In Assessment and You

by Lesley D’Souza

Assessment & You, written by Lesley D’Souza, features a number of perspectives on assessment  from across Canada and the US. Originally published on in 2016, this series dives into the depths of assessment knowledge and practice, aiming to build a culture of assessment for Student Affairs in Canada.

By reading this article, you will be able to:

  1. Explain the concept of Universal Design.
  2. Articulate at least one strategy that can be used to incorporate universal design into assessment practices.

We live in a world that is inaccessible to many of the people within it. These barriers could be a function of age, size, ability, or any number of other things that are part of who we are. It means that some of us have to go through each day with perhaps hundreds of reminders that they are less welcome, less thought-of, or less important than those for whom our environments have been designed. When we talk about access to education, we are acknowledging that our systems, our culture, and our very physical environment is not available to everyone with the same ease. We have been utilizing strategies of alternative access and outreach to try to build bridges, but in addition to bridges, we have to remember these issues of access every time we build something new. Breaking down the barriers of yesterday is its own challenge, but in creating new things, we have unique opportunities to engage everyone.

In 1997 a group of engineers, researchers, designers, and architects gathered to take the next step in the trend towards a truly accessible world. They developed a set of 7 principles that form the basis for Universal Design.

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size & space for approach and use

At its core, Universal Design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” This is the idea that we shouldn’t have to work so hard at accommodation strategies. We should have environments that are accessible to the needs of every member of our society, so that alternatives and accommodation are rendered obsolete. This way of thinking boils down to user-centred design, where every individual is considered.

Ok, but—what does Universal Design really have to do with assessment?

I’ve often wondered why we haven’t fully incorporated the principles of Universal Design into the best practices of our data collection processes and reporting. If the two purposes of assessment are for improvement and accountability, then it stands to reason that we must ensure that our methods are designed to allow everyone to participate in contributing to data, and in sharing our results with the wider community. And remember, since managing data is really about managing change, we have an incredible power through collecting and using data to address social justice issues on our campuses.

At a basic level, doing assessment well requires us to collect information that accurately reflects our population. It benefits our community since we can base institutional decision-making on accurate trends and issues. Employing user-centred design also benefits the assessor, because the quality of our data isn’t independent of the user experience. Negative user experience is often a source of bias that can skew responses, and you probably won’t know when that’s happened. A survey that contains complicated language or a focus group that was held in an inaccessible location can quickly generate negative feelings from your participants. Applying Universal Design principles to your assessments will ensure that you avoid this.

The great thing about this concept is that designing our tools and techniques to be universally accessible isn’t challenging, but it does require planning and thought. Here are some tips that you can apply to make your assessment projects as inclusive as possible.


This is probably the most important action you can take to positively impact your data collection. Since we use data as a vehicle for decision-making, then having representation from marginalized groups is vital. Even if we’re successfully collecting big data, it’s possible we can end up amplifying the importance of the majority. So pay special attention to characteristics that make up minorities when designing your sampling process. If there are people missing in your sample, then make the effort to include them so that the data is truly representative. This is how we can collect information that will define universal access in our programs and services.

Language Use

Language is at the heart of good—and terrible—assessment. The wording of questions can mean the difference between valuable, insightful responses, and invalid, useless ones. I sometimes feel bad for people when they call me for a phone survey because I inevitably end up pointing out how the question they are asking will fail to get them the information they want. At the same time, it’s frustrating to me that there are so many examples of poor questions that generate bad data. For now, here are some simple tips for making your language accessible.

  • Be as simple as possible in your use of language. Use common words in concise sentences—this is not the time to use flowery descriptors, or purposeless adjectives.
  • Take care when writing your questions. Avoid slang, idioms, acronyms, or other culture-specific language that may be confusing for respondents (for example, respondents vs. “people filling out this survey”).
  • Evaluate the formatting and organization of your assessment. Does it make sense? Does it require specific knowledge that some people may not have?
  • Have you clearly defined all of the concepts that you require respondents to be aware of in the context of their answers?
  • When creating your answer options, make sure they are as inclusive as possible. Although using an “other: please explain” option as often as possible is a good practice, do the necessary research and name as many response options as you can. Constantly leaving out options that are relevant to some respondents carries the message that they are unworthy of consideration.

Designing Universal Assessments Online

Creating online assessment tools such as surveys, reflections, and rubrics can give us a false sense of security when it comes to inclusivity. Think deeply about what barriers might exist that could cause people to feel negatively about the tool, drop out after starting, or miss out on completing it entirely.

  • Make sure the visual layout is focused on providing clarity and contrast. Avoid use of low contrast colour combinations, and choose highly legible fonts. Remember, accessibility principles that apply to print don’t necessarily translate to web use. And practices that work on the web, may not also work on mobile platforms. Here’s a great read if you’re looking for more information.
  • Are you certain that your online survey tool supports assistive technology? If not, check. If you use any images, be sure to add descriptive text.
  • Think about making your assessments available in multiple forms. We carry the assumption that everyone has easy or comfortable access to the internet, despite knowing that is not the case. How are you also reaching out to those without access or those who are uncomfortable in online environments?

In-person Assessments

Assessments that take place in-person require many of the same considerations around language as in online environments. Added to these are physical considerations of barriers that could limit access or cause negativity on the part of your participants.  

  • Is your location accessible? Have you thought about where elevators, signage, and staircases are located in relation to your space? Is your space uncluttered? Are there strong scents? Are the doors easily opened? Sometimes these physical considerations are the most difficult because there might be little we can do to actually change existing spaces. The best advice I can give is to try to pick a space that is as universally accessible as possible, and build clear plans to mitigate any barriers that do exist. For example, if your location is inconveniently far from an elevator, position a volunteer at that location to escort people to you rather than employing signage.
  • Are your assessment tools and activities possible to accommodate for all possible participants?
  • In focus group or interview settings, be sure that you (or your chosen facilitator) are well aware of your biases. Reflect on how your uses of body language, expressions, tone, and even dress might influence your participants. You can also check out this article about different types of biases and how to manage them.
  • Are the activities you have planned accessible to everyone? Perhaps think about providing questions in advance to participants, choosing inclusive activities, and taking steps to accommodate without asking if people require it (i.e. Should questions be provided in advance?)

These strategies are just a start. In order to continue our path towards a world that truly welcomes people from all backgrounds, we have to continually question how and why we do the things that we do. The work will be that of a lifetime, perhaps several, but the rewards will be worth it.

Further Reading

If youre looking for more information about how to incorporate Universal Design into your practices, check out these resources:



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