hopefully focus on the things you most value (which assessment always indicates!) and if provided within a reasonable timeframe, still means that students who just don't know enough/can't do enough will still be detectable.

Student's developing their self-advocacy and ability to communicate what they need is important - students with diverse needs will potentially face barriers to inclusion beyond school and uni when they start work. Question is are Unis also considering with UDL which is inclusive what this would look like in the workplace? e.g. would a law firm give some employees extra time, quiet space etc? The DDA 1992 and DSE 2005 needs to be communicated to Employers too. So how successful are Unis providing adjustments in work placements?

In our research we found that students had substantial experience in self-advocacy, as they repeated it for every unit of study they did: they firstly developed an access plan with the central university service, but then had the responsibility to discuss it with each of their lecturers (so this would usually be 4 per semester) and send reminders prior to particular assessment tasks. Colleagues have done some research on students' experiences of inclusion in WIL and there are substantial shortcomings. Employers are required to comply with DDA generally. Given students are in a relatively low-power position (especially if passing depends on assessment from the workplace) there could be a role for the university to advocate for students with disability. Whilst the student is the best person to explain their own condition and how it might impact on engaging in learning, leaving all the advocacy up to them means they are doubly disadvantaged since they're not spending this time on learning.

Who decides on a 'poor' or 'good' assessment designs? The unit convenor? The unit moderator? The educational designer? Or, the students? The pass rates?

It's a very good question, it probably depends on why the intended outcomes (in terms of certification, assuring learning, and how it promotes learning). So, you might consider it is a joint decision. Check out for a bit more on this.

What strategies do you have for parents and schools to provide around reasonable adjustment? We have parents who ask for provisions about the changing the assessments to make them easier, however as it is competency based learning they still have to show they are competent in the standard.

You're correct, it should be about competency to whatever standard is required. But, we should also question if competency can only be demonstrated in one way - universal design of assessment asks us to consider if we are also including extraneous capabilities in the assessment as well as the central competency. I recognise that it would be difficult to discuss with everyone who is requesting provisions, but a discussion might reveal why they are concerned a learner won't be able to complete a task. I also note that yes, some provisions do make tasks easier: like me wearing glasses from the moment I wake up to when I go to sleep (I am quite short sighted and would not be able to participate in everyday life without them!) and there is no reason why such provisions shouldn't be afforded since they just level the field.

Currently, we have a course that includes a presentation assessment, as presentation skills are crucial for students in this profession. However, some students may request accommodations due to anxiety when presenting in front of the class. How can I strike a balance between inclusivity and authenticity?

Answered by participant

  • Record narrated PowerPoint ahead of time and show that in class. (I did that at a conference once, when I was presenting on a difficult topic)
  • Present to smaller audience

Jo: These are two excellent options. In addition to this, I would argue that yes, these are capabilities that we expect students to possess by the time they graduate from university. However, not everyone has had the same opportunities to develop and practise these skills on entry to a course. So, we should be considering how we can scaffold and support students to build their confidence and their abilities. This might include 'graded exposure' as Penny suggests - a smaller audience might be just the lecturer, or to a subset of students. Some students might prefer doing it via Zoom than in person. Students generally recognise that if they wish to succeed in a profession then they will be assessed on relevant skills, and are willing to learn, so having more of a discussion with them might be helpful to see where they are at. Building more developmental opportunities into the curriculum is likely to help many students though, not just the ones with diagnosed anxiety.

Currently, we have a course that includes a presentation assessment, as presentation skills are crucial for students in this profession. However, some students may request accommodations due to anxiety when presenting in front of the class. How can I strike a balance between inclusivity and authenticity?

Answered by second participant

  • The graduates are eventually going to the workforce. Educators need to get the students ready for the workforce but not just to graduate. How do we know a student who can't present in a group cohort can present in front a large group of potential customers or investors?

Jo: I have responded above, but to discuss the workforce component more - not everyone attends university to get a specific job, some people are studying for enjoyment, and others might choose to use their degree in a different way from the mainstream path (e.g. I studied medicine initially, but I'm a higher education researcher now!). As educators we do have a responsibility to support students to learn and develop capabilities, but we also have to trust that students know a little about their own goals - and ensure that what we offer students allows them to chart their own course. I would be surprised if someone's unit/course level outcomes specifically say "can present to a large group of customers", I think it would more likely say something about relevant communication skills. Technology has also broadened channels for communication, so it may be that a short TikTok video would have a greater impact than a 15 minute oral presentation, for example.

You seem to be assuming that UDL is universally accepted as evidence-based.  Some would disagree: Belief without evidence? A policy research note on Universal Design for Learning - Michael PA Murphy, 2021 (

Thanks, I somewhat agree that the evidence for UDL is lacking - this paper is also critical of the approach in some ways: I would approach UDL not from a neuroscience basis (which Boysen 2021 suggests is relatively flimsy) but from a social justice basis. Evidence in education research (that is not from a psychology background) E18might also look a little different. If changes to assessment in alignment with UDL improves students' experiences of assessment - in that it reduces street or anxiety and they feel better supported and included - then I think this is sufficient to say that we should continue to consider how UDL principles might be adopted.

In your experience, where do you think (and is there appetite) for both students and educators to discuss their respective rights and responsibilities when it comes to assessments?

This sounds wonderful, and my feeling is that both parties might think there isn't enough time for such discussions. We place a lot of importance on the worth of documents and materials of assessments in communicating what should be done in assessment, but discussions are likely to be more effective in building shared understanding.  Colleagues have written a critique on transparency in assessment criteria which might be relevant -

I’m researching success in higher ed for neurodivergent students - difficulties with placements has featured in the interviews, especially for part time students who are then expected to do placements full time. Do you have any data/advice for that situation?

Yes, the issue of full time placements came up in our NCSEHE project - I think it is an ongoing struggle, and I somewhat understand it from the placement provider perspective as they generally have scheduled blocks and sometimes it feels that any change might upset an already precarious situation. It's quite interesting given that we know in some fields (e.g. nursing, physio) that there are many fractional work appointments so it's not like the staff aren't also part time in some circumstances! One of the challenges that students noted in a different project was about needing to give up employment (and hence main source of income) to attend full time placements - - offering stipends probably wouldn't directly address students with disabilities who need to study part time due to their condition , but probably would still help. As I think more about it, it is likely possible that if placements ran for most of the year, it would be possible to have a "jobshare" style placement for two students over a longer time period - and I'm sure there would be others who would take up the opportunity.

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