Not long ago, the administrators of Merrimack College’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning asked me if I would provide professional development for faculty members on how to teach neurodiverse students in the college classroom. Specifically, they asked me to share strategies for teaching students who are diagnosed with learning differences, disabilities and challenges. As a professor of special education, I was excited to suggest some tools, strategies and resources that I’ve found valuable in creating courses that are inclusively accessible for all learners.
The percentage of people with disabilities attending higher education institutions, including both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities, continues to increase rapidly. According to the US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, almost 20 percent of all undergraduate students and 12 percent of graduate students have a disability. Faculty members would benefit from a handful of recommendations on how to quickly, without hours of extra preparation, provide classroom and other course accommodations while still maintaining high standards.
By prepping a course for all types of learners of different abilities, you will avoid spending countless hours tailoring different parts of your course for each individualized accommodation plan. And, in fact, many times, accommodations and good teaching practices go hand in hand. Here is a snapshot of some go-to strategies for developing such an inclusively accessible course.
A one-page supplemental guide to the syllabus. For most colleges and universities, a syllabus is relatively nonnegotiable, but it can often run 20 pages or more. With content requirements from various accreditation agencies coupled with institutional requirements, keeping it short can be quite challenging. Yet students with language-based disabilities and executive functioning challenges may not be able to process, comprehend and organize all the information provided—and thus miss key dates, course requirements and other essential course information.
One strategy to ensure all the students understand and comprehend the syllabus is to supplement it with a one-page “syllabus breakdown” that includes crucial due dates, policies and requirements, as well as perhaps some assessment details. It is essential that you keep this supplement to one side of a page. A one-page syllabus breakdown is helpful for all students and promotes accessibility for all types of learners. Students can view this one-page supplemental guide on a desk, in an agenda book or in their dorm room to obtain information quickly.
A posted agenda. Many of our neurodiverse learners—such as students with autism, emotional disabilities or attention deficit disorder—can benefit from a posted class agenda. Having a posted schedule creates predictability that will ease anxiety and help avoid distraction. People get a sense of comfort in knowing what is next, and that promotes mindful learning with less apprehension. Frequently, instructors present the agenda at the beginning of a PowerPoint, which is helpful. But whether presented in that way or written out on a blackboard or whiteboard within eyesight, posting such an agenda for the entire class enhances memory and predictability while curbing students’ stress.
An explicit daily learning objective. Posting an explicit daily objective learning will help students determine whether or not they’ve comprehended the content knowledge taught that day. When students realize that they succeeded in learning the objective, they typically have an aha moment, and the information is more easily retained. Posting an explicit daily objective learning will particularly help students with specific learning disabilities self-evaluate their understanding and take responsibility for their learning. It will also help keep you as the instructor focused on the key content you want to deliver.
A daily formative reflection or exit ticket. At the end of each class, a quick formative reflection can be helpful in understanding if the variety of different learners in the class understood the subject matter taught. The question should measure the student’s understanding of the posted explicit learning objective of the day. It should not be a test or a high-stress assignment but rather a measurement that you as the instructor can use as a planning tool.
The students’ reflections should guide your planning for the next class by identifying any gaps in their understanding. If you see such gaps or confusion among people in the class, revisit the topic or review it before introducing the next subject at the start of the following class. Such daily formative reflections help make sure students don’t fall behind to the point of frustration or failure. Often, if one student does not understand, others did not either. Reflections should also allow students to ask clarifying questions that you can address at the beginning of the next class. You can upload the reflection to a daily journal on the course learning management system, in a Q&A through Google Forms or via polling software.
Variations in assessment. Our job as instructors is to make sure our students master the content we teach. When our students understand and apply what they’ve learned, we know we did our job well. Yet sometimes the assessment does not paint an accurate picture of our students’ understanding, especially of those with disabilities.
For example, when my daughter was in fifth grade, she learned the water cycle. She could draw each stage with great detail. She could tell everyone each step of the process. She went to school ready for her assessment, but she came home devastated because she got a 57 percent on the assessment, which was multiple choice. Although she understood and mastered the content knowledge, she failed the test, which did not accurately measure her understanding. The following assessment was to label parts of an atom, and she scored a 100 percent. If every test was a multiple-choice exam, I know she would have failed science that year. Having variety in the type of assessment saved her from doing poorly in science.
Many times students understand the content, but the test is a barrier to success. Using a variety of assessments gives a better overall measure of understanding. Variation in assessments increases success and accessibility for all learners while maintaining high standards.
A strategically designed learning management system. Common accommodations for college students include offering class notes before the lesson and providing hard copies of all articles in enlarged print, to name just a few. A strategically designed and developed LMS, such as Blackboard or Canvas, can alleviate the excessive time it takes to respond to each student’s individualized request before class.
Create a daily module for each class 24 hours in advance and provide class PowerPoints, articles and other materials for all students to access independently. That will allow students to print out the materials themselves and enlarge the print before class, for instance. Also, when you use a whiteboard or other presentation tools, take a picture of the notes and upload it to the daily module, as well. Once you spend the time designing the LMS to accommodate all learners, you can copy the modules each semester and updated them as needed.
In conclusion, the accommodations I’ve suggested do not change the content that you are teaching—and the rigor of the class and your expectations of students can remain high. Rather, they increase accessibility and promote the success of various learners within the diverse landscape of higher education by creating a course inclusively accessible for them all.
As the higher education landscape continues to change and diversify—offering opportunities for all students to attend, participate and thrive—we should continue to strive to be more inclusive and accessible for students of diverse abilities. Minor adjustments to our practice can ensure we are providing the tools to promote success and equity for everyone.