Assessments are a critical piece of a student’s learning experience in any postsecondary course.

Ideally, assessments provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge “By their nature, however, most assessments include features that are not relevant to the construct being assessed. Often the methods and materials used in assessments require additional skills and understanding.” ( These are sometimes referred to as ‘access skills’ or ‘construct-irrelevant features.’ In essence, these features may be unintentional barriers built into your assessments.

A good starting place when thinking about how to make your assessments more accessible is to ask yourself — what is the purpose of the assessment? What am I trying to measure/assess with this assessment? How can I build in flexibility into my assessment design?

The following are some helpful considerations for thinking more accessibly about the assessments you are designing and implementing in your course(s). Context is particularly important when thinking about assessments and multiple factors like class size, course content, learning outcomes, and more will impact assessments in a course. Keeping your course context and accessibility in mind will allow you to plan more proactively for accessible assessments.

Planning Assessments

Getting started with creating accessible assessments means first spending some time developing and planning for the assessments in your course.

What are you trying to measure with your assessments?

  • It is important to make sure that your assessments help students meet their learning outcomes.
  • Ask yourself: Are my learning objectives/goals clear? Does my assessment reflect and measure the intended learning goals, or are there additional components or skills that are also being measured?

What types of assessments are you planning to use?

  • It is important to think about potential barriers within assessments before finalizing them in a course. Different types of assessments will be accessible for some students and inaccessible for others.
  • Using a variety of ways to evaluate learning can help differentiate the demands and benefits of assessments overall.

Structure and Parameters of Assessments

Is there a way to scaffold (break down a large assessment into smaller ones) your assessments?

  • For example, if your final assessment requires students to create and develop a business plan, can you have students first submit an outline of their plan that allows them to build toward the final plan?
  • Breaking down a larger assessment into multiple parts allows for more opportunities for feedback that will benefit students.
  • By scaffolding smaller activities towards a larger assessment, students may better understand the trajectory of their work while communicating their learning (Dolmage, 2015).

Can you offer students some choice in how they express their knowledge in assessments?

  • Consider if there are multiple ways to complete an assessment and provide choices between different types of assessments.
    • For example, does a presentation have to be completed in-class? Can a student record it and submit it? Does a presentation have to be oral? Are there different formats that are acceptable for a particular assessment?
  • Build in opportunities for choice within assessments regarding topic and content.

Instructions and Supporting Documents for Assessments

Communicate specific goals of assignments and tests.

  • Contextualize the assessment in the bigger picture of the course and do not assume students know what the purpose of an assessment is.
    • What is the purpose of the assessment? How does it support students’ learning in the course? What course materials and content are connected to this assessment? Clearly communicating purpose and context to students will assist them in completing the assessment.
  • For larger or more complex assessments, consider providing a checklist that identifies the necessary steps for successful completion.
  • If possible, show examples of past assignment submissions. These do not have to be the ‘perfect’ submission. Include ones that were unique so students can understand the range of possibilities available to them (Dolmage, 2015).
  • Provide assignment instructions in a variety of formats (posted online, verbal instructions in-class, video recorded instructions, etc.)
  • “Consider using rubrics so long as students can fully understand them, they are provided well in advance of assignment due dates, and they are discussed in class. Consider developing these rubrics with students as a way to increase their understanding of your learning goals and of the assignment.” (Dolmage, 2015)
  • Build in opportunities for feedback and check-ins with students about their assessments. Be open to receiving feedback that can allow you to revise assessments to be more accessible to your students.

Communicate due dates and deadlines.

  • Communicate due dates to students and help them plan to meet deadlines.
  • Provide reminders of up-coming due dates or tests dates. Consider using email reminders, and verbally reminding students in class (1 week before and again 1-2 days before). 
  • “Consider creating flexible intermediate deadlines — guidelines for when particular stages or parts of the assignment should be completed, so that students can see what the different steps in a process might be.” (Dolmage, 2015)

Support students before tests and inform them of the units, sections, and information they will be tested on.

  • Provide reviews prior to tests that summarizes content and themes.
  • Consider providing glossaries to allow students to familiarize themselves with key terms that will be on a test.
  • Provide sample test questions beforehand so students know what to expect.
    • Share with students the format of the test (i.e., multiple choice, true and false, fill in the blank, short answer, essay style). 

Academic Accomodations for Assessments

Even as you work towards creating more accessible assessments for your students, there are still systemic factors within higher education that will prevent you from removing all perceived barriers in assessments. Students will still require academic accommodations for assessments, and it is important to remain flexible and open to working with students to ensure you are providing accessible assessments suited to their needs.

Summary/Key Takeaways

Assessments need to be developed and designed in a way that ensures a student’s learning and knowledge is being measured and not their ability to navigate barriers within learning environments. Being open and flexible to the multiple ways that students can express their learning can assist you in creating more accessible assessments.


  • Photo by Ridofranz via Getty Images. Used with permission.


Dolmage, J. (2015). Universal design: Places to start. Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2).

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