Changes to teaching and assessment are reducing awarding gaps

Sal Jarvis and Sam Grogan have been interrogating reductions in awarding gaps seen during the pandemic, and find authentic assessment and improved support structures contributing to student success.

Sal Jarvis is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) at the University of Westminster


Dr Sam Grogan is Pro Vice Chancellor for Student Experience at the University of Salford, and Director of the Teaching Excellence Alliance.

Addressing longstanding awarding gaps between different groups of students is high on the list of priorities for universities.

In relation to ethnicity, white British students consistently receive a higher proportion of good degrees (1sts and 2.1s) than students from other ethnicities. The gap between Black and White students is particularly large. Gaps persist even after accounting for entry tariff and qualification type.

The pandemic, of course, changed everything for all students – the way they engaged with their programme of study, accessed support and interacted socially. For colleagues too there were changes – at both our institutions, the universities of Salford and Westminster, colleagues have reinvented their modes and means of teaching and assessment, expanded online support, tackled digital exclusion.

We all continue to worry about the potential impacts on students, their learning journeys and their outcomes.

Forward not back

In our two institutions, we have been trying to ensure that students’ outcomes did not slip back. To date, and recognising the pandemic is not over, we have been broadly successful in this endeavour. What we did not expect in a pandemic year was progress, but in one respect, that was what we got.

In both our institutions the awarding gaps between BAME and White British students narrowed during the pandemic, in some cases significantly so. Within the shifts made during, and in response to, the pandemic, are some of the means to addressing longer term structural and cultural issues around awarding gaps.

Understanding, embedding and expanding the measures that achieved these results is urgent: the pandemic has created a critical juncture, a moment when things are suddenly in flux, and when practice change is easier, before everything solidifies again. We must not slip back.

Getting to the roots

Work going on now at both our institutions highlights the importance of the inter-relationship of different aspects of students’ lives. At Salford, root cause analysis began before the pandemic and in its early stages was both qualitative and quantitative and aimed to get at the lived experience of students and academics. Our ongoing work – a programme called “Enabling Student Success”, focuses on iterative problem definition and solution generation aimed at addressing issues of progression and employability. Intersectionality exists at Salford – in particular between those students with a BTEC qualification on entry, commuting students (circa 1.5 hours’ time distance) and BAME ethnicity, and this is overlaid with social marginalisation, as captured by IMD.

At Westminster we have a new data driven project, “Locating the award gap” led by Evren Raman and Sam Raphael. It started from the observation of significant reduction in awarding gaps during the pandemic in the School of Social Sciences, replicated in other Schools, but noting variability between Schools.

This project has created a model that interrogates data to locate long-term durability of gaps and to isolate and understand the factors involved in reductions in gaps. The model works at as granular level as the data sets allow and aims to identify those factors and practices that can lead to change. The project is at an early stage but among other factors, mode of assessment and semester of delivery are significant.

Is it the assessment?

Both of the projects are interesting results. At Westminster, as with Salford, we largely moved from traditional exams to online assessments during the pandemic. Was that what made the difference? And if it was, as we move forward to more authentic modes of assessment, will this embed the changes, or undo them? And what was it about provision in the first semester last year that supported success?

We could hypothesise that the extra support, front-loaded as we approached a year that was broadly online, may have helped. We can hypothesise, but we don’t know. As at Salford, more qualitative research to understand the lived experience of students and colleagues must follow.

Of course, unsurprisingly, work at both institutions suggests there is not a single defining solution which effectively addresses the issues. At Westminster we hope our model will enable us to analyse the shifting terrain of gaps between high and low awarded students in different locales and so pinpoint the practices which can be scaled up. At Salford our concise “lived experience” framework is allowing us to make institutional shifts at pace – there are not a “thousand flowers blooming” – incremental/ pilot/ project work taken from best practice across the sector has been undertaken before, but with little lasting effect.

Instead we now we seek to achieve cultural change by structurally changing thinking, behaviours and practices across all touch points and all areas of the student experience.

Crucially, the “join up” between professional services and academic colleagues in service of a coherent student experience is a point of much focus. At Salford there are only nine large actions sitting across four institutional domains: Academic Success; Customer Experience; Leadership; and Learning Environment. This has made Enabling Student Success everyone’s business. Work is ongoing. We are not there yet but we can see progress – key indicators and in-year indicators are suggesting traction.

So, what should we learn from all this? That it is possible to achieve a significant reduction in awarding gaps even during, and perhaps because of, disruptive events such as the pandemic. That headline data doesn’t help us drive much change – we need to research outcomes, practice and lived experience at a granular level, but then we must introduce changes institution-wide to reduce – and finally eliminate- awarding gaps.

Many institutions are just now moving away from traditional exams and towards more authentic forms of assessment. Many institutions are looking anew at support and engagement structures in the light of their new understanding of digital exclusion. And many institutions have also found they were able to embed changes in processes and practices faster during the pandemic.

Can we use our new insights in these areas, and our new-found responsiveness and agility – now, this summer – to develop more inclusive teaching, learning and assessment and continue to drive down awarding gaps. Can we, now, before it is too late, and old practices and habits solidify again?

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