This summer, AccessibleNU hosted their second UDL Workshop series. A cohort of faculty and academic staff, including Learning Designer and IDS instructor David Noffs and Senior Content Specialist Christine Scherer, learned about universal design for learning and best practices to design and teach courses that are welcoming and accessible for all students. The workshop series was packed with information and resources. Here are five of our top takeaways, plus tips on how to start incorporating UDL into your class!
Takeaway #: For some, learning is not as easy as it looks.
One of the biggest challenges faced by disabled and other marginalized students is also one that is rarely discussed: the increased cognitive load of navigating an environment not designed for them. Cognitive load refers to how much mental effort is expended to complete a task. For an abled student, they may be able to dedicate 80-90% of their mental energy to absorbing a lecture and taking notes. But a student with a learning disability, for example, may have to expend majority of their mental energy on reading and copying down the notes on the whiteboard–leaving them little ability to listen to the lecture.
Students in this position often find themselves frustrated by the discrepancy between what they know they’re capable of and what they’re able to demonstrate in their environment. […]
One of the best ways to reduce the level of frustration disabled students feel in a course is to provide a variety of activity and assignment types. For example, wherever possible, provide course resources in a variety of ways. Rather than just assigning a textbook chapter, can you also offer a captioned video covering the same material? Provide an audio and text version of your lecture notes? There are lots of options for creative ways of providing students with a variety of materials.
Similarly, assignments should provide students with multiple submission formats. Wherever possible, try and allow for students who may find it better to submit answers to questions and discussion topics in ways other than in written form. Video and audio submissions, as well as artistic submissions may not only make your course more inclusive, but may elicit more creative problem solving.
Takeaway #2: Syllabus statements matter.
What information do you include in a syllabus? Instructor contact info, textbooks, a course schedule–all important information. But how about an accessibility statement? How about a statement of inclusion?
Students who don’t see supportive statements in the syllabus assume that instructors won’t be open to accommodations or flexibility, and thus don’t ask. Instead they struggle through a class that’s harder than it has to be, all because the instructor’s silence spoke volumes about what kind of support they would–or wouldn’t–receive. Students with disabilities likely have a history of doubtful, mistrustful, and even hostile instructors by the time they reach your classroom. Unfortunately, they can’t simply assume that you’ll be welcoming unless you tell them.
To make all students feel more welcome in your class, include an accessibility statement and a statement of inclusion. By adding this type of statement, it demonstrates that, rather than an afterthought, providing a welcoming, open and supportive environment for learning is a priority to you as an instructor. The SPS Distance Learning syllabus template includes this accessibility statement:
This course is designed to be welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by everyone, including students who are English-language learners, have a variety of learning styles, have disabilities, or are new to online learning. Be sure to let me know immediately if you encounter a required element or resource in the course that is not accessible to you. Also, let me know of changes I can make to the course so that it is more welcoming to, accessible to, or usable by students who take this course in the future.
And AccessibleNU provides samples of inclusion statements on their website. One instructor included the following statement in her syllabus:
I am firmly committed to diversity and equity whereby barriers are removed to create space for all individuals to fully engage in our community. Each student’s voice has something of value to contribute, especially studying an area of theatre that focuses on leadership, communication and collaboration. We must take care to respect individual backgrounds, personal identities, intellectual approaches, artistic expression, experiential learning, and the demographics expressed by everyone in our community. Individual differences can deepen our understanding of one another, the world around us and our role as lifelong artist. I approach each class as if you have something to teach me–together we learn. (Barbara Butts, Introduction to Stage Management Course Syllabus)
Takeaway #3: It takes a community to support learning for all.
Engaging your students in building empathy and understanding of disability helps build a stronger learning community. While it is important to accommodate students with different learning needs through thoughtfully planned activities and assignments, it is equally important to create a welcoming environment by making all students aware of how they can be more inclusive in their interaction with fellow class members.
As more and more classes are offered in blended and online formats, it is increasingly important for online instructors to be cognizant and skilled in online community building. Students who are comfortable about being open with their learning needs and who learn to respect the different needs of their peers will be able to interact in ways that minimize frustration and help learning groups work together.
Explain in discussion–either on the first day of class, in the introductory discussion board, or during a week one sync session–what your inclusion and diversity statements mean. Express your commitment to supporting all learners through your words and actions, and communicate to students that you expect the same respect and commitment from them. Some students may be new to these concepts and may make mistakes–offer corrections with kindness, as most of these mistakes come from students who are truly trying to learn and do better.
Takeaway #4: Hidden barriers are hard to identify.
Hidden barriers are sometimes hard to identify. For example, anxiety joining discussion boards, working in groups, and taking exams are quite common symptoms of student anxiety. In addition, in online courses, students who do not use English as their first language may be more difficult to identify. Simple grammatical errors may be all that is noticeable, or there may be reluctance to fully engage native English speaking students in vigorous discussions.
Instructors are more likely to notice anxiety and language problems when grading assignments and tests. By being open and honest about noticing grammatical errors and encouraging students who need help to seek it, instructors can embrace these difficult teaching moments and turn them into confidence builders. Teaching at Northwestern is about reaching all students and finding ways to instill self-confidence and the desire to learn and be fully engaged in seeking out knowledge. Remind students who are having difficulties like these, that they are not alone, and that is why you have the section on Accessible NU in your syllabus.
Discussion boards can also be pared down to smaller groups which are less intimidating than full class threads consisting of in depth and lengthy comments. Smaller discussion groups allow for more reserved personalities as well as those with English as a second language and learning deficits to focus and contribute.
Takeaway #5: There is always more to be done.
You can always do more to make your course materials more engaging and relevant to an ever changing student population and societal norms. There are more resources for disabled students than we can list here, and new tools and resources for all learners are emerging all the time. Not everything in the class has to be a PowerPoint or a text page. Everyone learns in different ways, and students learn best when they’re given the opportunity to learn and demonstrate knowledge in the ways that they’re best at.
Talk about some cool tools and add links in your course to resources at NU like Sonocent Audio notetaker and Read&Write Gold (available for free for all NU faculty and students!). Look for places where you can start small and simple–you don’t have to remake your whole course at once. Identify an assignment that you can change or a resource that you can provide in multiple formats. Piece by piece, you can incorporate UDL principles into your course.
Conclusion: Evaluate and adapt.
At the conclusion of our five session workshop with Accessible NU, Directors Alison May and Jim Stachowiak reminded attendees to evaluate the changes we make to our courses and make use of the built-in analytical tools within the Canvas LMS. For example,
- Which resources are most viewed?
- Which formats are most used?
- When are students accessing and submitting assignments?
- When are resources being accessed?
- What is the relationship between types of resources accessed and performance (not just grades)
- How long are students taking on quizzes and exams?
However you collect your data, whether quantitative, qualitative or both, it is important to reflect on your results and make changes wherever necessary. And remember, this process is ongoing and will help keep your class relevant and impactful. Making your course more accessible and inclusive will make a world of difference for all your students.