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Transforming Assessment Culture Through Universal Design for Learning

Posted on: August 27, 2021

Seán Bracken and Katie Novak, co-editors of Transforming Higher Education Through Universal Design for Learning , discuss the shortcomings of assessment culture and accessibility in higher education and explore different ways to improve it.

At the best of times prior to COVID-19, non-completion rates for learners at universities in the United States have been hugely problematic with some 39% of students not finishing their undergraduate degree program. In the UK, where the rate of non completion is around 28%, the Office for Students, which is the national regulatory body for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), has threatened to significantly reduce government funding for courses with high levels of attrition or failure. So it’s imperative that HEIs build intelligence about how to design courses where learners successfully complete their studies. The hard truth is that if adult learners fail assessments and drop out of courses, those courses may be buried with the dinosaurs.

Numerous barriers prevent adult learners from succeeding in HEI courses. Many discussions tend to blame learners and adopt a deficit-based approach, as in; “They are adults and they need to take responsibility for their own learning.” As Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practitioners we recognize the flaws of deficit-based thinking and argue it is much more inclusive and equitable to determine strategies that increase student engagement and work positively towards higher course completion rates. To change cultures and strengthen assessment sustainability, we seek to embed those strategies within and across all HEIs - this is pivotal, because culture eats policy for breakfast!

In this blog, we will unpack the importance of UDL in the formation of positive assessment cultures within Foundation Degree programs. In their study of different approaches to assessment within faculty, Skidmore, Hsu and Fuller argue that there are three distinct archetypical cultures of assessment: cultures of fear, compliance, and improvement of student learning. The latter is central to fostering an asset-based design leading to better student engagement and strengthened assessment outcomes. And the benefits for you as an instructor - you don’t have to say goodbye to your course!

When focusing on assessments for student learning, it is critical to begin with clear goals and flexible means, and both can be co-constructed with our learners. For example, working with colleagues on Foundation Degree programs in a diversity of universities, we found that outcomes are enhanced when learner variability is a fundamental principle guiding course design and that variability was best revealed in conversations with learners themselves. In cases where courses were successful, assessment items had been carefully constructed to facilitate the building of incremental learner capacity to show progress toward clearly articulated learning outcomes. In the best designed courses, assessment items were also authentic and linked to real world tasks, so there was very limited scope for “contract cheating.” Additionally, accomplished program designers were empathic and were knowledgeable about where their learners were coming from and this knowledge informed how assessments were designed.

As observed by our inspirational colleagues from CAST, Johnston and Castine, grounding assessments in the practical and lived experiences of learners is particularly important when working with apprenticeship programs. Likewise, for Foundation Degree programmes, there is a realization that some learners required additional time to complete their studies. This was particularly important during Covid, when learners juggled with multiple other personal and professional demands. To some extent, innovative approaches to flexibility of assessment processes reflect the insights provided by our amazing colleague, Costa-Renders, who identified how UDL practitioners need to challenge ‘monoculturalism’ through the considered adoption of ‘multi-temporalities,’ where time is reconceptualised to consider learners’ needs.

Empathy and program flexibility are key, but this didn’t mean program leaders compromised on rigour. Rather, program design provided for flexible pathways for evidencing learning outcome attainment. Conversations with course leads also revealed they had adopted a targeted, research-informed focus on scaffolding learners’ executive functioning. They insightfully provided strategies for learners’ self-efficacy, especially when they were faced with assessment challenges and, through formative feedback, helped them to figure out creative ways to overcome those challenges.  For example, one program overtly provided learners with the critical skills required to access, read (or listen to) and engage with online electronic resources such as e-books. These strategies also strengthened  learners’ technological and assessment literacy. Additionally, thoughtful design of blended learning and assessment experiences considered the interface between key concepts such as accessibility, the use of technology and the application of UDL - a concept that’s teased out in our book chapter written by Richard M. Jackson and Scott D. Lapinski.

We’re convinced that since our book was published, there’s an ever greater awareness of what it takes to facilitate learner success through UDL -  especially in the domain of inclusive assessment. But what about the next steps?  Big questions remain about how the transformative learning taking place at course and program level can be scaled up more widely to change for good the nature of organisational systems, processes and cultures. That’s the challenge we set for ourselves, and you, as we continue on a shared journey to ensure all learners attain their potential and are kept engaged for the full duration of their educational studies.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to colleagues around the globe but especially at the University of Worcester and at the University of Pennsylvania who have shared their stories and insights regarding assessment journeys. Also, many thanks to our book authors who continue to inspire our UDL thinking and action.

Further Reading


Bracken, S and Novak, K. Bracken, S., & Novak, K. (Eds.). (2019). Transforming higher education through Universal Design for Learning: An International Perspective. Routledge: Abingdon, Oxfordshire.


Hillman, N. (2021) A short guide to non-continuation in UK Universities. HEPI, Available online at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/A-short-guide-to-non-continuation-in-UK-universities.pdf Accessed 27th June, 2021.


Inside Higher Education (2021) How COVID-19 Damaged Student Success. Available online at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/06/21/what-worked-and-what-didn%E2%80%99t-college-students-learning-through-covid-19 Accessed 27th June, 2021.


Johnston, S. C., & Castine, E. E. (2019). 'UDL in apprenticeships and career training programs that serve youth with untapped talent'. In, Bracken and Novak (Eds) Transforming Higher Education Through Universal Design for Learning (pp. 131-158). Routledge.


Lancaster, T. and Cotarlan, C. (2021) 'Contract cheating by STEM students through a file sharing website: a Covid-19 pandemic perspective'. Int J Educ Integr 17, 3 . https://doi.org/10.1007/s40979-021-00070-0


Malomo, M. and Pittaway, S. (2019) 'So, You Want me to Read for my Degree? Considering a Universal Design for Learning Approach to Reading Through the Use of Audiobooks and Accessibility Tools'. JISC Accessible Organisations: Supporting learning providers in creating inclusive teaching and learning experiences. Available from: https://accessibility.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2019/07/20/udl-reading/ Accessed 27th June, 2021.


NCES (National Center for Educational Statistics), (2020) Graduation Rates. Available online at: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40 Accessed 27th June, 2021.


Roberts, J. (2018). 'Professional staff contributions to student retention and success in higher education'. Journal of Higher Education Policy & Management, 40(2), 140–153.


Skidmore, S. T., Hsu, H.-Y., & Fuller, M. (2018). 'A person-centred approach to understanding cultures of assessment'. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(8), 1241–1257.