Student diversity and the assessment dilemma

Author: Jenny Lewin-Jones


Widening access to higher education has implications for modern foreign language learning, teaching and assessment. This paper addresses dilemmas when assessing increasingly diverse cohorts of students. It draws on analysis of questionnaires with 88 students taking free modules at ab initio level at University of Worcester in 2007-08. The aim was to study students’ previous language learning experiences. The paper considers the benefits and drawbacks of a portfolio-based approach to assessment, assessing students with visual impairment and dyslexia, and questions how to encourage students of diverse backgrounds to enter into language learning whilst maintaining rigorous standards of assessment.

This article was added to our website on 04/08/08 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections, 8-9 July 2008.

Diversity in higher education

Widening participation in Higher Education forms a significant strand of government education policy in the UK. The DfES White Paper “The future of Higher Education” has a whole chapter entitled “Fair Access” (DfES 2003).

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has widening participation as one of its strategic objectives:

“Widening access and improving participation in higher education are a crucial part of our mission and form one of our strategic aims.…Widening participation addresses the large discrepancies in the take-up of higher education opportunities between different social groups. Under-representation is closely connected with broader issues of equity and social inclusion, so we are concerned with ensuring equality of opportunity for disabled students, mature students, women and men, and all ethnic groups.” (2008)

In this way, the ongoing expansion in Higher Education is not merely a matter of increasing student numbers and bigger class sizes, but of widening participation and increasing student diversity. This cannot  only be viewed in terms of students’ academic backgrounds, but also refers to “ability, disability, age, maturity, experience, commitment, motivation, study mode, class, sex, race, religion and the like” (Davis, 2003). This increasing diversity (as opposed to increasing numbers) may be particularly significant in the post-1992 universities. The consequences of “internationalisation” also add to the widening range of our students.

At the same time, there is growing concern about the issue of retention. An article in The Guardian on 20.02.08 asked “Why do so many students drop out?” (Lipsett, 2008). The article quotes a drop-out rate of 20% of students who started courses in 2004-05. Academic staff are being asked on the one hand to recruit as many students as possible from a widening range of backgrounds, and on the other hand are being urged to increase the retention rate and ensure that students engage fully with their courses and do not drop out. This has been summed up by Davis as “We are in a period of rapid change and these are confusing times” (2003). Her words from five years ago seem even more appropriate today.

A link between the widening participation agenda and the increasing drop-out rate seems plausible: “Diverse student populations may be more vulnerable to the pressures that can lead to withdrawal” (Smith, 2007). It may be significant, for example, that students seeking mental health support and counselling appear to be presenting increasingly more severe and more complex issues.

The percentage of students at the University of Worcester who have declared disabilities was 8.3% in 2006-07 (national percentage 7.5%). Of these, 54% have dyslexia. It is worth emphasising at this point that we have a legal obligation under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Special Educational Needs & Disability Act 2001 to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against.

The impact on MFL

What is the implication of these national and institution-wide trends on Modern Foreign Language (MFL) teaching in HE? We are not only facing student diversity in terms of their general academic background and study skills, but also very specifically in terms of their language learning experience. It has been said that today “the lecturer has a diverse range of starting points” (Davis, 2003), but this perhaps poses even more of a challenge for the MFL lecturer. Our experience in the Language Centre at the University of Worcester suggested that our classes were becoming increasingly complex to teach. Our initial focus was to work with individual cases that seemed to present the greatest challenge – for example, developing differentiation strategies for including a student with severe visual impairment in a class (see Lewin-Jones & Hodgson, 2004). However, it gradually became apparent that this was more than separate instances of individual students. A survey was undertaken of all students taking a free choice module in the University of Worcester’s institution-wide language programme in semester 1, 2007-08 to investigate their previous language learning experience. Students were asked if they had any prior knowledge of the target language (ie the module they were enrolled on), whether they had any qualifications in the language, if they had experience of learning and qualifications in one or more foreign languages in the past, whether members of their family spoke the target language, whether they had visited the country, and if they were an international student. There were 88 completed questionnaires, from students studying French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish, all at ab initio level.

Key findings of the survey were that 28% of the students had some prior knowledge of the language they were studying and 25% were international students. However, 32% had no experience at all of learning a foreign language. This reflects what tutors had reported: they are facing classes containing students who are already experienced language learners, familiar with concepts such as gender of nouns or case endings, alongside students who have never learnt another language. Similarly, classes contain a growing number of international students who are already used to switching between languages and who are confident in “having a go” and beginning to communicate immediately, as well as students who experience anxiety and lack of confidence. The decline in language learning at secondary school level in the UK has undoubtedly contributed to the latter group of students.

The increasing numbers of students with declared disabilities means greater differentiation. There may be physical difficulties with asking students to get up and move around for a role play; visually impaired students need extra information in order to access visual material such as a DVD clip; students with dyslexia need extra reading time to prepare for a group activity.

There is growing recognition of the need for awareness by tutors of the impacts of specific impairments on the MFL classroom. Research has been published on, for example, differentiation strategies for visually impaired students (see Lewin-Jones & Hodgson, 2004 and 2006) and students with age-related hearing impairments (see Thonn, 2008). Although HE institutions have services and mechanisms in place to support students with disabilities, it is becoming increasingly clear that for students, academic staff are the key to successful completion of their studies. Because of the interactivity of the MFL classroom, it is not sufficient for a note-taker to sit alongside the visually impaired student and take notes. The tutor has to make adjustments to the way they teach the whole class.

Assessment: A portfolio-based approach

At the Language Centre at the University of Worcester, we changed our assessment pattern to include a portfolio-based approach (40%), which was implemented in 2006-07.  Klapper (2006) defines a portfolio as “a collection of work produced by a student that demonstrates achievement, progress made, as well as effort invested in the task. The student usually decides what is to be included as evidence and provides an accompanying self-reflective piece of writing.” (p287).

Klapper (2006) points out two main advantages of portfolios in assessing students’ language skills. Marking a completed portfolio of work gives the tutor a clear overall picture of the progress made by the student and to what extent he/she has made effective use of feedback given during the course of the module. A further advantage of portfolios is their role in the long-term development of students’ linguistic skills.

Klapper (2006) raises two disadvantages of portfolios: firstly, the difficulty of knowing whether the work has actually been done by the individual student, and secondly, the difficulty of establishing marking criteria given that portfolios can vary greatly. For these reasons, Klapper recommends using portfolios in combination with other forms of assessment, rather than as the sole type of summative assessment.

Immediacy of feedback is crucial and it must be made clear that the portfolio is not something which is carried out in isolation and only given to the tutor at the end of the module. From the tutors’ point of view, it is more time-effective if students have individual pieces for the portfolio marked as they were completed, rather than a burden of marking at the end of the module.

There is common consensus that a portfolio should contain some kind of reflective piece to accompany the individual tasks. Copland (2004) discusses the issue of what makes a successful language learner. She refers to the use in some institutions of Individual Learning Plans or portfolios such as the European Language Portfolio, citing the importance of students being encouraged to reflect upon their language learning and chart their progress.  (pp 86-87)

Work carried out in the Language Centre’s self-access centre or self-directed study via e-learning should also be logged in some way. Heyworth et al (2005) believe that using activities based on self-assessment and independent learning leads to learners taking greater responsibility for their own progress. They claim that this leads to learners giving greater value to self-study, as facilities and resources for self-study are promoted (pp49-50).

It can be difficult to grade portfolios as they will vary widely. Experience from other institutions shows that it is best to give one overall final grade for the portfolio as a whole, rather than a series of grades for individual items contained with in the portfolio. It is important that the portfolio is only graded when viewed in its entirety, as it is intended to be a reflection of the progress made and students should be given credit for acting upon feedback given. Students are not supposed to be showcasing their best work. Establishing a set of grading criteria is essential to ensure parity between tutors and between the different languages within the programme.

When we originally moved to a pattern of assessment that included portfolios, we thought that this change would complement the increasing diversity of students. We viewed it as a  further form of differentiation, in that students could follow their own needs, manage their own time, focus on tasks of their own choosing, and present the portfolio in a format that suited them. However, recent experience has shown that some students whom we thought would benefit most from this pattern of assessment are actually the ones finding it most challenging. Student feedback has shown that the portfolio can seem intimidatingly open-ended to students who have difficulties with time management and organisation, and students who are slower readers find it hard to select tasks from a range presented on the VLE or to follow the guidelines. In trying to avoid the stress caused by examinations, it seems that in some cases the portfolio-based approach can lead to anxiety about what is expected.

Assessment: sensitive marking

The issue of sensitive marking can be a particularly tricky one when applied to MFL. University of Worcester policy states that:

 “Normally, the course work of dyslexic students who receive special concessions with regard to exams should be marked for content rather than for spelling and / or grammatical errors; ... Exceptionally, Departments may wish to discuss the disapplication of this policy for certain modules with the Head of the Equal Opportunities Centre. If it is agreed that the policy will not be applied within a particular module, this fact must have been publicised explicitly, prior to recruitment to that module...”

In the past, the Language Centre has been very keen to promote language learning and to make any adjustments necessary to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities, and the sensitive marking policy has been employed. However, there is increasing uncertainty among tutors over the distinction between a “content” error and a “grammatical” error, when the “content” of what we are assessing cannot be separated from the grammar of the sentence. It is not always clear whether the incorrect order of words in a sentence is a result of a student’s dyslexia or whether it reflects a failure to understand the formation of the perfect tense in German, for example. There has been a certain amount of “giving students the benefit of the doubt”, which then raises the question of whether standards are not rigorous enough.

Dis-applying the sensitive marking policy for all MFL modules would go against our legal obligation to use reasonable adjustment to enable students with disabilities to participate in the modules and could deter students from taking the modules. Staff are now liaising with the Disability and Dyslexia Service to discuss the possibility of dis-applying the policy for certain parts of the assessment. It seems a better solution to be rigorous when grammatical accuracy is a key learning outcome, but to apply sensitive marking procedures when the learning outcome focuses on communication or comprehension. This approach is summed up by a Specialist Acadmeic Support Tutor in the Disability and Dyslexia Service:

 “on the one hand you're doing all you can to accommodate, on the other you're being tough minded enough to know when it’s appropriate not to” (2008).

Learning from other subject areas

The starting point of this paper was the general context and trends in Higher Education in general, before we turned to the specifics of MFL as a subject area. The next approach could be to take an institutional view. Differences between our institutions at times mean that it can be more helpful to talk to colleagues from our institution within a different subject area, rather than colleagues in the same subject area but at a different institution. When drawing up the proposal to change our assessment pattern, it was insightful to look at the portfolio-based approach being used on certain modules in the Sociology department, and to look at examples of reflective writing from the Art & Design department.

When we introduced the new element of portfolio-based assessment, students were mostly very positive. Their one criticism was that some of them felt uncertain about exactly what was expected in the learning log. We had felt that students would welcome the freedom to choose how they kept their learning log. However clear the guidelines seem to tutors, there can be room for misunderstandings and anxiety. We then looked at how the Sociology department worded their guidance to students, as they were asked to keep a learning log for a particular assignment. Their feedback after the first occurrence of the module had been very similar to ours, namely that some students were unsure about how to tackle the learning log. The Sociology team had provided students with a template for a learning log and a system for coding their entries, and most students chose to use that template. It was helpful to see how the Sociology team had resolved a similar issue to ours.


“It is at the interface between students and staff that an adaptive response to the diversity that students bring with them can be most meaningfully expressed... Teacher / student relationships are the crux” (Smith, 2007)

To conclude, widening the access to HE is legally established and morally welcome but in practice can lead to a teaching challenge arising from growing student diversity. This can perhaps be summed up as a “good problem”, which makes us reflect on how we teach and assess students. Using a portfolio-based approach has its advantages and disadvantages. The key to assessment is to be sensitive but tough. Experience gained in other subject areas can guide us in MFL, even though we may be used to seeing ourselves as different.


Baume, D. (2001) “Portfolios for Learning and assessment” Higher Education Academy [] Access date : 13.10.2006

Copland, F. (2004) “In the classroom: the teaching and learning process” in Harnisch, H & Swanton, P (eds). (2004) Adults Learning Languages. A CILT Guide to Good Practice London: CILT, pp 54-92

Davis, M (2003) “Barriers to Reflective Practice: The Changing Nature of Higher Education” in Active Learning in Higher Education 4 243-255

DfES (2003) White Paper: The Future of Higher Education [ Pape.pdf] (accessed 12.06.2008)

Harnisch, H & Swanton, P (eds). (2004) Adults Learning Languages. A CILT Guide to Good Practice London: CILT

HEFCE (2008) “Widening Participation” []   (accessed 10.06.2008)

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Lipsett, A (2008) “Why do so many students drop out, MPS ask?” in The Guardian, 20.02.2008

Smith, R. (2007) “An overview of research on student support: helping students to achieve or achieving institutional targets? Nurture or de-nature?” in Teaching in Higher Education 12:5-6683-695

Thorn, J.A. (2008)“The impacts of age-related hearing impairments on the L2 classroom” in Language Learning Journal 36:1 45-54