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Why & How Accessibility Must Be Considered for Midterm Exams

By: Aylin Dunham
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Exam time is cited as a main source of stress by 31% of students. While exams aren’t going to disappear and are essential to assess students in most courses, educators can do more to alleviate stress by making tests more accessible to their students.

Exams are proven to be valuable tools that help students learn, but educators who consider exam elements like accessibility for diverse student needs, the format and content contained within them are likely to see greater success.

As midterm exam time approaches, instructors who incorporate these factors into their exam process can help students meet their learning objectives and facilitate more inclusive experiences for their students, including those with disabilities. The following tips can be embedded into your midterm exam planning and execution processes now.

1. Pinpoint the objective of the exam

Consider the main objective and purpose of the midterm exam. Aside from exams being required from a curriculum standpoint, ask yourself what you want your students to walk away with. Instilling a purpose or goal aside from pass rates within the exam will help you determine the best type of format and questions to include within it. Can multiple-choice questions do the trick in assessing students’ understanding of the topic, or is it less black and white? Perhaps testing students’ communication or argument-making skills by assigning an essay will prove to be a more effective exercise. First, gaining an understanding of the format or formats being offered will help you understand how different students with diverse needs will engage with the exam. This process will also clue you into how accessible the format is for different students in your course.


2. Consider offering multiple participation options

Students have varied learning styles, ranging from visual and auditory styles to kinaesthetic learning, which involves more physical activity. More instructors are embracing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles as a result to understand that learning is rarely ever one-size-fits-all. To better include diverse learning styles, instructors can offer multiple participation options for midterm exams. For example, some students will appreciate a take-home test with a longer time limit like 24 hours to complete it. Others may appreciate an opportunity to excel and showcase their knowledge in-person or to the class on Zoom via a prepared presentation. While providing flexible participation options isn’t always an option, it should be when it can be considered. Offering more choice can also help better accommodate students with learning disabilities, who in total make up 2.3 million of students in the US.

3. Consult with Disability Services

Considering today’s remote and hybrid environments, the related distractions of the pandemic and other environmental factors can add more layers to offering midterm exams effectively. Don’t be afraid to consult with your disability services department as you begin to craft your assessments. Their trained staff and graduate students can provide you with anything from a gut check to detailed guidance on implementing exam accessibility. Schools like the University of Arizona offer accommodations such as extra test time and alternative test formats to some students. Disability-focused professionals at your institution can also assist in proctoring your midterm exams to ensure students are delivered access and equity whenever possible. With many individuals not reporting their disabilities or accessibility needs to their schools, working with your accessibility and disability-focused peers can help you proactively provide accessible environments, which can be a real make or break to the success of your students.

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4. Make the exam content more accessible and engaging

When preparing your midterm exams, it’s also important to consider the type of content included in study materials and your tests themselves. Some students, such as those with learning disabilities, or visual and hearing impairments, may need media files, such as video and audio clips, that appear in lectures they’re reviewing and in the exam to be accessible to them. Instructors who incorporate or reference video content should make sure that captions, transcripts and audio descriptions are provided to students who need them for equity. Captions and word-for-word transcripts, which often work as lecture notes, allow students with disabilities to study more effectively and participate in exams with equity. However, they’re also shown to engage all students better, which could lead to improved comprehension, information retention and higher scores.

Making sure that the captions or transcripts being used aren’t produced with automatic captioning tools, which are typically riddled with errors and misspellings is also key due to guidelines outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Using a professional service like Automatic Sync Technologies’ is best practice and can deliver students captions which reach the high accuracy levels needed for equity in educational content.

5. Pay attention to content structure

If midterm exams are being conducted virtually, online accessibility is another element you must consider. To be accessible to students with disabilities, correct headings, color contrasts and text descriptions, which are known as alt-text, must be included for any images featured. Properly formatting your exam page is important for web accessibility and helps improve navigation for students who use assistive tools like keyboard controls and screen reader technologies. The layout and format must be vetted to ensure it is accessible to your students.

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6. Facilitate and encourage ways to eliminate distractions

For exams held in-person, it’s also been a no-brainer to make sure your students are given a quiet environment with limited distractions to take their exams in. A distraction-free testing environment is helpful for all students, but can also be essential for students who have attention challenges like ADHD.

Now, with more learning happening remotely, the onus may be more on your students to ensure their environments are prepped to facilitate their needs. Those who are administering tests online should make sure to provide instructions for online students, such as the guidance page offered by the University of California’s Center for Accessible Education. Captioning and transcribing instructions being given for live exams is also immensely helpful to ensure students can fully comprehend what’s being asked of them. Automatic Sync Technologies’ captions and transcripts can be integrated into your Zoom or live streams with students to provide these tools to them seamlessly for exams.

Set your students up for midterm exam success

Whether you’re giving midterm exams in-person or online, take into account the accessibility measures you’re taking or skipping out on, as they are highly likely to impact your students’ success. With 80% of students reporting they’re feeling stressed in school as is, not to mention during the current climate of uncertainty, arming them with additional tools and insights to use during exam season will increase their chances of excelling.

Automatic Sync Technologies (AST) can be a key partner to you during midterm exams and outside of them, offering transcription, closed captioning and audio description technologies that help to make courses more accessible to students with varying needs. Schools like Syracuse University, California State University (CSU) and Chemeketa Community College are all turning to AST to support delivering equity to their students. Contact us to learn how our tools can help make your exams more accessible and engaging this semester.