Global Accessibility Awareness Day: Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Students with Learning Difference
By Jennifer Hall, PhD CETLOE and Department of English
Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day and CETLOE is celebrating! It’s our job to be invested in student learning, but we also want to make sure that we’re taking that extra step to ensure that the work we do is inclusive and supports ALL students. To honor that commitment, I thought I’d share some easy tips you can incorporate in your course design to make your courses more inclusive.
On the surface, revising your materials may sound daunting, but it’s easier than you may think. Designing an inclusive classroom requires the following:
- Careful consideration of document design.
- Thoughtful construction of assignments and instruction.
- Dedication to providing multiple avenues for engagement in a structured environment.
Some of these changes are a bit easier said than done, but by the end of this post, I hope you’ll have some concrete ideas for how you can update your materials.
Careful Document Design
iCollege includes a checker that will alert you if your documents are not accessible, but if you’re not using iCollege (or if you just want to get it right the first time) here are some basics.
- Add Headings: Headings help readers of print AND digital documents.
Headings help those listening to screen readers keep the information organized in their minds. They also help students with reading struggles navigate through a document to find the information they need.
- Make Lists: Large blocks of text can be difficult for students with learning disabilities.
Whenever possible, use a list rather than a paragraph of instructions.
Difficult EX: To complete this paper, students should make an argument, support their points with research, develop their explanations, consider audience, and maintain organization.
Better Example: To complete this paper, students should:
- Make an argument
- Support points with research
- Develop explanations
- Consider audience
- Use Appropriate Fonts and Spacing: Fonts should be easy to read and large enough to interpret without struggle. Appropriate fonts include:
Font sizes should be 12 to 14 points and you should avoid:
void italics, underlining, and low-contrast font colors
- Low contrast colors
- Use Meaningful Links and ALT Tags: When designing digital documents,
make sure your links are meaningful (“click here” doesn’t tell anyone anything, especially someone using a screen reader). Use ALT tags for images so that screen readers can explain the image to someone visually impaired
- Check your tables: Tables are important to organize data visually, but you should use them appropriately in digital documents.
- Use tables when needed to organize data NOT to organize language.
- Use columns or other formatting tools to arrange language
Thoughtful Assignment Construction
When designing assignments, incorporate the following to improve accessibility:
- TiLT (transparency in Teaching and Learning)
- Assignment Choice
TiLT and Assignment choice are cornerstone inclusive teaching practices that CETLOE supports. If you’ve attended any of our trainings, you’ve probably heard about both, but I’ll share them in a nutshell for those who may not be familiar and encourage you to join us for some of our workshops on the subjects.
- TiLT: a “transparent” assignment provides students a rationale for the work they are doing. Rather than just tell a student “WHAT” they should do, a TiLTed assignment also tells the student “WHY” they should do it and “HOW” they should do it. A TiLTed assignment provides:
- Statement of Purpose: it explains why the student is being asked to complete the assignment and what they’ll skills they’ll develop from completing the assignment. The TiLTed assignment focuses on relevance.
- Task Outline: a TiLTed assignment breaks the task down for students so they’ll understand the optimal path to completing the work. The task outline often provides stopping points at which the professor can catch students before they fall and feedback along the way.
- Explanation of Expectation: TiLTed assignments tell students what they need to do to be successful. They set expectations, and often provide rubrics or models for students to see an example of successful work. Laying out the expectation helps students manage their time and focus their work.
- Assignment Choice: Universal Design for Learning encourages teachers to allow for assignment choice. Assignment choice provides the following opportunities:
- Students can demonstrate learning in a mode they’ve already mastered.
- Students can focus on the assignment rather than overcoming a learning difference.
- Students can be assessed at the same level (no students have an advantage based purely on the luck of the draw).
There are two basic types of assignment choice:
- Providing alternative assignments options for students with learning differences or other needs. For example, allowing a student with a social communication disorder to create a video presentation rather than presenting live to the class.
- Providing a menu of assignments that allows students to choose the assignment type that will best allow them to demonstrate their knowledge. For example, rather than requiring everyone to complete a research paper to prove that they can analyze, you might allow students to choose between creating a documentary, a research paper, a website.
Multiple Avenues for Engagement
Students with learning differences often benefit from carefully constructed classes that focus on maintaining engagement and include:
- Class roadmap
- Multimodal presentations
- Acceptance of social communication differences
- Sensory awareness
Many times I hear faculty conflate engagement with entertainment, approval, or intrinsic motivation (learning for learnings sake). Certainly all of those things can lead to engagement, but engagement requires more than intrinsic motivation or entertainment. Students with learning differences may be intrinsically motivated to be engaged, but unable to maintain engagement because of some of the barriers we unintentionally place in their way. Carefully constructed classes seek to remove those barriers.
- Class Roadmap: Students with learning differences benefit from preparation. Particularly students with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder do better when they know what is coming.
- Provide daily learning objectives
- Lay out the organization of the day in your opening discussion
- Provide a ppt slide showing the organization of the day’s lesson
- Multimodal Presentation: Students with low hearing and students who struggle to focus and students with ASD often benefit from visuals. Presenting lessons using both auditory and visual representation can help students organize the ideas and helps them imprint a concrete image in their minds related to the abstract idea.
- Social Communication and Sensory Awareness: Be aware that some students struggle with sensory overload.
- Avoid playing music while working (it may soothe some but it makes focus impossible for others)
- Consider the way that class lighting and sound can impair understanding. Lots of talking during group work is great, but be understanding if some students need to step out to take a break from the noise
- Provide other options for students who have social communication disorders, group work is more difficult for some students than others.
This list of tips is getting a bit out of control, so I’ll leave off here, but I encourage you all to take advantage of some of the resources we offer that can help you with your course design. Be on the lookout for the MOT: Design for All course that pops up periodically. It can help you develop more of these skills. Also, look for the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy course and our many, many workshops that address inclusive, accessible course design. If you have questions, about any of these ideas, you can always feel free to contact us for individual consultations as well. We’ll make sure you get to the right people.