Universal Design for Learning is a way of thinking about structuring courses, including assessments, to meet the needs of the broadest possible segment of students. The goal is to ensure that students have the best chance of success. In basic terms, UDL asks instructors to consider three areas, and to provide multiple options for learners in each: engagement, representation, and action / expression. In other words, consider having multiple kinds of assessments (eg. not just three identically-structured multiple choice exams) that give students different ways to demonstrate mastery: perhaps the student who doesn’t test well does write thoughtful essays or give exceptional presentations. These ideas are increasingly well-represented in post-secondary education.
When we think about how UDL informs the choices we make in relation to assessment, a key aspect to consider is the concept of construct relevance. This concept is really about ensuring that students know what the are being assessed on, and that instructors build assessments for their courses that are coherent with the purpose of the course itself. Assessing construct relevance requires you to consider whether the assessment in question is assessing skills not directly relevant to the learning objective in question; achieving high construct relevance in assignment design means that the learner’s grade is impacted only by what they are able to achieve in relation to the learning objective. For example, if an essay is assigned in an English class with the expressed purpose of assessing a student’s close reading skills, but 50% of the marks for the assignment are for grammar, mechanics, and style, the assessment does not demonstrate strong construct relevance. We can minimize the impact of construct-irrelevant aspects of the assignment in this case by revising the marking structure, being explicit with students about expectations, and ensuring that class time is devoted to discussion of grammar, mechanics, and style.
Thinking about construct relevance in assessment can often be somewhat more opaque, however. Think about a biology exam that is trying to assess students’ understanding of cellular structure, but does so in a 3-hour, in-class, closed book, essay-style exam. While the instructor may only be assigning marks for the content the student writes about cellular structure, there are a number of construct-irrelevant details that may impede that student’s success: can they write by hand for three hours; can they articulate themselves clearly in an essay format; do they have exam anxiety to contend with; are they memorizing, or are they understanding? Perhaps, in this case, this format is not appropriate for the assessment.
Other ways to consider UDL in individual assessments include: allowing students to make choices about which questions they answer and how to represent their responses; offering all students more time than you expect them to need; or allowing handwritten and typed responses as students prefer.