Head to Head: Blake is for Differentiated Evaluation

A few weeks ago, I attended my first OUSA General Assembly. The goal of the assembly, which brought together delegates from all seven member schools, was to pass policy papers to outline OUSA’s stance on three issues in post-secondary education: Teaching & Assessment, Student Financial Assistance, and the Broader Learning Environment.

The conference consisted of many opportunities to provide feedback on the papers, including two days’ worth of breakout sessions and editing, and a final plenary where the policies were formally debated and ultimately passed. There were amendments proposed and argued for many topics, but my favourite section (which was, coincidentally, hotly-contested) was from the Teaching & Assessment paper: the section called “Differentiated Evaluation.”

This section includes a recommendation that reads as follows:

In all courses, students should have some opportunity to choose between alternative assessment formats or additional assignments that recognize and address differences in student skills, backgrounds, and strengths.

Essentially, what this means is that a student should have multiple options in a class to demonstrate their learning. This deviates from a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluation and instead provides more flexibility to the student. This variability could take shape in many ways, including: introducing an optional assignment, providing multiple possible weighting-schemes for a set of assessments, or simply offering multiple assignments to cover one objective and allowing students to choose one.

When I saw this recommendation in the original draft of the paper, I was ecstatic. At my institution, McMaster University, themes that continue to arise from talking to our students are the need for a universal instructional design in the classrooms, and the superiority of accessibility over accommodation. Out of all of the McMaster Students Union’s consultation, we’ve found that students want a classroom and a learning experience that allows them to participate and study in a way that works well for them.

In OUSA’s own policy on Students with Disabilities, we call for universities to adopt a “universal instructional design philosophy where accessibility is built into instructional standards and campus infrastructure outside of traditional spaces for students with disabilities”. This ask must be consistent across all of our policies, as we specifically state in this ask that this recommendation applies to areasoutside of traditional spaces for students with disabilities. These recommendations (in both the Students with Disabilities paper and our new Teaching & Assessment paper) are important not only for students who are registered with their school’s Office for Students with Disabilities, but also for undiagnosed students or students who feel uncomfortable disclosing their diagnosis or disability; it will give them the chance to succeed in a university setting.

Over my weekend at general assembly, much of the conversation on this section stemmed from a concern that giving students options in the classrooms was akin to coddling them, and would weaken well-rounded development of skills that students should cultivate in a university setting. However, we must reject this notion. OUSA’s vision is to improve the accessibility, affordability, accountability, and quality of education. There is no reason for accessibility and quality of education to be competing priorities: in fact, they go hand-in-hand. By having clear, well-defined learning outcomes for a course – learning outcomes that include knowledge as well as soft-skills (for instance, group work) – we can rise above the unjustified and fallacious concern that students will simply play to their strengths and “game the system”, graduating with an incomplete set of soft skills. We should include these skills as our learning outcomes and make it a course component to demonstrate a particular skill. Quality of education does not have to be compromised in order to make classes accessible.

Finally, I would like to address the idea that allowing alternative assessments is unfair – for instance, if one student participates in an assignment that is perceived to be easier, then the student who picked the other assignment is at a disadvantage. The entire point of differentiated evaluation is that multiple assignments allow students to demonstrate the same learning outcomes, which enables them to pick the assessment that works best with their skills and interests. For example, in one of my courses, we have the option of either creating a final visual mind-map to connect all components of the course, or writing a final reflection on how the components are related. I might personally find the reflection to be more engaging, whereas a peer in that course might find the mind-map to be more engaging. In the end, if both assignments are assessing the learning outcome (thoughtfully connecting all elements of the course) and the same degree and mastery of this outcome is demonstrated by two students each partaking in one of the assignments, then the students would obtain the same grade. The onus here is on the instructor to create assignments that fairly assess learning outcomes, so that they can objectively assign the grade based on the performance of the student in relation to those specific outcomes.

After many arguments and conversations over the course of the weekend, we passed Teaching & Assessment unanimously with this differentiated evaluation section fully intact. I could not be more proud to be a part of an organization like OUSA that advocates for innovative teaching and accessibility, and I thank every single delegate that made this recommendation a part of OUSA policy.