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Rajesh Dhimar and Peter Ashworth, Sheffield Hallam University
Themes: Assessment , Supporting learners, Institutional strategies
The responses of institutions to the challenges of diversity and inclusivity, which are part of national policy agendas in most higher education systems, require scrutiny. In particular, students are being recruited from more diverse backgrounds, yet the processes and practices of assessment appear insufficiently sensitive to cultural difference. For example, there may be divergent understandings of what is meant by 'extenuating circumstances', which are officially restricted to 'circumstances of a serious nature, over and above the normal difficulties experienced in life, which may have had an adverse effect on the student's assessment performance' .
Analysis of one university's 2000-2001 data on student academic appeals indicated disparities in the proportion of students of Asian origin who had appealed against the decisions of degree assessment boards. The initial interpretation of these disparities was that they might indicate evidence of discrimination within particular areas of the university. But it soon became obvious that no unequivocal interpretation of the data was possible. As a result, researchers in the Learning and Teaching Institute at Sheffield Hallam University were asked to re-interrogate existing data as well as collect new data on the appeals submitted, paying particular attention to the gounds of appeals and the status which was given to them by decision makers. A further analysis of the 2002-2003 student academic appeals was undertaken to discover what the statistics meant in terms of possible incompatibility between cultural practices of ethnic minority students (especially members of communities holding the Islamic faith, a sizeable minority in the institution) and the taken-for-granted assumptions of university assessment procedures.
In a qualitative interview study we explored staff and students' understanding of the appeals process as well as looking in more depth at ethnic minority students' approaches and responses to assessment, and the meaning for them of extenuating circumstances regulations and procedures. Students and staff from a range of disciplines, departments and backgrounds across the university were interviewed individually. Consultation with ethnic minority students in previous institutional research showed that there was some perception of discrimination and inequality in the experience of Asian students. The findings from our study indicate that there may be insufficient knowledge and understanding of cultural beliefs, practices and lifestyle of Asian students amongst those who design assessment processes, extenuating circumstances rules, and appeals regulations.