Comparing Approaches to Assessment Fairness

Exam arrangements have eaten a lot of my time this year: guiding a record number of students through deadline extensions processes; adapting exam modalities to make sure student with technical or broadband issues are able to present their work; encouraging students to seek assessment and exam arrangements to compensate for the toll the pandemic is having on their mental health or the abuse they face at home; and generally feeling that exam arrangements and deadline extensions processes are not up to the task of ensuring assessment fairness.

(I’m pretty sure I should state here that these views do not represent University of Sussex, the teaching team I am part of or my department and school, and that my examples are drawn from personal, colleagues’ and friends’ experiences and that each represent several incidents and not individual students)

Assessment fairness was arguably one of the most discussed topics in online teachers groups at all levels during the pandemic, revealing the stark differences in how fairness is defined and implemented. Teachers would debate which changes to assessments were justifiable, how to compensate (or not) for unequal access to computers or broadband. Frequently, heated debates about the causes of plagiarism or what were legitimate reasons for students to submit work late seemingly pit two groups against each other: arguing these practics have external (pandemic stress, lack of understanding of the assignment) or internal (student didn’t care) causes.

The definition of legitimate reasons for alternative or adapted means of assessment is contentious and arguably the core of exam arrangements and deadline extensions policies.

When I first started teaching in the UK, after years of teaching in France, studying in Belgium and a pretty good knowledge of US higher education, I was amazed by how thorough guidelines for exam arrangements and deadline extensions were. In France, while there are university-wide disability and student-support services, they have little control over actual exams. Aden Gaide for instance discusses the case of a pregnant student who was assessed as facing out-of-ordinary health issues motivating exam arrangements, but faced teachers’ refusal to implement them, on the basis that they believe pregnancy is not a disability. Teachers believed that when pregnancy interfered with one’s studies, the student should simply take a year out. They simply did not feel obligated to implement university-approved arrangements to attendance and exams. I wish that study surprised me, but it didn’t. I’ve seen it before, and it’s only to be expected when student services have, in practice, limited ability to implement their decisions, as the teaching team is ultimately in charge of organising examinations and assessments. With a big caveat: students are almost always able to retake their exams, limiting the impact of these decisions.

Nevertheless: clear guidelines for deadline extensions? Exam arrangements that teachers have no choice but to implement? Count me in.

In fact more generally, the transparency of exam arrangements guidelines and conditions for deadline extensions in the UK were a welcome change. I’m not able to speak of Belgian universities, having attended a design school and never even heard of exam arrangements. I graduated from my master in 2012, things may have changed since then. I’ve also never seen a marking rubric as a design student. I got the marks I got and that was it. To be honest, it didn’t bother me, or anyone, much: I didn’t see how my transcript would (or should) affect anything, as long as I didn’t fail a class. The word then was that grades don’t matter, only your portfolio does. This seems to have changed a bit. But I digress.

The downside of these guidelines? Students asking how to go about getting a certificate stating a family member is in palliative care or the ICU. Students unable to prove the person they grieve is family enough, or has died unexpectedly enough, to justify a deadline extension. Students facing mental health challenges in a family that doesn’t believe this exists and refuse to be assessed to qualify for exam arrangements or lie during the assessment to save face and avoid stigma. And as a vicious cycle, students not asking for deadline extensions or exam arrangements because they’ve heard from their peers about the process and would rather not go through it.

Addressing these issues (some universities have previously brushed them aside arguing that death certificates are optional – though obviously students may not perceive it this way) wouldn’t resolve inequalities. Students may be more or less informed about their rights, have academic advisors more or less able to support them through the process, teachers more or less likely to remind them about seeking deadline extensions. And then again, students might not want to get assessed for learning disabilities or mental health issues due to stigma, or might not be able to explain what’s going on in their lives. One could argue it prepares students for the workplace. But university years are a particularly precarious time, and many students develop mental health difficulties or learn to deal with mental health issues on their own. We ought to take this into account too.

The approach can also create a very rigid and counter-productive view of assessment fairness. When every divergence to the norm needs to be justified, even small choices may feel unfair. Case in hand: project presentations. There are many reasons to let students choosing their approach to project presentations regardless of exam arrangements. Some students thrive in front of a large audience, others don’t. Some students have great broadband and live in quiet neighborhood and want to present live, others don’t. Why set up rigid norms and allowing for arrangements, creating a massive amount of paperwork and invading students’ privacy, when we could make (fairly) flexible assessments?

Yet I’ve heard or witnessed multiple examples of UK students arguing against the flexibility, during the pandemic, to either present live or record presentations. Not that I blame them, again if you have to follow rigid guidelines, it can feel unfair to see a more flexible approach to assessment being implemented, though it precisely was implemented to ensure fairness as students took their exams in very different contexts. Moreover, it can be argued that there is an unfairness, in that recorded presentations can usually be submitted on the last date/latest time for presentations when other students have already presented. But scraping the policy would hide social and financial inequalities between students under a varnish of procedural fairness.

American universities take yet another approach to deadline extensions in case of exceptional circumstances: each teacher for each class decide to grant an extension or not. This may lead to discrimination, and means students cannot predict whether all of their assessments will be delayed for the same problem. There are extensive discussions and regular Twitter spats about how teachers react to students asking for deadline extensions. There are good reasons not to worry. I agree with the post above: a week extension « do(es)n’t make papers better […] students who are going to write a bad or mediocre paper aren’t going to miraculously crank out a good one with an extra week’s worth of time. […] The data would suggest, in fact, that extensions most often yield lower scoring papers, not higher ones.« 

There are very practical limits to extensions, as we still have to grade work before the next term or semester begins. Making the extension available to those asking it is, in a way, giving a fake and a hard deadline. But it works, if only because no one wants to fall behind, and as staff we benefit from it often. In the last few months, I handed my recorded conference presentation for CHI a week late (thanks to Carla Griggio who let me know I didn’t need to miss on sleep). I got journal reviews extensions purely by asking. I handed in some work later than expected. I don’t think I know anyone having avoided that this year.

So while all universities have central services ruling on exam arrangements for disabled students or students with health issues and processes in place to grant deadline extensions in case of exceptional circumstances, denoting similar conceptions of fairness, they may have very different outcomes and produce different lived experiences for students. The French approach means exam arrangements are ultimately the decision of the teaching team who might refuse them altogether (though students nearly always have the option to retake exams later in the year). The UK approach requires students to fit into tiny boxes, generates problematic demands for paperwork, and this administrative and normative approach to equality may be detrimental to fairness. The American approach means exam arrangements decisions largely lie with individual teachers, creating more uncertainty for students and potentially discrimination.

I don’t think any of these approaches are (as) fair (as they could be), and I don’t think any of them were up to the challenges we faced this year, and are likely to face again. There’s no magic bullet here. I personally wished that all assessments had a say, seven-days deadline extension for those asking, and a reasonable range of means to submit portfolio or give a presentation. It would have reflected the conditions students were experiencing, from maintaining their own computer and equipment instead of relying on university labs to just not being in top shape at all times. I too have observed that deadline extensions don’t change the outcomes I’d expect from students. I’m hoping we’ll learn something from the pandemic years.


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