Assessment of Learning in the Context of Equity and Power

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

Attention to the ways of assessing student learning is a central element of inclusive teaching, particularly when attention is given to the importance of language and literacies for learning. There is a significant body of literature that laments assessment that is based on tacit and unclear understandings of what counts as ‘good’ assessed work (Lea & Street, 1998; Smith, 2004; Green, 2011; Clughen & Hardy, 2012) and impoverished feedback (Beaumont et al., 2011; Tuck, 2012; Harman & McDowell, 2011; Buchanan, Ljungdahl & Maher, 2015;), although there is also literature that speaks from the lecturer-assessor’s perspective and critiques the work involved in offering feedback and different levels of student uptake of that feedback (Bailey & Garner, 2010; Price, Handley & Millar, 2011; Tuck, 2012, 2013).

The literature included in this review that attends to the issues connected with assessment examines the importance of clarity in communicating what is expected. For example, Devlin & O’Shea’s (2012) research into effective teaching and learning for/with low SES students reports that having available and enthusiastic teachers was the most significant factor cited by students who had completed Year 1 of their undergraduate degree; teachers’ ‘communication skills’ were the third most commonly reported factor, which was particularly the case when it came to the clarity of assessment criteria. Similarly, Trevor Gale (2011b) argues that there are three narratives that guide principles for inclusive teaching (‘teaching for equity’) which align with the findings in Devlin & O’Shea (2012): the diversity of learners needs to be considered in curriculum and pedagogy, active engagement with students is necessary (through pedagogy), and assessment should be explicitly and clearly linked to pedagogy.

Assessment has also been a focus in the literature that attends to particular equity groups. For example, Kent’s (2016) work on access and participation in online learning for students with disabilities illustrates how assumptions about assessment can impede their success. For instance, assessment in the form of on-campus, invigilated exams can be difficult to access for people who have limited mobility or transport issues, not to mention being incongruent with the mode of delivery (online). Moreover, for students who have mental health issues, the imposition of (multiple) deadlines and narrow frames of what ‘counts’ can cause stress, and group work assignments need to be carefully designed to allow for the possibility of accommodation. Kent argues that these issues need to be carefully attended to, as well as revising extension policies to ensure they are flexible and responsive to students’ needs. Slee’s (2010) essay on the alignment of a culturally responsive program for teacher training Indigenous students in the Northern Territory, which includes ‘culturally responsive assessment practices’, exposes similar tensions. Her analysis of the ‘Growing Own Our’ program and the institution’s policy on assessment were in conflict because of the narrow view of assessment instantiated in policy. Slee makes a series of recommendations to permit the flexibility to build culturally responsive forms of pedagogy and assessment, such as allowing teaching assistants to work as group to meet the criteria of one task (to design, make and appraise a teaching aid) rather than doing it individually, so that their ‘communitarian’ ethos (Bunda, Zipin & Brennan, 2012) is valorised, and by explicitly drawing on knowledge of elders (lecturers and students) to design, deliver and evaluate the program. The tension between prescriptive institutional guidelines on assessment, based on notions of fairness and impartiality and the experience of designing assessments that demonstrate a holistic understanding of ‘assessment literacies’ (see Willis, Adie & Klenowski, 2013).

For students entering higher education from ‘alternative pathways’, adapting to university assessment epistemologies and practices are often challenging. This is particularly the case for students who use the TAFE pathway to access higher education studies because of the wholesale epistemological differences between competency-based training (TAFE) and graded assessment (university), which involves not only different ways of assessing learning, but also different literacies, different practices and qualitatively different views of what counts as knowledge (Wheelahan, 2009; Pardy & Seddon, 2011; Tranter, 2012; Weadon & Baker, 2014; Delly, 2015). Ambrose et al.’s (2013) study of how academic language and literacies staff can facilitate the transitions for students moving from TAFE to higher education more effectively also identified incongruities between cultures of learning, literacies, and assessment practices. They argue that to counter these issues, TAFE students need more carefully scaffolded orientations – especially for Diploma students moving into Year 2 of undergraduate study. More importantly, university lecturers should explicitly expect to teach students who have not previously studied at university; therefore, they need to unpack their own assumptions of who is in their class and about what students ‘should be able to do’. This could be enacted in the pedagogic environment by revising all core ‘skills’, which would arguably aid all students after a long break between academic years.

Another assessment-related concern that is noted in the literature reviewed here is that of diagnostic testing. Similar to the discussions about open access programs that impose no pre-requisite entry qualifications, there are ethical, logistical and equity issues at play here. The work of Neil Murray (for example, Klinger & Murray, 2012; Murray, 2013) has examined the efficacy of implementing a Post-Enrolment Language Assessment (PELA) as a means of identifying ‘at risk’ students who require additional support with their learning, language and literacies to succeed in their studies. As well as considering the potential institutional risk and kudos that a PELA might bring, Klinger & Murray question who should be asked to take the PELA: who are the at-risk groups? They make the point that If the PELA is elective, some ‘at-risk’ students may not be assessed; thus “the only watertight alternative is to test allnewly enrolled students” (p.306), but this would be (more) expensive and logistically complicated. Murray explicates further in his 2013 paper, arguing that implementing a PELA needs broad consultation throughout and within institutions; “Only then can institutions feel confident they are meeting their ethical and educational responsibilities to those non-traditional student cohorts whose interests they espouse, and whose successes or failures both during and following their studies will reflect on their graduating universities” (p.309).


Ambrose, I.; Bonne, M.; Chanock, K.; Cunnington, C.; Jardine, S.; & Muller, J. (2013). “Like catching smoke”: Easing the transition from TAFE to university. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 7(2), A120–131.

Bailey, R. & Garner, M. (2010). Is the feedback in higher education assessment worth the paper it is written on? Teachers’ reflections on their practices, Teaching in Higher Education, 15(2), 187–198.

Beaumont, C.; O’Doherty, M. & Shannon, L. (2011). Reconceptualising assessment feedback: a key to improving student learning?, Studies in Higher Education, 36(6), 671–687.

Bloxham, S.; Boyd, P. & Orr, S. (2011). Mark my words: the role of assessment criteria in UK higher education grading practices, Studies in Higher Education, 36(6), 655–670.

Buchanan, J.; Ljungdahl, L.; & Maher, D. (2015). On the borders: adjusting to academic, social and cultural practices at an Australian university, Teacher Development, 19(3), 294–310.

Bunda, T.; Zipin, L.; Brennan, M. (2012). Negotiating university ‘equity’ from Indigenous standpoints: a shaky bridge, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(9), 941–957.

Catt, R. & Gregory, G. (2006). ‘The point of writing: Is student writing in higher education developed or merely assessed?’ In Ganobscik-Williams, L. (Ed.). Teaching Academic Writing in UK Higher Education: Theories, Practices and Models. Universities into the 21st Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp. 16–29.

Clughen, L. & Hardy, C. (2012). ‘Writing at University: Student and Staff Expectations and Experiences’. In Clughen, L. & Hardy, C. (Eds). Writing in the Disciplines: Building Supportive Cultures for Student Writing in UK Higher Education, Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 25–53.

Coutts, R.; Gilleard, W. & Baglin, R. (2011). Evidence for the impact of assessment on mood and motivation in first-year students, Studies in Higher Education, 36(3), 291–300.

Delly, P. (2016).  “Your brain just freaks out!” – Understanding VET articulants’ transition experience using Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and field, Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 10(1), A20–A34.

Devlin, M. & O’Shea, H. (2012). Effective university teaching: views of Australian university students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, Teaching in Higher Education, 17(4),385–397.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gale, T. (2011). Expansion and equity in Australian higher education: Three propositions for new relations, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(5), 669–685.

Green, A. (2011). Understanding Students’ Experiences of Transition to University English, English, Drama, Media, 21, 57–62.

Harman, K. & McDowell, L. (2011). Assessment talk in Design: the multiple purposes of assessment in HE, Teaching in Higher Education, 16(1), 41–52.

Kent, M. (2016). Access and Barriers to Online Education for People with Disabilities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Klinger, C. & Murray, N. (2012). Tensions in higher education: widening participation, student diversity and the challenge of academic language/ literacy. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(1), 27–44.

Lea, M. (2013). ‘Academic literacies in the digital university: integrating individual accounts with network practice’. In Goodfellow, R. & Lea. M. (Eds). Literacy in the Digital University: Critical perspectives on learning, scholarship, and technology. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.137–148.

Lea, M. & Street, B. (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157–172.

Lillis, T. (2001). Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire, London: Routledge.

Lillis, T. (2003). Student Writing as ‘Academic Literacies’: Drawing on Bakhtin to Move from Critique to Design, Language and Education, 17(3),192–207.

Lillis, T. & Turner, J. (2001). Student Writing in Higher Education: contemporary confusion, traditional concerns, Teaching in Higher Education, 6(1), 57–68.

Mann, S. (2000). The student’s experience of reading, Higher Education, 39(3), 297–317.

Mann, S. (2008). Study, Power and the University, Maidenhead: OUP.

Murray, N. (2013). Widening participation and English language proficiency: a convergence with implications for assessment practices in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 38(2), 299–311.

Nichol, D. (2010). From monologue to dialogue: improving the written feedback processes in mass higher education, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 501–517.

Owen, C., McCann, D., Rayner, C., Devereaux, C., Sheehan, F. & Quarmby, L. (2016) Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Higher Education. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Pardy, J. & Seddon, T. (2011). Making space for VET learning after the Bradley Review: Rethinking knowledge to support inclusion and equity, Cambridge Journal of Education, 41(1), 53–65.

Peim, N. & Flint, K. (2009). Testing Times: Questions concerning assessment for school improvement, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 41(3), 342–361.

Price, M.; Handley, K. & Millar, J. (2011). Feedback: focusing attention on engagement, Studies in Higher Education, 36(8), 879–896.

Slee, J. (2010). A Systemic Approach to Culturally Responsive Assessment Practices and Evaluation, Higher Education Quarterly, 64(3), 246–260.

Smith, K. (2004). School to University: An investigation into the experience of first-year students of English at British universities, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 3(1), 81–93.

Tranter, D. (2012). Unequal schooling: how the school curriculum keeps students from low socio-economic backgrounds out of university, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(9), 901–916.

Tuck, J. (2012). Feedback-giving as social practice: teachers’ perspectives on feedback as institutional requirement, work and dialogue, Teaching in Higher Education, 17(2), 209–221.

Tuck, J. (2013). An exploration of practice surrounding student writing in the disciplines in UK Higher Education from the perspectives of academic teachers, unpublished PhD thesis, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Värlander, S. (2008). The role of students’ emotions in formal feedback situations, Teaching in Higher Education, 13(2), 145–156.

Weadon, H. & Baker, A. (2014). Deviating from the norm: Innovative student pathways for successful TAFE/Uni transition, International Journal of Training Research, 12(3), 192–2002.

Wheelahan, L. (2009). Do educational pathways contribute to equity in tertiary education? Critical Studies in Education, 50(3), 261–275.

Willis, J.; Adie, L. & Klenowski, V. (2013). Conceptualising teachers’ assessment literacies in an era of curriculum and assessment reform, The Australian Educational Researcher, 40(2), 241–256.


Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.