Universal Design and the Final Exam in State and Citizen

As part of Osgoode’s recently launched Strategic Plan “Access Osgoode 2017-2020”, the Law School commits to pursuing Universal Design in all of our activities (including how community members access the building, how scholars access our research, and how students access our curriculum, among other aspects of the academic and learning experience at Osgoode). Accessibility can and does mean many different things, but this Spring, I decided to explore what it might mean for the setting of a First Year final exam in Law School.

The course I’m co-teaching this year, State & Citizen (which covers an introduction to Canadian Federalism, the principles of Canadian Administrative Law, Indigenous and Aboriginal Rights, civil liberties, human rights and the Charter of Rights) takes place over a year and includes a range of formative assessments (including individual and group work, essays, case comments and a mid-term). The final exam is worth 50%.
For this exam, I assigned students a 3 hour exam as a 24 hour take-home – so that students could complete the exam over a 3 hour period at any point during the 24 hours – in one or multiple sittings. Students were responsible for monitoring their own time and also, as they uploaded the exam, had to include an attestation that they had not contacted others in the class or shared any of their answers. The exam had a fixed 3500 word limit.
While I have assigned in-class exams and take-home exams in the past, for this and other courses I have taught, this is the first time I have attempted to merge the two. My goal was threefold. I wanted to provide an environment to assess the problem-solving capabilities and creativity of students without other distractions. I wanted to provide fairness to all students and maintain the integrity of the assessment process. Finally, I wanted to reduce the distinctions we draw between students who fit a pre-determined norm (e.g. students who can sit in a room in the Law School and write an exam for 3 hours) and those who do not fit (e.g. students who need extra time, or to write somewhere else, etc). In my State & Citizen exam, a number of students received more than 3 hours, as per their entitlement to accommodations under the current process, but that means they would write for 4.5 or 6 hours within the 24 rather than 3, and still put all the students in the position of writing where and in the way they were most comfortable, and being responsible for monitoring their own time and compliance with the exam instructions.
I know of Osgoode faculty who have experimented with different approaches to assessment with similar goals in mind – from variations on the take home exam theme to oral presentations, reflective journals and a range of experiential forms of evaluation. It is fair to say law faculty are bringing more intentionality and thoughtfulness to the assessment process than ever, but all within an existing paradigm that assumes students have certain needs and capacities, and that concerns over integrity, fairness and equity rule in some kinds of assessment and rule out others.
As colleagues pointed out, my State & Citizen exam is not an example of Universal Design but simply making the best of a system not designed with inclusion in mind. Under Universal Design, the premise of needing “accommodations” falls away for virtually all students. Rather than thinking in terms of a norm and those who differ from that norm, we would simply see all students as individuals with particular needs and capacities and assessments would be responsive to those needs and capacities while equitable across all students. So, what would assessment look like at a Law School adopting Universal Design?
Earlier in April, we invited Jutta Treviranus, Director of OCAD’s Inclusive Design Institute for lunch at Osgoode to discuss these issues. As she pointed out, the place to explore design in evaluation is not at the stage of deciding between in-class or take-home exams, but at the earlier stage of deciding why we are assessing students in the first place. Is it to confirm certain learning objectives have been achieved by all? Is it to position students in the marketplace as meeting a threshold of skills and abilities, or is to allow students to demonstrate they are more or less successful than others (either because they seek this differentiation or because potential graduate schools, employers and granting bodies wish to see this differentiation)? By the end of lunch, we agreed the situation at Law Schools is more or less yes to all of the above. We also recognized a key ingredient in this mix is the choice made by course instructors about the form(s) of assessment (whether formative or summative) which reflect their academic vision.
As Jutta pointed out, a key principle of inclusive design is that “one size fits one.” Another is that those involved in being assessed should help shape that assessment as well. This kind of collaborative framework opens up intriguing options for customizing evaluation to fit varying circumstances, but can this approach still achieve goals of comparability and transparency, and uphold the integrity of the grading system?
Law Schools like Osgoode have a very odd relationship to the one size fits one/one size fits all dynamic – in some areas, like holistic admissions, we focus on each individual and the entirety of their experience, background, accomplishments and potential, while in First Year State & Citizen, we give them each an anonymous exam number and assess them on the same standard irrespective of their individual circumstances. If students experience particular adversity on an exam, we have a petition process which allows remedies based again on the entirety of their life circumstances (where their academic performance needs to be understood through the lens of personal circumstances, whether mental health, illness, trauma, loss, etc). The message we send is clear but puzzling – sometimes fairness depends entirely on your having no distinct needs and circumstances but by treating you the same as everyone else, and sometimes fairness depends entirely on seeing all the elements of your distinct needs and circumstances and treating you as distinct from everyone else.
For now, as I sit down to grade my State & Citizen exams, I hope to see the fruits of a better mousetrap (mixed metaphors notwithstanding). At a minimum, I feel I am a part of the real-time journey from less to more inclusive design in legal education, and look forward to piloting more fully inclusive design when I teach Administrative Law next Fall!