Revolutionising USyd’s assessment system

The case for Universal Design Learning.

Artwork by Millie Roberts

USyd’s current assessment system, based on the Assessment Principles outlined in Coursework Policy 2014, adopts a set of pre-determined, strictly defined criteria. Although these principles establish that assessment practices should be equitable and inclusive, this does not appear to have been effectively implemented.

The 2017 Assessment Working Group reports that the current assessment system overly relies on exams and written assignments as methods of assessing students. While USyd’s assessment principles stipulate that “a variety of assessment tasks are used while [considering] student and staff workloads” and SUPRA has strictly curtailed assessment tasks that represent 100% of the final mark, data suggests that exams are still the most predominant assessment method utilised across the University by a long mile.

‘Exam’ was the most common assessment descriptor used in the 2016 University Handbook, occurring 2754 times across 9000 entries – almost double the number of mentions of the next most common assessment descriptor ‘assignment’, closely followed by ‘presentation’.

Feedback from the Academic Honesty Report (2016) suggests that students are under significant pressure, particularly during assessment ‘logjam’ periods notably in Week 7, 11 and 13, from multiple assessments frequently viewed as ‘trivial’ and non-integral to their learning. In particular, Disability Services believes these logjams are likely to exacerbate the conditions of students with disabilities and negatively impact their academic performance.

The long delays in receiving feedback from staff heightens students’ workload stress and impedes them from implementing feedback to improve on their subsequent assessments. In fact, The Office of Educational Integrity believes that the reason full-time students and International students – who are required by the University to maintain a full-time load (18 – 24 credit points) even when possessing valid, documented medical or compassionate circumstances – are more likely to be reported than part-time students for suggested plagiarism or academic dishonesty, is partly due to the high volume and simultaneous timing of assessments.

This year, Student Support Services and Disability Services published a report (Report of Student Support Services) affirming an initiative to drastically review the University’s current approach to assessment. The lack of variety in assessment methods does not allow for different types of learners to ‘fully engage with the curriculum’. Student Support Services and the Students’ Representative Council casework service highly recommend reforming the current assessment system to reduce the burden and volume of assessments by minimising heavily-weighted, individual assessment tasks, and providing more formative low-level or even zero weighting assessments and introducing new learning technologies to provide better, more immediate feedback to both students and staff.

More specifically, Student Support Services believes reform could come by implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to make the delivery of education and assessment more inclusive. UDL aims to guarantee equity of assessment by catering for the diverse learning styles of individuals and recognising that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work for learners.

Disability Services is currently advocating for the application of UDL in assessments so that academic staff can evaluate how students meet learning outcomes through multiple possible mediums. Flexible assessment options entail giving students a choice between approved formats for an assessment task, so that students can choose a format that is accessible to them. For example, it could be possible for a student to pre-record a presentation, submit a poster or have an oral exam instead of undertaking a written assignment or exam. These flexible and varying options will benefit those with sensory disabilities, learning disabilities, language or cultural differences, and willl also attempt to cater for individual learning preferences, such as for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners.

Disability Services is confident that flexible assessment options will effectively reduce the number of students who need modifications or reasonable adjustments to compensate for current assessment formats. Furthermore, by accommodating individual differences between learners, this will eliminate routine categorisation and negative labelling by both staff and students and remove students from having to disclose their disability with others, thereby protect their right to privacy.

Statistics published by Special Consideration and Special Arrangements have found 16% of the student body utilised the Special Consideration and Special Arrangement system in 2016, and of that 16%, the greatest volume of special consideration applications were for final and mid-semester exams (30.0%), assignments (30.7%) and then attendance (18.0%). In contrast, forms of assessment such as presentations (3%), skills-based evaluations (2%) and creative demonstrations (1%) received the lowest volume of Special Consideration applications, suggesting that they are currently underutilised but may be more effective at allowing students to successfully meet a unit of study’s learning outcomes.

To address the issues raised by the Assessment Working Group and in line with USyd’s 2016–20 Strategic Plan, the University is “currently engaged in a major review” of assessments and has confirmed that the implementation of these recommendations will be extended to 2020. The University has admitted to Honi that the high burden of assessments and the stress that this creates may be “counter-productive to learning”. USyd has also indicated that including and recognising different learning styles is “accepted as a core educational principle” and is hopeful that the discipline-based rubrics currently under development will provide opportunities to consider different ways of assessing the same learning outcomes. Despite this, it is extremely unclear how the University and faculties can cooperate to realistically offer flexible assessment options while managing the greater workload demands this may involve for staff.

Overall, although incorporating UDL will require some staff upskilling and greater resources will be needed during the establishment phase, the numerous benefits for students, such as gaining an equitable chance to prove mastery of knowledge, and greater control over the use of their time, certainly outweigh these initial costs. However, as the University has itself commented, there remains a strong perception across the institution that maintaining a common standard necessitates that students must always be involved in the same task. Ultimately, such engrained thinking may inhibit any well-intended USyd assessment reform, such as recognition of multiple, different learning styles, from being implemented successfully.