Home » Education and people who stammer in Britain » University and college, including exams » Oral exams and assessed presentations, including adjustments

Oral exams and assessed presentations, including adjustments

Disclaimer – please read
This page does not apply outside Great Britain.
Last updated 11th March 2022 (part update 10th June 2022).

Oral assessments, including assessed presentations, are often a particular concern for students who stammer. However, there is support available. This page looks particularly at assessments in higher and further education, for example universities. (There are some differences in the rules for trade/professional exam bodies, and for general exam boards responsible for GCSEs and A-levels.)

Getting assessed fairly

Assessments are often designed in a way which can unnecessarily disadvantage people who stammer. However, there are Equality Act rules to help disabled students. Your university or college should be happy to discuss with you what support you need.

For students who stammer, presentations and other oral assessments are often a particular problem. If you have concerns, see Resolving issues at university or FE college. You can speak to the disability officer and/or your personal tutor or course tutor to discuss what can be done to put you on a level playing field. Extra time is an obvious possibility, but there are many more examples below: Examples of how assessments can be altered. If you are not yet at the university and are concerned about assessments for admission, again you can raise your concerns with staff.

What steps can be taken will depend on what it is reasonable for the university to assess as well as what your needs are. If French oral skills are legitimately being assessed, a written test would not work but extra time might be allowed and other adjustments made (pp.25-26 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC). Partly this is common sense, and you could just discuss with the university or college what can be done. However on the law, see below The Equality Act rules.

Legally the university or college may be obliged to take steps even without you raising the issue (Universities: Knowledge of disability), but in practice if you have concerns it makes sense to raise the issue yourself.

This page is about obligations of universities and FE colleges. There is a separate page on the rules for Professional exam bodies, such as the GMC in medical exams. The rules have many similarities, but for differences see Professional exam bodies>Universities etc.

STAMMA (the British Stammering Association) and STUC have produced a guide for universities “Supporting students who stammer in higher education”, 2021: New guide for universities on stammering.

The Equality Act rules

A key point to understand is that Equality Act (EqA) protection is not limited to reasonable adjustments. That is particularly important since universities are not required to make reasonable adjustments to competence standards – such as some learning outcomes and assessment criteria. Their reasonable adjustment duty applies only to how any competence standards are assessed, not to what competence standards are assessed. But their other EqA obligations are not limited in this way. Even if it results from a competence standard, universities are still liable under ss.15 or 19 EqA if they cannot justify the discriminatory effect of marking someone down due to effects of their stammer (under s.15) and the competence standard itself (under s.19). So do ask for reasonable adjustments but not only that. More on the legal rules: Oral assessments at university: the rules.

There is also a worked example at Example: Assessed presentation at university.

There are some differences in Northern Ireland, as different regulations apply there: see Education: disability discrimination in Northern Ireland>Exams.

(Note: EqA rights may be subject to the Curriculum defence, but I would argue that does not apply where someone has difficulty with an assessment due to their disability.)

Examples of how assessments can be altered

The following are some ideas for changes that can be made to oral assessments and presentations. I don’t distinguish here between “reasonable adjustments” and other steps to comply with the Equality Act, eg where particular competence standards are not justified. What is reasonable/justified will depend on the circumstances. Also:

Abrahart v University of Bristol, County Court, 2022
The County Court considered that various adjustments to oral assessments in a physics course would be reasonable on the facts of the case, for a student with a mental health disability that often made it difficult to speak to people. See Abrahart v University of Bristol>Reasonable adjustments.

Extra time

How much extra time is required to put the student on a level playing field with others will depend on the circumstances. A guide might be to allow enough extra time for the student to say as much as they would have been able to without the stammer.

Extra time may not be enough in itself though. This is apparent from the other possible adjustments below. Extra time was not enough in Y v Calderdale Council (an employment case), nor in a U.S. case, Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners (on medical exams, where the examining board had allowed double the normal time).

As to legal points relating to extra time, there is some discussion at Oral assessments at university: the rules>Competence standards: Time limits, and in Example: Assessed presentation at university.

Breaks

Breaks to recover from the effort of stammering, and (related to extra time) from any extra-long sessions.

Writing

Allow an oral assessment to be done in writing if the student wants that. Options include a paper, a poster, a written script of a presentation, or perhaps a diagram. Is there a strong objective reason why the assessment must be done orally? If specifically oral skills are being assessed, is that justified? This adjustment is discussed in Example: Assessed presentation at university. See also written interviews in the context of employment.

Page 24 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC gives a case study of providing both oral and written options for assessment after looking at the learning objectives of a history module centre and finding that they centre around understanding certain historical debates and not about developing a knowledge of public speaking. In the case study everyone in the class is provided with these oral and written options, so that the student who stammers is not singled out and other students who are concerned about public speaking are not disadvantaged. I would add though that even if the learning objectives were not consistent with written assessment, they could be challenged under ss.15 and 19 EqA unless the university can show they are sufficiently justified. See also Example: Assessed presentation at university.

… or supplement with written material

The university could allow the written script for a presentation to be considered alongside the oral presentation.

Also, particularly where there is a discussion, or questions and answers, the student could be allowed a period afterwards to write any points they could not say. (Possibly also suggest that during the discussion the student can, if they want, make a note to remind themself of anything they will want to add in writing).

Assessment criteria

Review the assessment criteria, and how examiners are likely to implement them. Criteria such as “fluency”, “lack of hesitation” or “clarity of speech” are, I suggest, not normally likely to be justified:

  • the real aim may be to assess the content of the presentation and it may not be justified to assess presentation style;
  • even in a foreign language oral exam (where “fluency” might seem a more legitimate goal), what may be proportionate is to compare the student with a native speaker of the foreign language who stammers, not one who is fluent. On some further considerations and adjustments for foreign language assessments see pp.25-26 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC.

As well as the assessment criteria, how are the examiners likely to implement them? What impact could this have on a person who stammers, and how can the disadvantage be removed? Marking a student down for things which result from the stammer may breach s.15 EqA unless there is sufficiently strong justification. This links into Examiners taking stammer into account, below.

“Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC (pp.24,25,32) suggests that in learning outcomes or assessment criteria universities should consider referring to “effective communication” that focuses on the ability to convey thoughts and ideas logically. However, like anything else, this – and the way it is operated in practice – may need to be justified and generally must satisfy the EqA rules. See below Technical note: “Effective communication” as assessment criterion or learning outcome?

Legally assessment criteria and learning outcomes are not subject to the reasonable adjustment duty so far as they are “competence standards”, but they are still subject to ss.15 and 19 EqA. See Oral assessments at university: the rules.

Examiners taking stammer into account

The examiner could be informed about the individual’s stammer and its effects, including hidden effects, and not mark the candidate down for consequences of the stammer such as:

  • hesitancy etc which may be misinterpreted as lack of knowledge or uncertainty
  • not using particular terminology the person finds difficult to say
  • over-use of “fillers” such as “you know”, “well”, “actually”, “in fact”, which can be used by people who stammer to try and get through or disguise dysfluency.

Something similar happened in a medical OCSE exam: UK case study (archive of equalitytalk.org.uk), scroll down to “Case study: initially inappropriate adjustment in medical exam (UK)”. Medical OSCE exams are discussed further under Professional exam bodies.

Responding correctly to the stammer

Examiners being given information about the stammer (as above) and on how to respond as a listener. The same for any others involved, such as actors in medical OSCE exams.

Message that it’s OK to stammer

It may be helpful to reassure the student (if true) that it is fine for them to stammer and they will not be marked down for it.

Less formal

Have smaller audience for a presentation, perhaps even just the lecturers. Or conduct it as small-group seminar round a table, perhaps with the speaker also sitting down, rather then as a full stand-up presentation.

Presentation recorded in private

Allow the student to record or video their presentation in private, and they can then show it to the group.

Powerpoint etc

In a presentation, allow/encourage use of Powerpoint or other audiovisual aids, to take pressure off speech.

Different roles

In a group presentation, divide the roles up so that the person who stammers (if they do not want to speak) prepares Powerpoint slides and other students actually speak.

Technology

If the person wishes, using technology, such as text to speech software, or typing in text which appears on a large screen. See use of technology in the context of employment interviews. In Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners, 2010, a US court granted a medical student a preliminary injunction allowing use of a text-to-speech device.

Replacement of telephone assessment with face-to-face

See telephone or video interviews in the context of employment. In a United States case, Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners, 2010. the medical examining board had agreed to the replacement of telephone patient encounters with in-person encounters.

Assessment of participation in seminar

If students are assessed on participation in seminars, lack of participation may be due to difficulty speaking. Even if it is justified in principle to assess students on this, discuss with the student what the barriers are and ways forward, such as how to allow space for the student to make contributions. One thing that could help is allowing contributions in writing, eg through sli.do, and ensuring these are reflected in the assessment like oral contributions.

Exam conditional on attendance/participation at seminars

As regards any exam (oral or written), where taking the exam is conditional on attendance at seminars – and perhaps participation in them – don’t apply the attendance or participation rule automatically. Talk to the student first. For example, it may then be found that the student is not attending (or not participating) because they have a stammer. Avoidance of difficult speaking situations is a common effect of stammering. Adjustments can then be made.

Further examples

There are also examples of changes that can be made to oral assessments in:

Technical note: “Effective communication” as assessment criterion or learning outcome?

“Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC (pages 24, 25, 32) suggests that in learning outcomes or assessment criteria, universities should consider referring to “effective communication” that focuses on the ability to convey thoughts and ideas logically, rather than using any language that requires “fluency” or “lack of hesitation”, etc. “Effective communication”, says the guide, “allows for appropriate assessment of the content and for alternative modes of assessment or presentation”, including in writing.

Largely that guide does not aim to discuss the legal position. I would comment on the legal position as follows:

  • “Effective communication” (with an option for the communication to be in writing) could indeed be a useful alternative to criteria such as “fluency”. Ultimately though the Equality Act rules will apply. Like anything else, this “effective communication” criterion – and the way it is applied in practice – may need to be justified by the university if it disadvantages disabled people, and generally will need to comply with the EqA rules.
  • For example, say a student who stammers does an oral presentation in a history degree, and is marked down due to severe stammering blocks which – in the examiner’s view – hamper “effective communication”. This could still be a breach of the EqA, for example under s.15 EqA since the university may struggle to show the lower mark is justified. So Examiners taking stammer into account (above), for example, is still relevant.
  • Also that example illustrates that the risks of discriminating can at least be reduced if the university defines what it means by “effective communication”, in a way that seeks to avoid unjustified discrimination. The STAMMA/STUC guide suggests that “effective communication” should focus on ability to convey thoughts and ideas logically.
  • On p.25 the guide says “Unless verbal fluency is genuinely an objective of the programme, course and module learning outcomes and assessment criteria should instead refer to ‘effective communication'”. However even if verbal fluency is genuinely an objective, legally there is still the important question of whether that objective – and marking someone down for things resulting from their stammer – are justified as a “proportionate” means of achieving a legitimate aim, under ss.15 and 19 EqA. (A similar point applies where the guide says on p.24 “Consider how the act of presenting relates to module or course learning outcomes”. It is good to consider that, but legally it also matters how far those outcomes – and marking someone down – are justified as proportionate.)
20th anniversary of stammeringlaw, 1999-2019