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Oral exams and assessed presentations, including adjustments

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This page does not apply outside Great Britain.
Last updated 21st January 2011 (part update 6th March 2019).

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 bodies, and for general exam boards responsible for GCSEs and A-levels.

Introduction

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

For those 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. If you are not yet at the university and are concerned about assessments for admission, again you can raise your concerns with staff. There is more on these points in a very useful article: How to succeed at university if you stammer (link to BSA website).

The university or college may be obliged to take steps even without you raising the issue, if at least one of its staff knows of your stammer. The stammer will often be obvious. Even so, if you have concerns it makes sense to raise the issue yourself.

What steps can be taken will depend on the situation 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. Partly this is common sense, and you could just discuss with the university or college what can be done. However, under What are the Equality Act rules on oral assessments? below I try to summarise the relevant Equality Act rules.

Examples of how assessments can be altered

Here are some ideas for changes that can be made to oral assessments and presentations. I don’t distinguish here between ‘reasonable adjustments’ and the rules on competence standards.

  • Extra time. How much extra time is required to put the student on a level playing field with others will depend on the circumstances. Extra time may not be enough though, as is evident from the other possible adjustments suggested below. (Also extra time was not enough in the Y v Calderdale Council case on employment, or in a U.S. case, Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners);
  • Allow it to be done in writing if the student wants that (see written interviews in context of employment). Is there an objective strong reason why the assessment must be done orally?;
  • Review the assessment criteria. As well as obvious things such as removing ‘fluency’ or ‘clarity of speech’, carefully consider the assessment criteria and how the examiners are likely to implement them. What impact could this have on a person who stammers, and how can the disadvantage be removed? For example –
    • the real aim may be to assess the content of the presentation and it may not be justified to assess presentation style;
    • in a foreign language oral exam, aim to compare the student with a native speaker of the foreign language who stammers, not one who is fluent;
  • The examiner could be informed about the stammer and how it affects the person, and be asked to take account of the stammer and not mark him down if his performance was affected by the stammer. This happened in a medical OCSE exam: UK case study (link to equalitytalk.org.uk) (scroll down to ‘Case study: initially inappropriate adjustment in medical exam (UK)’). Medical exams are discussed under Trade and professional qualifications bodies.
  • 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.
  • If students are assessed on participation in seminars, lack of participation may be due to difficulty speaking. Assuming it is justified 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.
  • Have smaller audience for a presentation, for example just the lecturers. Or conduct it as small-group seminar round a table rather then as a full stand-up presentation;
  • In a presentation, allow/encourage use of Powerpoint or other audiovisual aids, to take pressure off speech;
  • In a group presentation, divide the roles up so that the person who stammers (if he does not want to speak) prepares Powerpoint slides and other students actually speak;
  • Consider ignoring 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;
  • Where there is a discussion, or questions and answers, consider allowing the student a period afterwards to write any points he could not say (and perhaps suggest that during the discussion the student can if he wants make a note to remind him of anything he will want to add in writing);
  • If the person wishes, use technology, such as text to speech software, or typing in text which appears on a large screen (see use of technology in context of employment interviews);
  • In a United States case, on OCSE medical exams, a medical student was allowed double time for each patient encounter, replacement of the telephone patient encounters with in-person encounters, and use of a text-to-speech device (Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners: U.S. case).

Also as regards any exam, where taking the exam is conditional on attendance at seminars (and perhaps participation in them), don’t apply the attendance or participation rule automatically but 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. Reasonable adjustments can then be made.

There are more examples in De Montfort University’s very useful Working with students who stammer (pdf, archive on web.archive.org). Some of my examples on employment can be also adapted to assessments.

Examples from old 2007 Code of Practice

The following are examples from the old 2007 Code of Practice: Post-16 Education by the Disability Rights Commission. This Code of Practice related to the Disability Discrimination Act 1996. I don’t know if the 2007 Code of Practice has been repealed (there is no Code of Practice replacing it), but in any event the Equality Act is likely to give at least as high a level of protection as the DDA 1996.

“The entrance requirements for a GCSE French course state that applicants ‘must be able to speak clearly’. This requirement could unjustifiably exclude some people whose impairments result in a significant effect on their speech.” Para 8.7

“A college sets applicants for a higher level language course a short oral exercise. A person with a speech impairment is given additional time to complete the exercise. This is likely to be a reasonable adjustment.” Para 8.31

“A further education college confers its own qualifications for a course in travel and tourism. One of the criteria for passing the course is ‘speaking clearly in a customer services environment’. A disabled student whose impairment affects her speech does not achieve the qualification because of this criterion. Applying this standard may be unlawful.” Para 9.19.

American case on medical exams

There is a United States case, Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners (2010) in which a medical student was granted a preliminary injunction allowing him adjustments in a clinical skills exam, including use of a text-to-speech device, double time for each patient encounter, and replacement of the telephone patient encounters with in-person encounters. Indeed, the latter two adjustments had been agreed prior to the case.

This is not a UK case, but the test used seemed to be roughly similar to that in Great Britain for reasonable adjustments. Also, practice of non-UK bodies, as in this case, may be of some interest in addressing whether a UK competence standard inconsistent with such adjustments is justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

More on medical exams…

What are the Equality Act rules on oral assessments?

Those are some of the things that may help people who stammer. But what does the Equality Act actually require? Here I try to give a (relatively) untechnical summary.There is more detail on my page Oral exams at university or FE college: the rules, including references to the Code of Practice.

Assessments test how far a person meets particular ‘competence standards’. It can be helpful to divide the rules into two parts:

  1. the way in which a standard is assessed is subject to the duty to make reasonable adjustments, and often also to an ‘objective justification’ test; and
  2. there is an ‘objective justification’ test for whether it is legitimate to assess a standard which disadvantages disabled people.

How the standard is assessed – duty to make reasonable adjustments

The normal reasonable adjustment duty is, broadly, that if the way an assessment is done puts a person who stammers at a disadvantage, the university must take any reasonable steps so that he is not at a disadvantage (unless the disadvantage is only minor or trivial).

However, the university or college only has to make adjustments which are consistent with what is being tested. So it may be reasonable to do an oral assessment in writing, but not if it is French oral skills that are being tested. It will very often be reasonable to allow extra time for the oral assessment.

Extra time may not be possible if it is actually the ability to do the oral task within that limited time that is being tested, but this will probably be rare. An example might be assessing a doctor’s ability to deal with an emergency medical situation – but I don’t know whether that is actually a competence standard which is assessed, and see box on right regarding medical exams.

Even in that rare situation of assessing oral ability within a limited time, it may be possible to argue that exams are an artificially stressful situation. See this Ohio firefighter case, where speech was fine at a fire but not in interview. Also the employment tribunal decision in Wakefield v Land Registry considered that where the stammer was a particular problem in job interviews, the interview was not a valid way to test how the individual would perform in the workplace.

Where ability to perform within a limited time is being tested, it may be that (say) ability to do so within time constraints that is the ‘competence standard’, rather than the particular time limit used in the exam. The time limit may still be subject to the reasonable adjustment duty. See discussion (including ‘My comment’) in Burke v College of Law (2012). That case related to professional exams, where it may be easier to ‘justify’ (see next heading) assessing ability to work under pressure.

The reasonable adjustment duty is not the only type of discrimination claim that can apply to how standards are assessed. In particular ‘discrimination arising from disability’ and indirect discrimination can also be relevant. For those, the main potential defence will be if the examining body shows that what it did meets the ‘objective justification’ test, ie that it was a legitimate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Are competence standards ‘justified’?

That is not the end of the story though. Say it is oral skills, or the ability to do something orally within a limited time, that are being tested. If that (broadly speaking) leads to the student being disadvantaged because of the stammer, eg failing the assessment or getting a lower mark, then the university or college has to be able to objectively justify the fact that it is assessing that competence standard. It has to show there was a good enough reason for assessing oral skills for example, or the time limit. If it cannot, the student may well have an Equality Act claim for ‘indirect discrimination’ or discrimination arising from disability. In some cases the university may even be liable for direct discrimination for which there is no justification defence. (In the case of trade/professional qualification bodies, only indirect discrimination can be claimed.)

What is a good enough reason for assessing a particular standard? The legal test is whether the standard is a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’. See more on this objective justification test, and also my Oral exams at university or FE college: the rules page.

Let us say there is a good enough reason for assessing oral skills. Even so, some criteria being used to assess those skills may not be justified. For example, ‘fluency’ or ‘clarity of speech’ may be open to challenge if included in the assessment criteria.

In summary

  • A good first question to ask is what is being assessed. Is it oral skills, or is it the person’s knowledge of the subject, or ability to learn?
  • If it is not oral skills being assessed, then as well as considering changes to the oral test itself, a written assessment might also be a reasonable adjustment.
  • If it is oral skills being tested, there is the question (under the rules for ‘competence standards’) whether there is a good enough reason for them to be tested in this context – and is it legitimate for eg ‘fluency’ or ‘clarity of speech’ to be included in the assessment criteria?
  • Assuming the oral competence standards are objectively justified, reasonable adjustments to the oral assessment, eg extra time, should still be possible so far as they are consistent with whatever is being assessed.