The Office for Students (OfS) has launched a review of the use of ‘inclusive’ assessment practices that do not penalise students for errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar.
Inclusive assessment practices have been adopted by a number of universities to accommodate the needs of certain groups of students: for example, those for whom English is a second language, who have learning differences, or who come from a poorly performing school.
They do not excuse bad spelling, punctuation or grammar in all situations: at the University of Hull, for example, technical proficiency in written English is assessed if it is a Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) subject benchmark or stipulated by a professional, statutory and regulatory body (PSRB). At the University of the Arts London (UAL) teaching staff are advised: “Actively accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes that do not significantly impede communication unless the brief states that formally accurate language is a requirement”.
Effective academic writing requires good spelling, punctuation and grammar from all – Susan Lapworth, OfS
“Rigorous assessment practices are essential if students’ qualifications are to stand the test of time,” said OfS director of regulation Susan Lapworth, launching the review.
“Students from all backgrounds should expect a high quality academic experience and a qualification that reflects their achievements. We have been clear that standards should not be reduced for particular groups of students and it is patronising to expect less from some students under the guise of supporting them. Effective academic writing requires good spelling, punctuation and grammar from all.
“We want to understand the approach universities are taking to these important issues. It is a matter of strong public interest that the English higher education sector is able to demonstrate that the degrees it awards to students are a reliable indicator of academic achievement and that high standards are maintained.”
HE providers have for several years been encouraged to accommodate the needs of certain groups of students in assessments.
QAA guidance first published in 2018 tells providers that assessment should be “inclusive and equitable” ensuring that every student “has an equal opportunity to demonstrate their achievement through the assessment process, with no group or individual disadvantaged. In designing assessments, the needs of students are considered, including those studying at different locations, from different cultural/educational backgrounds, with additional learning needs, or with protected characteristics. Assessment procedures and methods are flexible enough to allow adjustments to overcome any substantial disadvantage that individual students could experience.”
Providing support and reasonable adjustments can help to ensure all students can access the teaching and learning they need while maintaining academic standards – Gary Loke, Advance HE.
In March 2020, the independent Disabled Students Commission, managed by Advance HE, was awarded funding by the OfS “to advise, inform and influence higher education providers to improve support for disabled students”.
In response to the launch of the new review, Advance HE director of knowledge, innovation and delivery Gary Loke told University Business:
“We look forward to contributing to this review. The way that teaching and learning is provided – including assessment – may present barriers to disabled students. We believe that disabled students should be well supported to excel in higher education, and we continue to work with Disabled Students’ Commission to remove barriers to success.
“Providing support and reasonable adjustments can help to ensure all students can access the teaching and learning they need while maintaining academic standards.”
Professor Andrew McRae of the University of Exeter took to Twitter to say it was “arrogant” to judge international students by the same standards as UK students.
The OfS says review’s findings, which will be published, will identify possible “future regulatory concerns as well as areas of good practice”.
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