Rest Breaks and Extra Time. Can we combine them?
After a recent discussion on rest breaks and extra time as adjustments in examinations on the aust-ed email list, I thought it might be useful to have a more detailed discussion on the issues. The discussions centred around whether it was appropriate to approve Rest Breaks as a separate adjustment, or whether it was appropriate to allow some Extra Time, which would allow students to use some of that time as rest breaks if they needed them. I am well aware that many Exams Offices have a strong preference for defining any extra time that may be taken to assist with their planning and scheduling, and have had many discussions with exam staff over many years.
I am a very strong believer in keeping Rest Breaks and Extra Time as a separate adjustments. They are different strategies to address very different needs. If the two strategies are combined, they run the risk of not meeting the needs of the students appropriately, undermining the integrity of the exams and adjustments process and potentially facilitating damage to the student.
Let me explain. Extra Time is designed to address the potential disadvantage experienced by students with a disability where the effect of the disability and the strategies needed to address those effects are such that the student must go through more time-consuming process to perform the same tasks. It may be that the student uses assistive technology that is inherently more time-consuming. For example, if a student uses a screen reader such as JAWS, it takes longer for JAWS to read the exam paper aloud, than it does to sight read. Therefore, without extra time the JAWS user would be significantly disadvantaged.
There are many potential reasons why students with disability should be granted extra time as an adjustment. An Acquired Brain Injury may mean slower processing time, using a scribe is inherently more time-consuming than simply reading and writing, a hand injury may mean slower writing speed and so on. What is common to all of these is that the student takes more time to perform the same task because of the effects of their disability. Where this becomes critical is in a time-limited setting such as an exam and in those circumstances it is appropriate to provide extra time so that the student is not unnecessarily disadvantaged.
It is equally important that the amount of extra time granted is not more than is needed. If a student is given too much extra time, they may be advantaged over other students by having more time to perform the task, which potentially undermines the integrity of the assessment and adjustment process. When it becomes patently obvious that students with disability are able to produce more work than other students it is quite appropriate for academics and other students to question whether or not the student with a disability has been given an unfair advantage.
There is also the law of diminishing returns from extra time. The longer the exam runs, the greater the demands on the student's stamina and capacity to maintain physical and mental concentration over longer periods of time. With 30% extra time, a three-hour exam becomes a four-hour exam, the 50% extra time, it becomes a 4 1/2 hour exam and with 100% extra time it becomes a six hour exam. That would be difficult for anyone to sustain and may in fact seriously damage the health of a student with a disability should they try to complete an exam of that length.
So the objective should be to balance the need to address the disadvantage of student may experience due to more time-consuming processes, with fairness and integrity and the need to avoid damaging the student in the process.
Rest Breaks, on the other hand are designed to address issues where the student has difficulty sustaining effort and concentration for the whole period of the exam. There are numerous reasons why students may need to take a break from writing and working on the exam, including physical constraints on writing or typing, back injuries which may prevent students sitting for long periods of time, anxiety issues which may require breaks to perform relaxation exercises to relieve the build-up of anxiety, illnesses that affect stamina and concentration, such as ME/CFS and so on. Where rest breaks are required, it is important that the student ceases work for that period to deal with the issues caused by their disability, rather than taking the time to continue working on the exam.
Some students may need extra time, some may need rest breaks, some may need both. Problems arise when a student who needs rest breaks is given extra time where they may take rest breaks. There is the likelihood that the student would be tempted to give themselves a perceived advantage by using their rest time to continue working, thus both undermining the integrity of the exam and placing their health at risk. If they continue working when the issue they face is difficulties sustaining performance, they could do some real damage to themselves. Even if they don't, it is still unfair to other students that they are given extra time to work that they don't need. They should be encouraged to take rest breaks if that is what they need.
It is important to differentiate between extra time and rest breaks and to ensure that students understand the difference between them and use them appropriately. It is incumbent upon The Disability Service to ensure that any adjustments to exam conditions are both fair to the student, by addressing the effects of the disability that may disadvantage them, and fair to other students by not providing the student with an advantage through the adjustments. If the adjustments we provide are inappropriate, and particularly are overly generous, we risk not only damaging the integrity of the assessment and accreditation process, but also the credibility of the Disability Service and the adjustments that we provide. When combined with the potential damage to students’ health by not taking rest breaks when they are needed, it is clear that these adjustments should be separate.
While it may be administratively convenient to allocate a defined amount of extra time which the student may use for either working on the exam or rest breaks, the risks for students, the integrity of the exam and the credibility of the adjustments process are too great to ignore. Since extra time and rest breaks address totally different issues and work in fundamentally different ways, they should not be conflated or confused, and definitely not combined.