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No student is more special than another

06 Aug 2019 | Dr Ruth Payne In the push for full inclusivity and proper representation of all students in our higher education institutions, Dr Ruth Payne suggests the discourses of ‘special’ and the use of reasonable adjustments could be holding up the process.

It is impossible to think about inclusive assessment without taking a broader view of both assessment and inclusivity. My close involvement with a severely disabled student drew me into the assessment arena where the issues became clearer.

The elusive level playing field

Inclusivity in assessment has been a reactive process, largely because ideas of inclusivity have involved attempts to level the playing field, rather than embrace the wonderfully rich array of individuals who pass through our doors. In efforts to provide this level playing field, there is potential to flatten student experience and model ideas that are anything but inclusive. What is ‘special’ then potentially leads into the wider cultural experience as our students graduate and make their own contribution to the future.

Nothing special

Taking the example of physical ‘disability’, I have been told in no uncertain terms that my student does not want to be regarded as ‘special’. She does not want to be discussed in ‘Special Cases’ meetings, undertake assessment in ‘Special Circumstances’, or indeed have any ‘Special Arrangements’ made for her.  These discourses of ‘special’ have the potential to be damaging and they are, unfortunately, perpetuated by use of the very mechanisms we put in place to support our students. With rising awareness of students with mental health issues, we have reached a point where there are in fact far fewer students who are not ‘special’ under the sort of definitions we have been using.

Reducing the need for reasonable adjustments

The application of reasonable adjustments - the range of support mechanisms such as additional time or the use of keyboards in exams – contributes to the level-playing-field approach and adds to the idea of separate categories of students. The application of adjustments is, by its nature, reactive. Most worryingly, there is no easy way to check parity of treatment across institutions, and my student is herself puzzled by the fact that she received 50% extra time in exams at A-Level, but has routinely been given 100% additional time as an undergraduate.

The challenge of true inclusivity

Work on inclusive assessment has served as the impetus for deeper consideration of definitions of disability and the contribution higher education institutions potentially make to further-reaching cultural change. Much broader consideration is already being given to assessment issues in relation to programme-level approaches that increase inclusivity more generally across our institutions. This approach shows clearly that inclusivity does not relate purely to physical disability, but applies to all our students - not least those from different educational backgrounds, including our international cohorts.

Designing the shape of assessment from a programme-level perspective not only offsets practices where students and staff have to manage excessive assessment workloads but also offers an ideal opportunity for academic staff to review the type of assessment they set. This means there is a chance to reflect on the use of assessment approaches that inevitably disadvantage some of our students and, most importantly, to think in terms of removing the discourses of ‘special’. If we are able to set assessment with which all students can engage, we erode the need for reasonable adjustments and we start to move towards a truly inclusive approach to tertiary education. By utilising synoptic approaches to assessment across modules, we can offer a range of tasks that provide fully supportive feedback to students and maximise opportunities for development of key transferable skills. 


The exams and the bunched deadlines that create stress for students and marking workload for staff can be transformed into opportunities for student-agreed assessment criteria, peer-assessed and formative work and reflective learning. My own work with Level 2 students in the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence has shown clearly that students are fully aware that assessment is unfairly challenging for some of their peers. When I explored the use of certain assessment tasks my students were quick to tell me they weren’t fair for everyone. Moreover, these interns showed how wedded they all are to assessment approaches from their own experience of secondary education; if we continue to use diets of coursework and exams, we disadvantage those students who have not rehearsed these types of assessment during earlier education.

Leadership at Leeds

At the University of Leeds, we are considering all these issues at an institutional level. The Leeds Expectations of Assessment and Feedback is now guiding colleagues through a review of all assessment and ensuring students are offered a variety of meaningful assessment tasks that allow them to demonstrate their understanding. By designing assessment that links students’ learning across modules, this approach optimises opportunities for formative feedback and means we weave assessment-for-learning throughout programmes to distance ourselves from ‘stop-and-assess’ approaches of the past.

We have also introduced Baseline Inclusivity standards through our Inclusive Learning and Teaching Development initiative. There is now clear guidance for all academic staff in relation to teaching and assessment and over time this should lead us to a point where our own need to employ reasonable adjustments is substantially reduced. 

By ensuring all staff and students fully understand the assessment strategy of each of our institutions, might we all begin to erode discourses of ‘special’? 

Ruth Payne is an Associate Professor in Student Education and Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Leeds. Ruth has taught at the University of Leeds since 2008, and now undertakes pedagogical scholarship in higher education in the two key areas of inclusive assessment and student transition.

Ruth can be contacted at

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