Accessible Assessment: Multiple Means of Action and Expression

What does this mean:

The focus of classroom assessment in many post-secondary institutions is predominantly summative. The main goal of summative assessment techniques is to make judgments about student’s performance and whether they have achieved the learning goals and objectives of the course. Assessment, therefore, needs to be able to collect accurate data on student’s learning progress and make a valid statement of a student’s skill and competency level in a particular area or field. Effective assessment means that a particular test has to primarily evaluate the essential skills and competencies required in the content area.  In many cases however, assessments can unintentionally test skills that might influence students' ability to demonstrate their knowledge by creating unnecessary barriers.  These skills are often referred to as access skills. (Burgstahler, 2008)

Why is this important:

The student population in post-secondary classrooms has changed significantly in the last decade and is becoming increasingly diverse, with students having different socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as varying gender identities. In Quebec it is estimated that at least 5% of all students have a disability. While students with sensory and physical disabilities are included in this group, the majority are those with invisible disabilities, such as Learning Disabilities and mental health impairments. There is a paradigm shift at many post-secondary institutions from a teaching to a learning centered approach. With this comes a growing awareness of the limitations of traditional assessment and a general trend to improve access to education for a wide variety of students. Access goes well beyond removing physical barriers however, and course instructors are challenged to create learning environments and assessments that take into consideration the diverse needs of their students.

Many instructors have voiced concerns regarding an underlying tension between open access to assessment and the essential function of assessment, which is to make a valid statement about a student’s performance. In addition, course instructors are challenged by trying to juggle competing interests such as time constraints, large class sizes, institutional expectations regarding research output and grant applications, departmental regulations and guidelines and supporting their students.

How is this achieved:  

Applying the principles of Universal Design for Learning to assessment empowers course instructors to implement small, manageable changes, one step at a time, to progressively reduce content irrelevant barriers and improve access for a wide variety of learners without diminishing essential skills and competencies. This section will highlight how all three principles of UDL can be applied to assessments.

Where do I start? 

With regards to the area of assessment, research uniformly states that the most important task in developing assessments is to discriminate between construct relevant and construct irrelevant skills or pure access skills. Examples of construct irrelevant skills can include:

  • motor coordination such as handwriting skills (can pose barriers for students with motor impairments)
  • processing speed and working memory (Students with Learning Disabilities and Mental Health Impairments)
  • organization and time management

In order to create content relevant and accessible assignments and evaluations, it is imperative to clearly identify the essential learning goals and core skills and competencies students are required to demonstrate. Only after the learning goals and objectives are clearly defined, is it possible to make a distinction between construct relevant and construct irrelevant skills. See Curriculum Planning for more information.


Practical Tools

There are some relatively easy and quick steps you can take to improve access to assessments.


There are certain formatting specifications which increase access and comprehension:

  • Use consistent formatting
  • Black type on white paper
  • At least 14-point font size. People with severe low vision will most likely need 18-point font size
  • Staggered right margins (not fully justified)
  • Appropriate space between letters and lines can also increase accessibility
  • The American Printing House for the Blind recommends fonts without tails such as Arial or Veranda
  • Clearly organized layout of the exam
  • If the exam has different sections, use meaningful headings
  • Ensure that all images, graphs and visuals are clear: high contrast between visual and background, visuals have clearly defined features, and are clearly labeled
  • If possible, use a variety of evaluation formats to assess student knowledge
  • Consider mixing different formats of evaluation for a final exam, for example, multiple choice, short answer and a short essay

Some faculties have moved entirely to computer-based written exams. Computerized exams allow students with visual impairments, motor impairments or Learning Disabilities, to utilize assistive technologies such as text-to-speech software which allows students to retrieve and express information in multiple ways (Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone , 2006) 

To ensure that students can use assistive technologies for computerized exams it is essential to ensure that the digital version of the exam is accessible. Refer to Accessible Course Materials, for more information on how to design accessible word documents and multi-media options.

Other considerations

If time or speed is not an essential skill which you are required to assess, consider providing students with appropriate time to finish their exams. When allocating time for the exam, keep in mind the variability of learners in your classroom.  Some students, such as those with mental health impairments or Learning Disabilities, may process information at a different rate than their peers. Students with ADHD or Generalized Anxiety Disorder may need to take short breaks during the exam in order to re-focus, and students whose first language is not English may take longer to decode the information. 


Ketterlin-Geller, & Johnstone, C. (2006). Accommodations and universal design: Supporting access to assessments in higher education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 21(2), 163–172.

See practical examples of UDL implementation HERE.