We know that universities welcome students with a variety of abilities and learning needs, and we are often asked at the beginning of courses to accommodate them in assignments and exams. But, in addition to accommodation, we should also try to think about accessibility. Researchers call this idea universal design for learning, or creating flexible learning environments that help all learners achieve success in their studies.
As an instructor, I like to think of it in terms of the question: what simple changes can I make to my classroom to make it a better learning environment for everyone, including (but not limited to) those with specific learning needs?
Here are my top 5 tips for improving accessibility in the classroom for all students:
1) Consider your space
When we think about issues of accessibility, our minds often jump to physically accessibility, but there are other ways that our lectures can be made more accessible for students.
Start by using a microphone if it is available, regardless of how large your space is. Even if students have no problem hearing your voice at the back of the class, some students may find it difficult to hear you if there are other noises around them, or if English (or whatever the instructional language) is not their first language. Likewise, I add closed captioning for any video clips I use in the class (even if youtube’s auto-captioning isn’t always spot-on and sometimes down-right hilarious).
Also consider accessibility in your visual aids. Make sure your text and images large enough to see from the back of the class and keep it on the screen long enough for students to read and process them.
2) Provide materials online
Better yet, provide your students your visual materials online before class. While it may not be easy to get your slides online ahead of time (every instructor has been known to make changes up to the last minute), if you are teaching a class for the second or third time, try to put your lecture notes and slides online ahead of time.
Providing visual materials in advance helps students with the aforementioned visual or auditory challenges but will also allow students to make use of the variety of types of software available to assist with learning challenges. The added benefit for all students is that these materials will help them to structure their notes and keep focus in the lecture.
Even if you aren’t able to get materials online ahead of time, still try to put lecture notes, or even video capture (if possible at your university) online after class. This will help students with chronic illness, mental health challenges, or caring responsibilities to keep up with the material, even if they aren’t able to physically come to class.
3) Take breaks and vary your teaching methods
It’s nearly impossible for anyone to sit still and quiet for an hour. This challenge is compounded for students with attention challenges. Make sure to take frequent breaks for active learning exercises (some great ideas here) every 15-20 minutes during your lectures. These might include time to update and edit notes with a peer, a Q&A session, or even a 1-minute stretch break. Everyone benefits from more frequent breaks and active learning! Plus, you’ll get a chance to try out alternative learning exercises that may help the material click for different students based on their learning preferences. We are often told that frequent repetition is needed to get something to stick, so try repeating using an alternative method that allows for all students to change pace for a little while.
4) Make assignments progressive
‘Progressive assignments’ means breaking up a large assignment, like a term paper, into component parts and giving deadlines and grades for each of these parts. For example, in my classes I start with an annotated bibliography assignment, then an essay, and finally an op ed on the same topic. You may also want to receive proposals or outlines along the way as well.
This benefits all students. Many students become anxious about a term paper deadline looming at the end of the semester. Breaking it down into more manageable sections will help them to get started. It will also help students for whom unforeseeable circumstances prevent them from reaching a deadline. With progressive assignments, these students will still have portions of the assignment ready and won’t be starting from scratch.
Additionally, all students will benefit from frequent feedback that they actually have to reflect on and incorporate into the next assignment. It provides them with more opportunities for improvement and can help you as an instructor identify potential problems earlier.
5) Not sure? Just ask!
Finally, if you aren’t sure where to start in terms of accessibility, just ask! Students may have simple, easy requests that can help then with their learning needs. All you need to do is ask. These may include simple things like using fonts or colours that assist students with visual needs or dyslexia, taking into account religious holidays when setting due dates, or providing alternative options for participation. Set up a survey online that allows students to provide this feedback at the start of the course.
Your university’s teaching and learning centre or office for students with disabilities will also have more resources and may even offer workshops on universal design for learning (shout out to McGill’s TLS and OSD that introduced me to this topic!) They are also usually more than happy to provide you with resources and suggestions for accessibility options (such as online course management, lecture video recording and how-to-guides for classroom technology) or direct you to the appropriate services.
The key thing to remember is that universal design is about making your class better designed for all learners, which will foster student success across the board! So when planning your classes, think accessibility in addition to accommodation.
Dr. Holly Ann Garnett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Royal Military College of Canada.