Rather than teach to a mythical “average student” and then accommodate those who don’t conform to this norm, instructors can anticipate student diversity from the very start of the course design process and implement inclusive pedagogies accordingly. Student Accessibility Services offers some effective ways to work with students with specific disabilities. The following suggestions focus on ways to support students with disabilities more generally, without creating a two-track educational experience or decreasing the rigor of the learning environment.
Inclusive course policies
It is important to provide structure to our classes and to communicate clear expectations for student attendance, participation, and engagement. However, inflexible course policies and messaging such as “No exceptions!” on a syllabus can feel intimidating or even exclusionary to some students, and may suggest to students with disabilities that the instructor would be reluctant to accommodate them.
- Consider whether rigid attendance policies are necessary in your class. Are there ways that you can anticipate that some students will have no choice but to miss a number of class sessions, and build in supports for them rather than penalties?
- If class participation is a mandatory, graded component of your class, explore a variety of ways for students to participate rather than assess them solely on one mode of engagement.
- Think twice before establishing technology bans in the classroom. Although there is contested research suggesting that students on average may perform marginally better in classes which prohibit the use of laptops and other devices, students who differ from that hypothetical average may actually perform worse in such an environment or need to work significantly harder to achieve comparable learning and retention (Guest Pryal & Jack 2017; Morehead et al. 2019; Urry et al. 2021).
As an alternative to dictating how students are permitted to take notes, instructors might consider speaking with them about the benefits and drawbacks of technology use in the classroom, encouraging but not forcing them to try learning techniques that may be helpful to those easily distracted by technology. Instructors may wish to divide the classroom into two sections, one for students who choose to use technology for notetaking and the other for students who do not, and give all students the option of selecting a location that suits them best. Above all, avoid singling out students with disabilities: they should not be differentiated in the classroom as the only students permitted to use their laptop during class (Von Alvensleben 2019).
Multiple ways of communicating
The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are built on the recognition that there is no single best way for all people to learn or to demonstrate their learning (Rose et al. 2006).
An inclusive pedagogy aspires to communicate to diverse students in diverse ways. For example, a multimodal lecture style that incorporates both sound (oral presentation) and visuals (diagrams on a blackboard or a PowerPoint projection) has been demontrated to increase learning gains for a variety of students, and is especially important when addressing students who are hard of hearing or deaf, for example, or have low vision. Likewise, the provision of captioning for video is a way to diversify communication so that a broader range of students can benefit from a learning resource in a broader set of circumstances. Communicating important ideas in multiple ways increases the likelihood that no student will miss the message.
UDL also highlights the importance of offering students a variety of ways to communicate and demonstrate their own knowledge. For instance, there will always be students (with a registered disability or not) who struggle to think quickly and respond to on-the-spot verbal questioning in class. The most supportive learning environments provide students multiple ways to communicate with their instructor and fellow learners: orally, through writing, online, in small groups, or through anonymous feedback, as just a few examples.
Equitable assessment and grading practices
Many instructors first become aware of their students with disabilities when presented with a request for a time-and-a-half accommodation on exams. Students with a range of disabling conditions will be better able to demonstrate their knowledge when provided more time. Instructors should consider, however, whether there are alternative ways of assessing students’ mastery of learning goals that could be made available to all students in the class, to avoid singling out certain students for “special” accommodations. For example, some instructors have begun giving time-and-a-half to all students rather than arranging separate exam environments for students with a medical disability. Other instructors offer students the option of taking a timed in-class final exam or producing instead an extended final writing project. Some instructors have also shifted to open-book take-home exams, which rely less on memorization, reduce student anxiety, and require students to “show the work.”
The Poorvu Center encourages instructors to think critically about their methods of assessment and grading with the goal of enabling all students to demonstrate their learning. It is often helpful in this effort to distinguish modes of assessment from learning goals: unless the ability to memorize and repeat certain facts under a time constraint is an explicit learning goal for your class, a high-pressure, closed-book, timed, multiple-choice exam may not be the best or only mode of assessment to measure students’ comprehension. An inclusive and accessible class will assess students on multiple types of activity and balance grading across these activities in a way that does not penalize students with disabilities (Hanafin et al. 2007; Irwin & Hepplestone 2012).
Guest Pryal, K. R., & Jack, J. (2017, November 27). When You Talk About Banning Laptops, You Throw Disabled Students Under the Bus. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-you-talk-about-banning-laptops-you-throw-disabled_b_5a1ccb4ee4b07bcab2c6997d
Hanafin, J., Shevlin, M., Kenny, M., & McNeela, E. (2007). Including young people with disabilities: Assessment challenges in higher education. Higher Education, 54(3), 435-48. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-006-9005-9
Irwin, B. & Hepplestone, S. (2012). Examining increased flexibility in assessment formats. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(7), 773-85. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2011.573842
Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. (2019). How Much Mightier Is the Pen than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review 31, 753–780. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-019-09468-2
Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education: Reflections on Principles and their Application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19(2), 135-151. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ844630.pdf
Urry, H., Crittle, C.S., Floerke, V.A., et al. (2021). Don’t Ditch the Laptop Just Yet: A Direct Replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) Study 1 Plus Mini Meta-Analyses Across Similar Studies. Psychological Science 32(3) 326-39. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620965541
Von Alvensleben, M. (2019, October 28). Justifying our needs. Yale Daily News. https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2019/10/28/von-alvensleben-justifying-our-needs/