Students call for more flexible assessments for different learners

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The current system of education bases itself around the traditional essay-exam format. Arguably this system is not fully accessible to all students, particularly those who struggle with conventional methods of teaching and assessment.

Evidence suggests that the incorporation of alternative methods, including the increased use of information technology, creates greater inclusion for students of all learning styles.

During the academic year 2008/09, 4.5% of undergraduates nationally, suffered with a form of learning difference. Among the most common are dyslexia, dyspraxia and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). At Lancaster 2% of undergraduates were affected by learning differences in 2009/10.

Sufferers can be affected in a range of ways. It is widely known that dyslexia sufferers struggle with spelling and reading, but lesser-known problem areas include co-ordination, memory, understanding and organisation.

Dyspraxia primarily causes problems with co-ordination and movement; sufferers are often regarded by others as clumsy. The condition also affects time-management and organisational abilities, as well as impairing perception skills, making it difficult to take in information.

Students with ADD can struggle to focus for longer periods, and can have problems with short-term memory.

All of these conditions are related; students affected by them can be placed on a spectrum of learning differences, ranging from very mild dyslexia sufferers to those diagnosed as autistic. Affected students often struggle to reap the benefits of university education, finding that methods of teaching and assessment are not flexible enough.

The Disabilities Service, in Student Based Services, offers support for students affected by learning differences. This incorporates the Assessment Centre, which carries out individual assessments determining the need for and level of support given to students. The Disabilities Service website makes it clear that the intention of this is “to provide equal access to the curriculum”.

“Lancaster University, like other education providers, seeks to make reasonable adjustment to allow students with different learning needs to meet the learning outcomes of their course,” said Director of Student Based Services Tom Finnigan.

These adjustments include the provision of computer equipment, help with note-taking, tailored exam arrangements and one-to-one tuition. Alternative arrangements in exams are a key issue, as many students struggle with the pressure of the situation and do not produce their best work.

“Under exam conditions half the time I know my stuff well and have revised it well [but] I just might not be able to decode the question as quickly as others, or a word might [throw] me because I don’t understand [it],” explained one dyslexic student. Dyslexic students are commonly given extra time in exams to account for this.

The Disabilities Service also provides advice on accessing financial support. Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) is available to help fund equipment such as software as well as extra tuition from outside the University. For 2010-11, the general DSA available is £1,724 per year for full-time students.

Despite the measures provided by Student Based Services it is felt by some members of the University that it is the responsibility of individual departments to make learning accessible.

“I am all for a wide array of assessment techniques and methods but […] it is not something that can be easily centrally promoted because there won’t necessarily be consistency between departments about what alternative forms of assessment they can offer so […]it is therefore left up to the departments to investigate these alternative methods,” said LUSU Vice President (Academic Affairs) Robin Hughes.

Faculty Student Learning Advisors, along with specialist support tutors, are able to take the time to go through work with students, helping them to formulate their ideas and go through more generic issues such as spelling and grammar, which tutors do not have the time to do.

“I need to have someone to help me structure my ideas,” said one student. The role of the support tutor, she explained, is to help her in “organising my ideas and then getting everything down. Then he starts to clarify things, starts to tighten things up. I wouldn’t get that with one of my lecturers.”

Aside from support in existing methods of assessment, considering alternative methods of teaching and assessment is an important issue. These include the use of audio-visual material for teaching and research purposes, the inclusion of images in coursework, and the presentation of material for assessment in website format. The argument is that these methods help students to better structure their thoughts and arguments, and are thus to be encouraged.

Andrew Okey, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Quality Officer said: “I always try to encourage academic staff proposing new or revised modules to consider ways of assessing students beyond the standard exam-essay pattern.”

Okey understands that for some modules the traditional methods of assessment are the most effective for meeting the course objectives. However, with the advancement of technology he thinks that it is “very important” to incorporate e-based learning, with regards to LUVLE and e-teaching in lectures and seminars, as well as encouraging “an open-minded approach to developing and implementing [alternative] assessment styles.”

However, the production of alternative formats is not always down to individual departments. Some sources have questioned if this is because tutors do not know how to mark them.

“I think it’s down to the individual teachers, and there is a general understanding amongst a lot of departments that they actually have to be far more accessible and far more creative in [the] way that they get people to work. I think the main problem is that many of them don’t know how to approach that,” said a source. “There seems to be a disparity between what the students know [about] accessing information technology and what tutors know.”

There is a degree of flexibility within the University, particularly with regards to postgraduates, who are given the opportunity to produce their doctoral thesis by using Ethesis. This produces an electronic thesis or dissertation, allowing students to create “a much more interesting and interactive piece of work that people engage with more,” said Hughes.

“A lot of research has shown that in departments that use Ethesis it is suddenly a lot easier to disseminate work afterwards which for postgraduates, especially postgraduate research students, is extremely important,” Hughes continued. “This doesn’t just create a better piece of work and a more engaging piece of work, but that piece of work [is able] to be accessed worldwide.”

Nonetheless, the use of technology is not particularly widespread. Other existing technological methods include voice and video capture which allow the tutor to talk about the work as they are marking it and which are seen as more interesting ways of receiving feedback.

Some support tutors also suggest watching video clips relevant to the set reading before entering lectures. Critics feel that these techniques allow students to engage with their subject far more than traditional methods. “Students can gain the understanding without all the heavy reading, so you can do specific reading rather than heavy reading. [If] you can watch the stuff online about the general understanding of the subject, it saves time,” said one tutor.

Most students, however, are unaware of alternative assessment and learning methods. Variation between courses and departments means it is often difficult to promote them centrally through LUSU and Student Based Services, leaving course convenors and tutors in a better position to do so.

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