Can Universal Design Be Applied to Exams?


Students who need help on exams can receive accommodations through the Disability Resource Center to get extra time or a more private testing space. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to accommodate those requests.

There are a limited number of testing rooms and proctors to give those tests. Meanwhile, demand has increased significantly. In 2009, the center administered 2,902 exams for departments around the university, which rent space for that purpose; last year, that number rose to 8,296.

Especially in large intro classes like general chemistry, faculty are noticing this strain on testing resources as students receive for accommodations such as extended time, private testing rooms and time of day requirements.

“This last semester we went to Saturday morning exams just so that we could have a partnership with the testing resource center and they wouldn’t have anybody else in there,” said General Chemistry Director Michelle Driessen. She says the scale of intro courses presents a challenge. For instance, the General Chemistry 1 lecture and lab she supervises in the fall has around 1,800 students.

“Accommodating the fractions of students who have testing accommodations has become more challenging for us,” Dreissen said. “Our disability services testing center can’t really accommodate that number of students.”

Disability Resource Center Coordinator Donna Johnson said that accommodating students is a responsibility for the whole campus, not just the DRC. She suggested departments could reduce the need for accommodations by “redesigning courses to allow for multiple methods for assessing knowledge.”

She also said the University is testing an electronic test proctoring system called Proctor U to allow for more flexibility in testing times and locations.

Deb Wingert, the coordinator of the Early Career Teaching Program in the Center for Educational Innovation, said universal design could help the problem.

Universal instructional design means creating courses that are accessible to all learners, not just the average learner. The University has guidelines for faculty on how to make lectures and online coursework accessible for students who need accommodations. Those guidelines include video captioning for lectures and making documents easily readable for students and text-to-speech software.

But exams present different challenges.

In exams, universal design could mean using a diversity of tests. “The traditional testing format need not be the most effective or necessary option to measure student mastery or competence,” Wingert said in an email. She suggested changing courses to use a variety of testing methods like papers, projects and presentations could help reduce the need for testing accommodations.

But many department leaders, especially in the sciences, say redesigning courses away from multiple choice exams isn’t always possible, especially in large introductory courses.

Testing accommodations are already a challenge in these courses because of the sheer number of students taking exams at the same time.

In chemistry, Driessen said it’s tough to make multiple versions to give exams at different times. Last semester, as an experiment to give the department more control over testing accommodations, the DRC paid for the department to hire a proctor to do private testing in one of its own rooms, Driessen said.

“But honestly, we had 20 to 30 people in a conference room, and at that point I don’t know how semi-private it really feels anymore,” she said. They decided it wasn’t a good solution, and moved to Saturday exams.

In the biology department, multiple versions of exams can be made from “testing banks” of past questions and exams, which makes it easier to accommodate students that need to take them at a different time or place, said Sue Wick, the director of undergraduate studies in the College of Biological Sciences.

However, testing banks are nearly impossible for exams with written answers, which means  students won’t get to take them home to review.

The psychology department, which also has intro classes with over 1,000 students, has taken on the problem more directly. They opened their own testing center three or four years ago after taking their exams in a West Bank computer lab, said Thomas Brothen, professor of psychology and the faculty director of the introductory course. He says computerization of their exams has made it easier to provide testing accommodations.

“We also use large test item banks, random assignments of questions and all sorts of things that we can do fairly easily on computers, so every student at any point gets a different exam,” Brothen said. He said creating a testing bank is “a process, it’s a lot of work,” but “it’s a job that we’ve taken on.”

Being able to give out randomized versions of exams help accommodate students who need to take tests at different times of the day. “Instead of just one exam on one day,” Brothen said, “we have a whole week worth of exam times.”

Brothen said the department has applied universal design to its testing to accommodate students who need more time. They calculated the usual time it takes students to complete exams, “then doubled it so that everybody gets extra time.”