Some university students require individual study accommodations because of a disability or some other personal reason they may have. However, in order for assessment to be fair to everyone, some students should also be offered assessment-related accommodations. Often, individual accommodations refer to extra time or personal space during examinations, for example. While individual accommodations are an important tool for equity in assessment, another important aspect is the inclusivity of assessment: How could universities design assessment practices that are accessible for everyone?
A new study by Postdoctoral Researcher Juuso Henrik Nieminen addresses student positioning in documents and texts concerning assessment accommodations in the context of Finnish higher education. Data were collected from web page texts, applications and forms, and policy documents and regulations concerning assessment accommodations and assessment of disabled students.
The results show that in Finnish universities’ documents, assessment is largely linked with examinations. Students are seen as the assessee: their role is to sit examinations and meet academic standards, without cheating. The documents rarely address assessment as an activity that supports learning, and rather tend to describe students’ agency in terms of their performance. Furthermore, students requiring individual accommodations are described as psychologically or medically different than other students.
“To get individual accommodations, a student will have to do a whole range of things that are not required from other students. For example, they have to find information on individual accommodations, obtain the necessary medical certificates, inform their teachers of the matter, and oversee the implementation of their accommodations,” Nieminen says.
In the documents studied, students were described as “different”, “special” and “unusual”, and the term “special arrangements” was often preferred over “individual accommodations”.
Towards inclusive assessment that supports the learning of all students
According to Nieminen, the results show that Finnish universities still need to take steps in order for assessment to be fair to everyone.
“The results indicate that the universities see students requiring individual accommodations as a problem to be fixed, but the examination-driven assessment system itself is not seen as a problem.”
Nieminen says that Finnish universities should develop their assessment culture in a direction that supports all students’ learning. There are, after all, also many other methods of assessment available besides examinations.
“The experiences of students requiring individual accommodations should be heard in the development of the assessment culture.”
Nieminen continues to research this topic together with Professor Päivi Atjonen in a project that interviews the end-users of individual accommodations, i.e., students. According to Nieminen, the experiences of students requiring individual accommodations have largely been overlooked in previous studies. In addition to Finland, data is also collected in Australia, the UK and Spain in order to allow international comparison.
The data collected at the University of Eastern Finland is currently also being used to interview students.
“The objective is to develop research-based and inclusive forms of assessment that support the learning of all students, and to make students’ experiences heard in the process.”
Juuso Henrik Nieminen 2021: Governing the ‘disabled assessee’: a critical reframing of assessment accommodations as sociocultural practices.