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Narrowing attainment gaps through addressing assessment issues

01 Nov 2019 | Anglia Learning & Teaching and Student Services Julian Priddle, Linda Brown, James Trueman and Katie Potts from Anglia Learning & Teaching and Student Services: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge give insight into their experience of narrowing attainment gaps.

At Anglia Ruskin, we have a number of attainment gaps, of which the widest is between our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and white students. BAME students account for more than 30% of our student population and they are currently 13 percentage points less likely to obtain a first or upper-second class honours degree than their white peers. This statistic has improved significantly over the last few years, but it conceals complex intersectionalities in terms of gender, age, social and cultural background and other factors. 

Whilst we are working to understand the different factors underlying differential attainment, we are already implementing a broad institutional approach that includes diversification and activities to enhance students’ sense of belonging. Part of this is an inclusive curriculum framework that has been introduced in a major programme of curriculum enhancement.  This framework is designed to provide equity of opportunity and experience for all of our students and includes diversification, use of technologies, academic culture and assessment.

Assessment is an obvious area for enhancing inclusivity. Where there is an attainment gap, we need to be sure that our assessment process does not contribute to this. We are also aware of student dissatisfaction – a recent survey at Anglia Ruskin showed that BAME students were less satisfied than white students with the way that their course is assessed, and were less likely to believe that marking is fair.

Early in our programme of curriculum change, and building on an earlier institutional project on assessment and feedback, we decided to wrap inclusivity into our definition of good assessment practice. 

We argued that one of the core properties of good assessment is that it removes obstacles from the assessment process that may disadvantage some groups more than others (see also the DADA project). It will not be a silver bullet that renders all assessment equal for every student, but we believe that it will go a long way in bringing equity of opportunity.

Our approach to inclusive assessment is embodied in our GAIA tool (Good and Inclusive Assessment), part of Anglia Ruskin’s institutional approach to assessment and feedback. This includes areas such as the clarity of assignment descriptions and marking criteria, authenticity of assessment, access to academic support and consistency in marking and feedback. It is congruent with our broader policies on assessment practice.

The way that assessment tasks (assignments) are described may be a ‘quick’ win in removing barriers in assessment. Some assignment descriptions may be couched in language that is difficult to understand or may make assumptions about student’s understanding of the task and how to complete it to the best of their ability (see also findings from the DiSA project). Actions such as co-constructing the assignment description with students and using a standardised description framework may improve student success.

In many ways, we have been fortunate in being able to introduce inclusive assessment as part of a much larger programme of curriculum change at an institutional level. Although this has been a massive undertaking for both teaching staff and academic developers, it has provided the opportunity for conversations on inclusivity that fit with Anglia Ruskin’s aspirations to provide equality of opportunity for all students and eventually to remove gaps in attainment.

We would be happy to share experience with others who are implementing inclusive assessment.  Please contact julian.priddle@aru.ac.uk.

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