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Marking schemes – does inclusive practice lead to a ‘standards’ problem?

  • 20 July 2021
  • By Helena Gillespie

This blog was kindly contributed by Helena Gillespie, Professor of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education at the University of East Anglia. You can find Helena on Twitter @helenauea @uniofeastanglia.

The Office for Students have launched a review of ‘inclusive’ practice in assessment in higher education. Details are scant at the time of writing, but we are told that the review wants to identify both areas of good practice as well as regulatory concerns. As such, higher education institutions (HEIs) might reasonably ask themselves at this point, which aspects of their current practice might be considered good by the regulator, and which concerning? 

But does inclusive practice in assessment really pose a risk to standards?

The scope of the review seems to imply a focus on marking of grammar and spelling in student work and asserts that it is ‘patronising to expect less’ of a certain group of students ‘under the guise of supporting them’. Policy on this across the sector is broadly similar on this matter. For example, the University of Exeter’s additional guidelines for students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) show that students with a diagnosis such as dyslexia should not be ‘unduly penalised’ for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, structure of errors in vocabulary.

Educationalists such as myself will be well aware of the focus on spelling and grammar in the school system. Children from primary school onwards are regularly tested on their progress in spelling and grammar. Teachers of students of all ages tend to agree that well written, well presented work is a good thing, but an inclusive approach to education acknowledges that some students’ disability means they encounter barriers in this area. The question is, do universities approaches to the awarding of marks maintain standards while acknowledging the rights and needs of their disabled learners?

The policy conundrum

There’s a policy conundrum here for the OfS to navigate. On the one hand, their core mission is focussed on widening access to higher education and closing gaps in attainment for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. The OfS’s own Disabled Students Commission lists within their terms of reference their mission to ‘identify and promote effective practice that helps those with disabilities have a positive and successful experience at university’. A university looking to stay on the right side of the regulator during this review might reasonably ask how an inclusive assessment policy can both support disabled students and maintain standards. What are the key features of an inclusive assessment policy that does both of these things?

Features of an effective inclusive assessment policy

First and foremost, an inclusive assessment policy relates to the whole assessment process, from the assessment design for the course to creating the assessment briefs for students. It also plans both for the support of students in the preparation and creation of their assessment, and for the the process of feedback and marking. It is hoped that the policy review by the OfS will take all of these elements into consideration, not just the final part of the assessment process concerned with the awarding of marks.

  1. Student agency and assessment literacy

Students should have choice and agency in their assessment wherever possible to help them develop ‘assessment literacy’, an understanding of the process which helps improve the impact of assessment on meaningful learning. Their previous experiences of assessment and the differences between assessment in school or college and university are significant, and students need an opportunity to ask questions and be active participants in assessments. Students should also be able to experience a variety of assessment types and topics throughout their degrees to build a variety of transferable skills.

2. Supporting students and understanding success

What makes a high-quality assessment in higher education is debateable. One elitist view might be that all students are novice academics and therefore high-quality work, even from undergraduates, should be publishable and perhaps even REF-able. However, this model does not fit with the comprehensive higher education sector we now find ourselves in and assessment that is inclusive and focussed on both subject knowledge and skills that are transferable to the workplace is much more appropriate.

We must now help students develop a sense of understanding of the process of assessment and as a result becoming knowledgeable and confident about the nature of assessment and marking. An inclusive assessment policy should include the provision of support whether general or specifically targeted at helping students with specific learning difficulties. This is a challenge for the sector as it fundamentally challenges the power dynamic of assessment in higher education. While most universities publish marking schemes, for example this one from the University of Edinburgh, the actual amount of marks which are awarded for spelling and grammar is not always clear. It may be that one of the outcomes of the OfS review is the need for greater clarity on this.

3. The award of marks

Assessment in higher education can be transactional – the students give in work and the academics give out marks. While agency and choice might help with this, it is difficult to get away from this. This transaction is partly about the award of marks, but also about the work expected being proportional for the credit awarded. Equally, transparency is needed in the weighting of marks so students understand that the mark is fair and proportional. A requirement of our own Inclusive Education Policy sets out that:

Marking practice should be shaped by marking criteria, with the secretarial aspects of writing appropriately weighted. Therefore markers should restrict themselves to identifying a representative selection of errors in syntax, spelling, grammar or presentation, and giving advice about where to seek help if needed. The focus of the marking and feedback should be on the content.

The aim of this part of the policy is to clarify the importance of spelling and grammar while emphasising the need for the awarding of marks to focus on the content of the assessment.

Of course, this policy on its own does not ensure inclusive practice. Staff training and ongoing engagement with assessment design is required to embed this policy.

I hope for more detail about the review by the Office for Students in due course, perhaps some clarification on the remit and scope. However, if we see this as an opportunity for the sector to sharpen its policy on the issue of inclusive assessment and the award of marks, some good may yet come of it.

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