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Amplifying the voices of neurodivergent students in relation to higher education assessment at UWE Bristol

Chicken, Sarah; Fogg Rogers, Laura; Hobbs, Laura; Hunt-Fraisse, Tracy; Lewis, Debbie

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Sarah Chicken
Associate Professor in Childhood and Education

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Dr Laura Fogg Rogers
Associate Professor of Knowledge Exchange in Engineering

Debbie Lewis


This paper reports on a study funded by the UWE Pedagogical Project fund in 2021-2022, which aimed to amplify the voices of neurodivergent (referred to as ‘ND’) students in relation to lived experiences of Higher Education (HE) assessment practices which were perceived as enablers or barriers to their success. The research team included neurodivergent researchers and allies and 18 neurodivergent student participants across all faculties at UWE. Through the use of a participatory approach, the study aimed to reduce traditional power dynamics between the researcher and research participants.

Ethical approval was gained through the University Research Ethics Committee, and relevant ethical guidelines adhered to (British Educational Research Association, 2018). Student participants were invited to be involved in the overall research design, drawing up questions and methods for data collection and subsequent analysis of data. Data were subsequently collected via online interviews which were either recorded and transcribed verbatim by the researchers or received as written answers depending on student preference. The anonymised interviews were stored on a secure online server in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation.
Key Findings
In order to extract meaning from the data, the study drew broadly upon Braun and Clarke’s (2006) thematic analysis methods and utilised NVivo 1.6.1 as a coding tool. Clouder’s (2020) synthesis of literature relating to the experiences of neurodivergent students within HE was also useful in framing our thinking, particularly the categorisation of three areas of significance for neurodivergent learners at HE:

(i) Teaching Learning and Assessment practices
(ii) HE responses to neurodivergent learners
(iii) Student experiences of HE

At a time when there remains a persistent awarding gap between disabled students and their peers, which can be particularly significant for students with neurodivergent profiles, findings are relevant to HE institutions concerned with widening participation and inclusivity in Higher Education.

Finding 1: Teaching Learning and Assessment practices

Given the focus of our study, it is unsurprising that much of the data related to
teaching, learning and assessment practices. A key finding of the project was a perception of rigidity of assessment practices which did not allow neurodivergent scholars to evidence their knowledge of either concepts or content related to their chosen disciplines. At the same time, participants did not advocate for an ‘anything goes’ scenario in relation to assessments, arguing that some parameters were helpful in framing assessments. We termed this ‘bounded flexibility’.

Formal exams were often noted as a barrier, along with limited opportunities for well-timed formative assessment sessions. A further perceived barrier was an inability to decode assessment criteria, which was exacerbated by a perception that tutors held implicit academic expectations which they did not always articulate.


Bounded flexibility
To enable neurodivergent students to evidence their full potential in assessments, we suggest there is a need for UWE to consider the implementation of assessment practices, to all students, which routinely offer some flexibility in relation to:
(a) student choice associated with the content or topic of assessments that are linked to the key concepts of modules, and
(b) choice in relation to the mode of assessment (e.g. group/individual presentations, presentations which are face to face/online, recorded or live etc.).

Formative assessment opportunities and feedback
To support neurodivergent students towards success in assessments, we suggest that there is a greater need for emphasis upon formative low stakes assessment opportunities being skilfully built into the life course of modules. Furthermore, students should have opportunities to be scaffolded in the decoding of assessment criteria, with explication of how these translate into successful assessments.

Finding 2: Responses from HE

Students reported a perception of a lack of awareness from tutors of the challenges that can be associated with neurodivergence, which hampered success. They also reported that there was often a deficit model of abilities, with reasonable adjustments often viewed by staff as a form of remedial provision. There was limited awareness of the strengths that neurodivergent profiles can also bring.


Increased staff awareness of the strengths and areas of challenge experienced by neurodivergent students

In order to develop staff awareness of neurodivergence, we suggest a need for institutional inclusive infrastructures to be in place aimed at supporting staff in this area, including awareness of different neurodivergent profiles, staff training, and resourced neurodivergent champions. We strongly suggest that members of the neurodivergent UWE community need to be part of these dialogues to avoid ‘othering’.

UWE to take an asset-based approach to neurodivergence

In supporting neurodivergent students to develop a strong sense of themselves as competent learners, we recommend an asset-based approach to neurodivergent learning profiles at an institutional level. This would require recognition of the strengths that neurodivergent profiles can bring to the learner when barriers are removed (including via flexible assessment practices).

Critique of reified pedagogic practices
With a view to supporting the success of neurodivergent students, we recommend that programmes and tutors need to regularly critique their own pedagogical repertoires from anti-ableist and inclusivity positions and recommend that there is a need for university support in doing so.

Finding 3: Experience of HE

A key finding was the significance placed on establishing meaningful relationships with academic staff, beginning at transitions into HE. These ‘relational pedagogies’ (Gravett and Winstone, 2020), in which students feel they are valued and listened to, facilitate a sense of belonging. This was perceived as essential since it enabled students to disclose and to seek the support needed to scaffold towards success. Such ‘Pedagogies of mattering’ (Gravett et al, 2021) also require academics to constantly critique their pedagogical and assessment practices, calling into question how curricula are (co) constructed. At the same time, it has been argued that neo-liberal discourses, with their focus upon the marketisation of HE, have led to the depiction of modern-day universities as places underpinned by ‘forces inimical to individual flourishing and collaborative endeavours’ (Taylor et al. 2020, 1) and there may be reticence from academics to take on what is perceived as a ‘caring’ role outside the remit of their profession. Difficulties with UWE processes, including irregular timetabling and staff not always following UWE procedures (e.g. putting up materials 48 hours in advance), were regularly noted as barriers to success.


Greater resourced support structures for students and staff

The University should provide clear, accessible guidance on university systems in different formats, and make this available to all students and staff. More regular timetables need to be designed wherever possible, alongside offering support and understanding to students struggling with organisational pressures. We recognise some of the staffing issues may be due to under-resourced staff with workload issues, and so more structural support for staff is needed (who may also be neurodivergent themselves). Alternatively, the University needs to provide more staffing to ease workload pressures, which in turn will help with the ability to develop relationships with students and provide feedback.

Supporting neurodivergent students in developing a sense of belonging by celebrating neurodivergence in UWE staff

To support neurodivergent students in developing a greater sense of belonging,
we recommend that UWE should visibly and strategically celebrate the achievements of neurodivergent staff. This is because visible representation of relatable role models has been a useful tool for inclusion for other marginalised groups. At the same time, we recognise a consistent reluctance for academics to disclose their own neurodivergent profiles (Brown and Leigh, 2018) and that this can be based on the belief of the pervasiveness of ableism in the academy which could be damaging to careers, identities, and wellbeing (Brown, et al, 2018). Furthermore, this would help with fostering a culture of staff empathy and awareness of inclusion of neurodivergent students, where needs can be raised without concern of negative impacts. With a concerted (resourced) effort, UWE could be a pioneer in this area, leading other HE institutions.


Chicken, S., Fogg Rogers, L., Hobbs, L., Hunt-Fraisse, T., & Lewis, D. (2023). Amplifying the voices of neurodivergent students in relation to higher education assessment at UWE Bristol. UWE Bristol

Report Type Project Report
Online Publication Date Jun 20, 2023
Publication Date Jun 14, 2023
Deposit Date Jun 20, 2023
Publicly Available Date Jun 22, 2023
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