Having worked extensively with less abled students, with either physical or mental health issues, I have learnt, and still learning, to adapt to their needs, and it is the most rewarding and fulfilling experience of not forcing them down institutional systems which preclude their academic and holistic growth.
This is an extract of a contribution I made as part of the “Exemplars and Case Studies of Technology-Enhanced Assessment in FE and HE Institutions”, an open resource document by Rob Lowney and Suzanne Stone from Dublin City University, during the ALT Summer Summit, 26-27 August 2020. Full document here.
The contribution below is an alternative assessment solution for students who have been dealing with mental health for a long time, or certain other types of extreme situations, mostly exceptional cases from already extenuated assessments. This contribution was highly commended among the attendants, as they never thought of using a simple casual chat as a mode of assessment to encompass students who are struggling.
Exemplar 21: Casual chat (for inclusivity on an individual basis) to supplement other modes of assessments
Overview of the technology-enhanced assessment
Students whose first language is not English, or who had not received adequate support often struggle presenting in front of a class. Students with mental health issues struggle more, ditto for students with other physical disabilities. During the pandemic, the phone presents a simple tool, which can be used to provide an inclusive approach in assessment, and also a genuine feeling of care to the students.
Students who are vulnerable do not need to be subjected to high-tech tools, like BB Collaborate, or MS Teams, or Canvas sessions.
Discipline(s) and level(s) that it is relevant to
- To supplement or replace essays
- To supplement or replace presentations
Learning outcomes it could align to: Not relevant
Skills/graduate attributes it could align to
Being inclusive means giving everyone an opportunity, it cannot be levelled against a benchmark.
Technologies involved: Any tool that can allow a casual chat with a student (e.g. a simple phone would do). Some students might prefer a face-to-face conversation.
Practical guidelines and considerations
The guidelines and considerations are more administrative and political than technical.
- The student is the KEY and CENTRE of the situation and NOT the institution, or other colleagues or other senior members.
- Regularly meet and talk to a student who has brought a big issue to your attention, mental health can have a deep impact and be long lasting, as it often brings associated past struggles to the surface. You will be able to identify if there might be future issues when it is time for assessment
- Understand both the problems and needs of the students
- Physical problems v/s mental health OR Both.
- Academic needs v/s pastoral needs OR Both.
- Previous issues/solutions the student benefitted from when at school – students often struggle when they move from school to HE because support is comparatively less in HE.
- Have a good understanding of mental health or work closely with the professional services in your institutional disability office (whichever the situation requires).
- Extending deadlines does not work for certain cases e.g. extending a coursework deadline for a victim of bullying who is struggling with mental health, is not impactful if the bullying situation has not changed.
- If you are a junior academic, seek the advice of your mentor. There are education counsellors in the sector and professional platforms are a good learning point for junior staff.
- Keep an active and growing log and add your own comments on the student’s
- understanding of the learning materials
- general performance
- keenness to engage in the class or with the wider network in the field
- anything else that you deem necessary to log to be able to deal with the points below.
- Show authority and good faith – highlight your expertise that you are the best judge to the student’s needs and any adaptation that considers the overall mental health of the student. This is the most difficult part, a senior academic might disagree with you. E.g. they might have had a visually impaired student but showed little flexibility, that is their poor judgement in that situation.
- Work with TL deans and higher up to allow for flexibility.
- Buy-in of higher up that your relation with the students is good enough for you to be able to decide for the best action to be taken for the student (and not firefight people who do not have a wholesome picture of the needs of the student).
- Buy-in from accreditation bodies. Accredited programmes have specific requirements – accreditation bodies may object.
- Buy-in from external examiners, who go by prescribed requirements for programmes.
- If other stakeholders do not seem to understand:
- you can use the famous example of the 2020 A level results algorithm fiasco in the UK, where the government reversed their decision, since teachers were the best judge. (I did not have this argument at the time when I made the proposal but had a sound understanding of inclusivity to put forth a case).
- Another winning point is the ethics and the mission and values of the institution, if they have something like ‘fair’, ‘innovative’ and ‘inclusive’ in their mission statement, they cannot argue against that.
- You can quote the legislation, and highlight the breach in the regulations, that can be a huge help. But first you need to have a sound knowledge of what the legislation says. A lot of information is available online. This is not called intimidating your colleagues, but it is called covering the institution against breach. Do NOT bother if other colleagues or senior management feel intimidated when you quote the legislation, it is their problem if they are not aware of things. It is important to stand your ground if it comes to that point, and may sometimes be the most difficult argument
- You need to have and show a high level of empathy (with the student) and patience (with your colleagues).
Possible grading criteria
If you have kept an active log, this is no issue. If you are a junior academic, you may need the support of your mentor the first few times.
Student assessment brief: This must be adapted in conversation with the student.
- Explain the actual assessment to the student
- Ask the student how they feel about meeting the assessment
- Discuss challenges
- Discuss possible scenarios and possible alternatives – always have more than 1 alternatives for discussion (otherwise it is not alternative, it is just 1 way)
- Pin down to a few alternatives (Plan A or Plan B)
- Remember the different scenarios that might play out – E.g. a student who had a recent surgery might have a relapse, or a student with mental health might suddenly find themselves worst.
You need a strong understanding of the challenges and needs of students with disabilities or mental health issues. Unfortunately, it is best learnt first-hand. I gathered my experience when I worked at the University of Reading in 2007. I had blind and visually impaired students with various degrees of impairment, and later started to work with students who had transplants, severe physical disabilities, and various degrees of mental health issues. Later on, at another institution, I worked with hearing impaired students for accessibility of online materials. And worked with students who were victims of bullying. None of these are in my job description, but comes from my passion to be inclusive, I even managed to secure small grants here and there to better help students.