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Inclusive design

“Equity needs to be embedded in all of our work, rather than only thought about by people with ‘equity’ in their job title.” (Professor Cathy Stinear, Pro Vice-Chancellor Equity, Waipapa Taumata Rau, The University of Auckland)

Inclusive design considers a broad, diverse, and intersecting constellation of ways of being that includes, but is not limited to, the priority groups identified by the Equity Office and Inclusive Learning.

When thinking about diverse groups, remember people often fall into multiple categories (e.g., nationality, ethnicity, cultural identity, religion, gender identity, sexual identity, dis/ability, neurodiversity, socio-economic status…), sometimes temporarily (e.g., an injury that limits mobility while recovering; technology issues, which means audio visual is not accessible).

Inclusive design includes designing for accessibility to respect learners with varying levels of motor control, sensory perception, or cognitive ability. Developing accessible content improves the learning experience, not only for those with special requirements but for everyone.

Other influences in diversity among learners can be described by differences in emotions, self- motivation/ determination, ability to sustain effort, self-regulation etc. (Ministry of Education, n.d.).

The range of needs and challenges among learners is under-reported and often unrealised, even by the learners themselves. Therefore, it is imperative that our approach to inclusive design is pre-emptive and not merely reactive.

Culturally sustaining pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are two approaches to designing assessments that can support our diverse learners to thrive.

Designing more inclusive assessments using culturally sustaining approaches

“Within its procedures, structures and systems, assessment codifies cultural, disciplinary and individual norms, values and knowledge hierarchies. Moreover, it inculcates these within the learner: to perform well in assessment, learners must adhere to these unconscious rules and value systems, continuously replicating them, and, eventually, internalising them.

For those to whom these norms, values and knowledge hierarchies are unfamiliar or different to those central to their own cultural and social habitus and individual identities, a disconnect occurs: their habitus and identity are not recognized by that of the dominant assessment procedures and practices, implying their lack of value. This can lead to apathy, alienation and self-disqualification, to resistance and advocacy for change, or to assimilation to the norm.” (Hanesworth et al., 2018)

The quote above—from the article “A typology for a social justice approach to assessment”—reminds us of the magnitude of impact that assessment has on our students. What and how we assess implicitly affirms certain ways of thinking and being in the world. We must take care with our assessment design choices and practices to ensure that we do not alienate or disempower our students.

Our cultures are influenced by our intersecting differences, for example age, sex, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, national origin, or any other distinguishing characteristic or trait. Teaching in a culturally sustaining manner actively supports our students to strengthen “the cultural and linguistic competence of their communities while simultaneously offering access to dominant cultural competence.” (Paris, 2012, p. 95). We not only want our teaching and assessment practices to support and empower our students to succeed as who they are but enable them to skilfully navigate spaces where they are often the minority.

Hanesworth et al. (2018) stress that culturally sustaining and social justice approaches are “not a matter of tailoring curriculum, teaching and assessment to fit the individual.” Instead, they are a “question of developing social practices that nurture the unique talents of every student. Personalisation, in this sense, is a collective (and intentional) activity; it is social, not individual. It is also collective in that the values and attitudes that educators and students bring to learning are derived from, and embedded in, a collective organizational ethos that frames all learning, teaching and assessment practices.” (p. 107). One way of doing this is to work towards developing a true partnership with students in the decision-making processes for assessments. By drawing upon the combined depths of knowledge of staff and students when co-creating assessment practices, you:

  • Show that you respect the experiences and backgrounds of your diverse students.
  • “Make space for different ways of thinking, being and doing to be recognized and incorporated.”
  • “Enable assessment that is both inclusive of linguistic, literate and cultural pluralism and that also gives legitimacy to different ways of knowing through primacy of place at point-of-design.”
  • Enable students to take ownership of their own learning. They are able to start from where, and who, they are, building upon their prior knowledge, strengths, interests and preferences (Hanesworth et al., 2018, pp. 105-106).

For more information on designing student choice into assessments, see student choice.

Teaching well (and assessing well) needs to incorporate our context of being located in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa, with ways and content that affirm the knowledge, language, identity and culture of Māori as tangata whenua. Work is happening within the Curriculum Framework Transformation Programme, with Pūtoi Ako leading this, but in the meantime we can be guided by Taumata Teitei and the developing Toitū Waipapa Framework.

Some other resources that may be helpful include:

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

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Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

1. Provide multiple means of engagement

  • Stimulate interest through contextualising learning to: the real world, their own interests, their diverse talents, and our place in Aotearoa (to mātau whenua). This can be done by designing for authentic assessment and student choice.
  • Stimulate motivation through enabling choice, autonomy, and timely, constructive feedback.
  • Provide options for students to self-regulate through strategies that support problem-solving skills (models, checklists, encouragement to improve on areas they are struggling with) and opportunities to reflect on their learning.

2. Provide multiple means of representation

“No single medium works for every learner, nor does it for every subject…. To promote understanding of information, concepts, relationships, and ideas, it is critical to provide multiple ways for learners to approach them.” (David Rose)

Conveying information only in print can leave some learners behind—those who may have difficulty decoding text, are unfamiliar with the vocabulary, or are not native speakers of the language. Presenting ideas through digital media broadens our opportunities for learning, and through video, audio, or augmented reality, we can reach those with varying learning preferences. It also stimulates the region of the brain responsible for perception and recognition, allowing the learner to use prior knowledge to ‘fill gaps’ in their understanding (Ministry of Education, n.d.).

Consider (CAST, 2018c):

  • Explain vocabulary and subject-specific concepts early on.
  • Include definitions via a glossary or in-text translations.
  • Demonstrate how complex concepts comprise simpler ones (chunk information).
  • Build upon pre-requisite knowledge and explain its relevance. Show how it can be applied to solve unfamiliar problems.
  • Highlight key information and provide multiple examples of its use.
  • Deliver information in a logical order/sequence.
  • Show links between the textual representation and the diagram/equation etc.
  • Ask students what might help them understand the material better.

3. Provide multiple means of action and expression

CAST (2018d) suggests that diversity in learners’ abilities can be broadly categorised three ways – ability to interact with the physical environment; ability in executive/cognitive function; familiarity, practice or natural ability, e.g., communication/language barriers, self-organisation, ease of expression (written vs spoken).

Students with physical disabilities often make use of assistive technologies (screen readers, keyboard controls, speech to text, etc.). Ensure that the technology does not present a barrier:

Reduce barriers to communication:

  • Don’t assume common knowledge is universal.
  • Required technical language is okay, but avoid jargon, idioms, double entendre.
  • Provide definitions to unfamiliar words. Expand acronyms the first time they are used.
  • Write short sentences.
  • When using analogies, refer to recent (rather than historical) events.

Prepare students for the future:

  • Encourage them to explore various approaches to presenting their work (concept maps, story boards, video vignettes, sketches, digital presentations).
  • Make specialised software available when required (Computer-Aided-Design, notation software, graphing calculators, wikis, drawing software, project planning tools), but only if they are familiar with the tool or are guided in its use.

Scaffold the learning so students build upon prior knowledge:

  • Set tasks with increasing difficulty (once students have mastered a prior skill).
  • Provide examples of differing strategies to problem solving.
  • Encourage students to work together to find novel solutions to authentic problems.

Suggest techniques for students to develop self-regulation (CAST, 2018d):

  • Provide guides on effective notetaking and encourage its use.
  • Enable students to monitor progress (checklists, schedules, comparison to peers).
  • Give students tips to recognise and overcome ‘roadblocks’ (in their studies, research, writing).
  • Ask students to set goals for themselves and think about how to accomplish them (divide into smaller steps, identify the requirements/resources).
  • Suggest estimated time, effort and difficulty for a task.
  • Include prompts (“Stop and think,” “Explain your work,” “Categorise your findings”).
  • Provide opportunities for self-reflection (e.g., complete a template of reflective questions or ask students for a short presentation of their work).
  • Ask students to identify areas they are interested in/having difficulty with and provide constructive feedback.

Tools for improving your UDL practices

Designing more inclusive assessments using UDL

Identify the purpose of your assessment

Assessments are often used for different purposes

  • Accountability (e.g., for professional requirements, prerequisites, etc.).
  • Student Progress (assessment of learning).
  • Instruction (assessment for learning).

Identifying the purpose of your assessment can help clarify what to focus on during the design process and ensure you are not adding extraneous requirements that are not part of the intended learning objectives, or not what you intend to measure.

Consider the construct relevance of your assessment to minimise barriers for students

Construct refers to “the knowledge, skills or abilities being measured by an assessment”. Identify how the assessment aligns with the intended learning outcomes, and what you want your students to demonstrate to show they have learned these outcomes. Consider if the assessment requires additional skills/abilities/knowledge to be able to successfully complete it.

“Minimizing construct-irrelevant factors does not lessen the rigor of an assessment but instead gives a more accurate picture of what learners are actually learning in terms of the knowledge, skills, and abilities identified in the course goals… Minimizing construct-irrelevant factors helps to focus in on where students are actually struggling with content, skills, or abilities that the assessment is meant to measure.” (CAST, n.d.)

Example: Essay exam in a Biology class that is both timed and closed book.

Construct-irrelevant factors: Includes motor coordination (handwriting or typing skills), short-term and working memory, organization and time management, attention, and the ability to work under pressure. The additional measurement of these many factors can prevent gaining an accurate picture of a student’s Biology content knowledge.

Suggested UDL design considerations: Provide options for students to demonstrate what they know, such as presenting a project either through an open-book essay or an oral presentation.

(From UDL on Campus – see this resource for more information).

For a larger view, click the full screen button or Watch on YouTube

Reflect on how you could minimise or remove potential barriers in assessments

Designing with the UDL principles in mind (providing for multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression) can assist in supporting learners who may face barriers, without requiring them to disclose difficulties to you.

Our move to remote learning in recent times has highlighted how many students experience difficulties in accessing technology for their studies, such as computers and reliable WIFI, let alone specialist tools that may be required to complete assessments.

Consider how the tools of digital assessments may impact on the ability for students to:

  • Access the assessment or associated resources.
  • Create and submit assessment work.

See UDL principles and assessment for examples of how to apply this in assessment.

Support learner variability through flexible assessments

Consider your assessments across your course—do they provide a variety of ways that students can demonstrate their learning? If you assess student learning using only one form of assessment that requires students to perform in a certain way (e.g., text-heavy submissions only; or multiple-choice questions only), students who struggle with that format may be disadvantaged and cannot accurately demonstrate their learning.

This video is called, Including Diverse Learners: Providing Variety in Instruction and Assessment, from McGill Office for Students with Disabilities.

Designing assessments that allow student choice empowers students to take ownership of their learning: they can take the opportunity to demonstrate their learning using their strengths, or choose to challenge themselves to show their learning in a format they are still developing their skills in. For more information see assessing variable learners.

For a larger view, click the full screen button or Watch on YouTube

Consider your grading practices

Sanger (2020) suggests the following to help minimise unconscious bias and make grading practices more inclusive:

  • Use rubrics with transparent and stable evaluative criteria. Sharing these with students from the outset can help communicate and clarify assessment expectations and assist them in understanding what to focus their efforts on.
  • Grade anonymously by removing students’ names from submissions where possible. See how to hide student names in SpeedGrader. and how to add an assignment that includes anonymous grading.
  • Reflect on whether you are grading new knowledge you have taught in the course, or if you are grading students’ prior knowledge and educational background. Consider if you have communicated your expectations for assessments clearly and given students support in learning how to achieve this in the assessment.
  • Offer honest, direct, and constructive feedback to your students—see feedback and feedforward.
  • In your feedback, direct students to additional resources that may be helpful:
  • Encourage students to talk with you during your office hours for additional help if required.
  • Use exemplars to facilitate a class discussion on what makes particular work successful. This can help communicate your expectations for the assessment in a clear and transparent manner, and also develop students skills in self-regulation and self-assessment. A potentially helpful source of exemplars of academic writing may be AWA: Academic Writing at Auckland.

Guides for using UDL to design better assessments

  • Got a minute? Assessment module—A short, self-paced course on using UDL in assessment design (10-45 min).
  • Watch this video on using UDL to design more inclusive assessments.

It provides three guiding questions:

  1. How is the assessment aligned to the learning goal?
  2. How does the assessment engage the learner?
  3. What barriers might students experience?

Use this template from CAST to support the design/ revision of assessments.

Seven tips for designing assessments with UDL:

  1. Align assessment with the learning goal.
  2. Provide multiple ways.
  3. Examine how well students can transfer learning to meaningful situations.
  4. Look for barriers.
  5. Empower students to learn how they learn.
  6. Look for informal assessment opportunities.
  7. Provide frequent, timely doses of feedback.

For a larger view, click the full screen button or Watch on YouTube

For a larger view, click the full screen button or Watch on YouTube

Evaluating assessments using UDL

This video takes you through an example of how to evaluate your assessment using the principles of Universal Design for Learning.

  • Welcome & Introduction [00:00]
  • Steps for Evaluating Assessments [5:45]
  • Conclusion & Main Takeaways [11:10]

For more information on evaluating assessments, see Assessment playbook: A UDL approach.

Scalability in inclusive design

While designing for inclusivity from the outset requires an investment in time and effort initially, it means you spend less time and effort later trying to address accommodations in an ad hoc fashion.

Students don’t always disclose when they need assistance, or indeed even realise there is an issue they can be supported with, so teachers don’t always know when something is a barrier for students. Good inclusive design makes learning more accessible for all students in your course.

One simple example of how inclusive design makes learning more accessible for all is in the practice of providing closed captioning and transcripts for multimedia. As well as making the content more accessible for hearing impaired individuals, it supports other students, such as students for whom English is an additional language, students who prefer to read content rather than just listen, students who have internet access issues and cannot stream video content.

It can be easy to be overwhelmed with the different aspects of inclusive design but remember that design doesn’t need to be perfect for it to be better. Take a more pragmatic ‘get it as good as you can in the time that you have’ approach and continuously make improvements iteratively, taking advantage of student feedback and other evaluation measures and your own reflections to help inform your design decisions and priorities.

For example, you could start off by focusing on a few aspects of making your assessments and courses more inclusive, e.g., looking at introducing more student choice into your assessments; or adding one more format to your resources, e.g., video captions or transcripts. Build on what you learn so that it eventually becomes second nature as just part of what you do in your assessment and course design and teaching practices.

The theme of Inclusive design relates to the TeachWell core capabilities:

  • Deliberately attending to diversity of student background, prior knowledge and experience.
  • Establishing a safe, inclusive and supportive learning environment (physical and/or digital).
  • Designing assessment opportunities that enable students to develop and demonstrate their capabilities.

… and the University’s principles of assessment:

  1. 4. Assessment is reliable and valid, and is carried out in a manner that is inclusive and equitable
  2. 5. Assessment practices are consistent and transparent, and assessment details are made available to students in a timely manner

Useful tools

The University provides resources that introduce the principles of designing accessible resources:

When designing interactive content using H5P, be aware that not all features are accessible. Here is a list of accessible content types in H5P.

Taumata Teitei Vision 2030 and Strategic Plan 2025

We will continue to champion diversity, inclusion and equity, ensuring all people feel valued and respected and can contribute fully to the success of the University.” Taumata Teitei: Vision 2030 and Strategic Plan 2025.

The theme of Inclusive design links with the values and principles of:

Caring for those around us in the way we relate to each other.

How we design characterises how we care for our students. Ensuring our teaching practices and learning environments are accessible and culturally sustaining to the diverse range of people who study at the University is an act of respect and care. We support our students to learn and grow by providing safe and equitable opportunities that allow them to bring their whole selves to their learning. To show manaakitanga is to enhance the mana of our students in the way we purposefully design, enact, and engage with our students in their educational experiences.

Respect and integrity
We respect and appreciate what makes people different, harnessing the power of our diversity. We recognise the multiple perspectives of our community. We understand that our actions influence intergenerational equality and act accordingly in the service of equity and inclusion.

To design assessments inclusively is to recognise and appreciate our differences and purposefully create teaching and learning experiences that allow everyone to engage with them in a safe, equitable and meaningful way.

Additional resources



CAST. (2018a). The UDL Guidelines. http://udlguidelines.cast.org

CAST. (2018b). Research evidence. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/more/research-evidence

CAST. (2018c). Provide multiple means of representation. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/representation

CAST. (2018d). Provide multiple means of action & expression. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/action-expression

CAST. (n.d.). UDL and Assessment. UDL ON CAMPUS: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. http://udloncampus.cast.org/page/assessment_udl

Evans, C. (2021). Culturally sensitive, relevant, responsive, and sustaining assessment. Center for Assessment. https://www.nciea.org/blog/culturally-responsive/culturally-sensitive-relevant-responsive-and-sustaining-assessment

Hanesworth, P., Bracken, S., & Elkington, S. (2018). A typology for a social justice approach to assessment: learning from universal design and culturally sustaining pedagogy. Teaching in Higher Education, 24(1), 98-114. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2018.1465405.

Ministry of Education, Te Tāhuhu o Te Māatauranga. (n.d.). Guide to universal design for learning. Te Kete Ipurangi. https://inclusive.tki.org.nz/guides/universal-design-for-learning/the-affective-network-and-engaging-learners/

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41477769

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85-100,134,136-137. http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/what-are-we-seeking-sustain-through-culturally/docview/1541479356/se-2?accountid=8424

Rose, D. H., Hall, T. E., & Murray, E. (2008). Accurate for all: Universal design for learning and the assessment of students with learning disabilities. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 34(4), 23-25,28. https://www.proquest.com/docview/200239312

Sanger C. S. (2020). Inclusive Pedagogy and Universal Design Approaches for Diverse Learning Environments. In Sanger C., Gleason N. (Eds.), Diversity and Inclusion in Global Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-1628-3_2

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