Inclusive practices in Higher Ed

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Professor Sally Brown



Inclusive practices in higher education teaching, learning and assessment

Over the years, views on inclusive approaches to curriculum design in higher education have emphasised the significance of student diversity, and we’ve had more than two decades of legislative imperatives to adopt inclusive approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. But what have we learned in that time? When we talk about student diversity, we may tend to think of particular ‘groups’ or sub-sets of students, such as students with disabilities or specific additional requirements, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, and we focus on discussing how reasonable adjustments can be made to create a level playing field, particularly in the area of assessment. For academics, professional services and admin staff, this has often resulted in a view of inclusivity requirements as potentially problematic, but here I want to adopt a more enabling approach, in which it is recognised that what is often considered good inclusive practice is actually just good practice for all students.

Diversity can relate to many characteristics and dimensions, so that students as individuals should not necessarily be seen as belonging to particular groups. As Thomas and May (2010) propose, these varied and changing dimensions can be educational (e.g. prior learning experiences, previous qualifications); dispositional (e.g. attitudes, preferences); circumstantial (e.g. family or caring responsibilities, in employment); and cultural (e.g. values, religion and belief). So how can you work to combat some of the barriers that society puts in place to disadvantage students? Because universities have growing diverse populations of students with additional needs, we need to develop curricula that give every student equivalent if not identical chances to succeed (Sambell, Brown and Morris, 2017).

Hence, inclusive approaches require us to think through all aspects of our work (curriculum design, delivery and assessment, the development of learning environments, teaching approaches, management of group work, student support, systems for condonements and deferrals, ways of dealing with complaints and conflict resolution approaches) in advance to minimise (rather than exacerbate) existing disadvantages that already exist among our student cohorts. This could include consideration of:

  • How we communicate with students (face-to-face, on the phone, by email, on virtual sites, through course handbooks, in assignment briefings and so on). To what extent do we go beyond the ‘legalese’ of validation documents to help diverse students understand what is required of them in clear and unambiguous ways?
  • What implicit messages are contained within the tone of the communications we use? Is ‘the university’ coming across as hostile and defensive? Can messages to students about poor attendance or failed coursework use language that is supportive and helpful? (one of my sons once received the verdict that his assignment was an irredeemable fail! Irredeemable? Really?);
  • Are our induction processes welcoming and informative, rather than dumps of information by a succession of talking heads? Do students really need all the leaflets and photocopied sheets we press on them? Do we differentiate between the interesting, useful and imperative information we give them?
  • Are our students seeking information from front desk staff told robustly to go and read the handbook thoroughly before they come back with any questions?
  • Are we sufficiently careful about not making assumptions about students’ domestic and personal circumstances? For example, refugees and students from ‘Looked After’ backgrounds, that is, from foster or child-care homes, do not always have family to turn to for help or advice;
  • In our teaching, do we recognise that pedagogic models vary substantially from nation to nation, and the students we see now in our classrooms may never have been asked previously to, for example, actively question the point of view of the lecturer, work alongside members of the opposite sex, propose original ideas, debate and discuss concepts rigorously, write assignments of an extended length, and participate in group assessment tasks (Sambell et al, 2017, Carroll and Ryan, 2005);
  • Are our classroom and virtual presentation approaches up to scratch (no, you can’t sensibly use chalk on a blackboard with anything other than a tiny number of students if you want what you are doing to be visible to all);
  • Are our assessment tasks ‘meaningful, relevant and accessible to all’ (Thomas and May, op cit, p9)? When we set assignments, do we use vocabulary that help students to see what they must achieve to succeed? Or do we allow the use of ‘trick questions’ so that only the very perceptive students see the double negative.
  • In planning assignments, do we build in reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities from the outset, rather than waiting for contingencies to arrive and designing alternatives at the last minute?
  • Are our assessment arrangements for students with additional requirements sensitively organised (rather than, as I have seen happen, all the ‘special needs’ students required to troop off to another room where their additional time needs could be accommodated)? And indeed, is additional time always the most appropriate reasonable adjustment (no, Waterfield and West, 2010) would argue!).
  • Do we offer students relevant and useful means of receiving feedback? Or do we offer a ‘one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it’ approach? Can we accommodate students who find it hard to listen and retain information in live feedback contexts, for example allowing them to audio record our dialogues? (And from my perspective, there is never any excuse for only providing hand-written scrawls on students’ written work which can be impossible to read by students with visual impairments or whose first alphabet is different from that in use in the UK).
  • To what extent are we able to address mental health problems which some students may be experiencing? Some such problems are short-term and temporary, but others may be ongoing and significant. In any case, it can be impossible to guess whether such problems exist, especially in large-group contexts like lectures. When we do discover such problems, are we well versed in how best to direct students towards expert help?

So, are we all expected to be experts in inclusivity? It would be great if we were, but very often common sense can be really helpful. In terms of reasonable adjustment for disability, for example, it is always better to ask any particular student what kinds of adjustments work best for them, rather than guess what might be appropriate. Conditions like dyslexia take many forms, and different students with dyslexia are likely to benefit differently from different modes of feedback delivery.

The key thing to do, I would argue, is collectively to undertake scenario planning and risk assessment to think through how we as university staff might be making things tougher than necessary for our students with additional requirements. In my last blog, I wrote about making the most of CPD opportunities within HEIs. If you are part of a team planning a change management process, or undertaking a Periodic Review or Validation, why not consider a half-day session where each of you takes the role of a person with an additional special need to review how any aspect of the programme will impact on students, then look to how you can mitigate any potential problems before they occur. This is not just good inclusive practice, but can also save you and the university from expensive and time-consuming complaints and litigation (and actually helps us to work towards doing the right things, rather than just doing things right!)

This blog is based on elements of the new book I’ve written with Kay Sambell and Linda Graham entitled Professionalism in practice: key directions in higher education learning, teaching and assessment published by Springer International in July 2017. See Professionalism in Practice – Springer and on the work that Erica Morris, Margaret price and I have done in putting together a set of open resources on assessment, the Anglia Assessment Album


References and wider reading

Adams, M. and Brown, S. (2006) Towards inclusive higher education: supporting disabled students, London: Routledge

Carroll, J. and Ryan, J. (2005) Teaching International students: improving learning for all, Abingdon: Routledge SEDA series.

Craddock, D. & Mathias, B. H. (2009) Assessment options in higher education, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34 (2), 127-140.

Francis, R. A. (2008) An investigation into the receptivity of undergraduate students to assessment empowerment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 33 (5), 547-557

Thomas, L. and May, H. (2010) Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education, York: The Higher Education Academy. Available from:

Morris, E., Brown, S. and Price, M. (2017) Inclusive Assessment snapshot,

Morgan, H. and Houghton, A. (2011) Inclusive curriculum design in higher education, York: The Higher Education Academy. Available from:

Plymouth University (2014-2020) Teaching & Learning at Plymouth University. Inclusive assessment: Good practice guide. Available from:

Waterfield, J. and West, B. (2010) Inclusive Assessment: Diversity and Inclusion – the Assessment Challenge. Programme Assessment Strategies (PASS). Available from:


Sally Brown

Sally Brown enjoys life as an Independent Consultant and Emerita Professor at Leeds Beckett University. She is also Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, the University of South Wales, Edge Hill University and at Liverpool John Moores She is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, is a Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) Senior Fellow and a UK National Teaching Fellow. She has written/ edited more than 35 books on learning, teaching and managing in Higher Education, including, in 2009, Beyond bureaucracy: managing the university year, London: Routledge (with Steve Denton) including chapters from many colleagues actively engaged in the Association of University Administrators.


Sally Brown’s contact details

Professor Sally Brown Independent Consultant, Emerita professor Leeds Beckett University, Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, the University of South Wales, Edge Hill University and at Liverpool John Moores University

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